Yigal Schleifer

 

urkey and Armenia have announced they are close to reaching an agreement to restore ties and reopen their borders. But observers caution that getting to a final deal will require both Turkey and Armenia to navigate through difficult domestic and external challenges.

 

“There’s no going back now, that’s for sure. Everybody wants to solve this problem now. Both countries are very committed and being very careful,” said Noyan Soyak, the Istanbul-based vice-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, referring to the April 22 joint announcement that Ankara and Yerevan had agreed on a “road map” to normalize relations.

 

“Now it’s a question of timing and the implementation and how it’s going to be presented to the public. That’s very important,” Soyak added.

 

Turkey severed ties and closed its border with Armenia in 1993, in protest of Yerevan’s war with Turkish ally Azerbaijan in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In recent years, diplomatic and civil society traffic between Turkey and Armenia has increased, capped off by last September’s visit to Yerevan by Turkish president Abdullah Gul to watch a football game between the two countries’ national teams.

 

In their April 22 communiqué, Armenian and Turkish leaders said that, with the help of Swiss mediation, “the two parties have achieved tangible progress and mutual understanding in this process and they have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner. In this context, a road map has been identified.” The brief, 95-word statement was released only two days before Armenian commemoration of the mass slaughter of 1915 that Yerevan is striving to gain international recognition as genocide.

 

Although the statement was thin on details, observers familiar with the negotiations said the basic parameters of the deal involve establishing diplomatic relations, opening borders and creating a bilateral commission that will have subcommittees that address the two countries’ outstanding issues, including historical matters.

 

Both countries hope that opening their borders and engaging in a dialogue will boost trade, improve regional stability and help them move beyond the genocide debate.

 

Sorting out the differences between Turkey and Armenia might be the easy part, experts say. It’s the other actors involved in the issue that may prove to be difficult, says Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist with Milliyet, a Turkish daily. “There are more factors that are lining up to spoil this than to bolster this. These factors have to play themselves out in the coming weeks and months and we’ll see where we go,” said Idiz.

 

One significant hurdle to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is Azerbaijan, which insists that the Nagorno-Karabakh problem must be resolved before Ankara restores its ties with Yerevan. The Azeris have reacted angrily to the April 22 announcement, signaling that if Turkey proceeds unilaterally, then Baku may respond by strengthening ties with Moscow. The clear implication is that Azerbaijan may be willing to reorient its energy focus, and make Russia, not Turkey its main energy-export option.

 

“I don’t think Turkey expected the strong Azeri reaction. At the moment there is anger on both sides,” Idiz says. “Turkey is not going to lose Azerbaijan — there are pipelines and trade that connect the countries, whether they like it or not — but it will cool relations for a while.”

 

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials have tried to placate Baku by saying no final deal with be signed with Armenia until there is an agreement on Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in slow moving negotiations over the territory’s fate as part of the Minsk Group process, which is overseen by the United States, Russia and France.

 

Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says linking the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border with the fate of the Karabakh issue is a mistake. “Ankara would be ill-advised to hold up rapprochement with Yerevan because of protests from its ally, Azerbaijan,” Pope said. “In fact, normalizing relations with Armenia is the best way for Turkey to help its ethnic and linguistic Azerbaijani cousins. It would make Armenia feel more secure, making it perhaps also more open to a compromise over Nagorno-Karabakh.”

 

“The way the Azeris are dealing with it now is that they are telling their people that they didn’t lose the war and they are talking about military reconquest and that’s completely unrealistic,” Pope continued. “Turkey obviously has a lot of work to do to convince the Azeris that their current concept is not working and that your only way to get their land back is through the Minsk Group process.”

 

Turkish and Armenian leaders, meanwhile, are also facing rising domestic anger about the possibility of a deal. In Armenia, the hard-line nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party on April 27 quit the country’s governing coalition. In Turkey, the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) have criticized the government for its overtures to Armenia, claiming it has sold out Azerbaijan.

 

“This demonstrates the fragility of the agreement, in that neither Turkey, nor Armenia nor Azerbaijan has done anything to prepare their societies or shape public opinion to prepare for an agreement,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a Yerevan-based think tank.

 

“The same can be said for Nagorno-Karabakh, where neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has done anything to prepare society for an agreement,” Giragosian added. “I would also stress that right now we are only talking about normalization. Normalization infers open borders and even historical commissions. But the second step is reconciliation and for that to happen we need civil society and public opinion involved, especially for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, because that means dealing with the genocide issue.”

 

“If the public isn’t on board, we can’t sustain normalization or transform it into a deeper reconciliation,” Giragosian emphasized.

 

Editor’s Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

 

Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, wwwEurasiaNet.org. or www.soros.org.