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Armenia's move on Turkey could be cry for help

Yerevan halts ratification of a peace deal with Ankara as it watches a troop build-up in neighbouring Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey. The action highlights the potential of South Caucasus to become a regional flashpoint.

YEREVAN // Armenia holds its 95th Genocide Remembrance Day today amid renewed tension with Turkey over Yerevan's decision to suspend the ratification of a peace accord between the two countries.

The decision, announced by the Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian on Thursday, has highlighted the potential of the strategic South Caucasus region to become a flashpoint for regional conflict. It may also be a cry for help from Armenia, the smallest country in the region, as it eyes with alarm a military build-up in neighbouring Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey. Landlocked Armenia is sandwiched between the two Turkic states, which have jointly blockaded their neighbour since 1993 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Last October, however, Turkey and Armenia signed protocols to establish diplomatic relations, shortly after Mr Sarkisian attended a football match in Turkey between the countries' national teams. The "normalisation" process was supposed to lead to the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian land border in a bid to overcome hostile relations dating back to 1915, when, according to Armenia, Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in a purge.

It is those Armenians who are being commemorated today. Armenia wants Turkey to recognise the killings as a genocide. Even before it was signed, the agreement ran into trouble when both sides raised last-minute objections. Of particular concern to Armenia was Turkey's insistence that Armenia and Azerbaijan should reach a deal over the thorny Nagorno-Karabakh issue before it would ratify the accord. Armenia maintains the Turkish stance was prompted by Azeri objections to the deal, which neither the Turkish nor the Armenian parliament has approved.

"We have decided ... not to exit the process for the time being, but rather, to suspend the procedure of ratifying the protocols. We believe this to be in the best interests of our nation," Mr Sarkisian said in Yerevan on Thursday, in an address to the nation. Both Mr Sarkisian and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, said they remained committed to ratifying the deal, prompting analysts to suggest Armenia was trying to increase international pressure on Turkey.

That was confirmed on Tuesday. "We are just going to suspend [the discussions] for a while to see what will be the reaction from Turkey," the Armenian deputy foreign minister, Arman Giragosian, told reporters visiting Yerevan from the UAE. "We are hoping that the US and European Union could play an important role for the process of ratification and implementation." Mr Giragosian, who was personally involved in negotiating the protocols, said he also wanted to see Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a peaceful settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh, but those talks should not be linked to the Armenia-Turkey peace process.

Separate discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh should be mediated by the Minsk group of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was established for that purpose, he said. Mindful of Armenia's vulnerability as a smaller, poorer, less powerful nation than its neighbours, Mr Giragosian implied that his country depended on international support for security. For instance, Russian troops patrol the country's borders with Turkey and Iran.

Regarding the possibility of a flare-up of the previous armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended after a 1994 ceasefire agreement, he said Armenia had never recognised the territory as an independent state. Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan's post-Soviet borders but is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. "I don't think the international community would allow the war to restart," Mr Giragosian added. "But we are ready to defend ourselves."

Why Armenia's problems with its Turkic neighbours matter to the US and Europe is that the state lies on the most direct route between Azerbaijan's Caspian oil and gasfields and Turkish export facilities at the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Shipping oil and gas westward through Armenia would not only be cheaper than via existing routes through Georgia, but also could eventually be more secure. In 2008, a short-lived war between Russia and Georgia disrupted exports of Caspian oil and gas. Relations between the two countries remain tense.

A nightmare regional scenario could involve the simultaneous flare-up of conflicts involving Georgia and Armenia. That is not something Armenian officials care to contemplate, which is partly why Mr Sarkisian faced down criticism from "diaspora" Armenians over failing to address the genocide issue in negotiations with Turkey. Armenians from the diaspora, mainly comprising the descendants of those who fled Ottoman Turkey, are a significant source of foreign direct investment in the Republic of Armenia.

Nevertheless, today's commemoration ceremony in Yerevan will resonate with diaspora Armenians in countries from which the republic is hoping for support. The timing of the Armenia's announcement is no accident. tcarlisle@thenational.ae

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