x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Signs of thaw in Turkey-Armenia ties

Turkey and its neighbour Armenia may be on the verge of a historic rapprochement as high-level contacts between the two countries gather steam, analysts say.

Ali Babacan, right, the Turkish foreign minister, greets his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandian before their meeting in Istanbul.
Ali Babacan, right, the Turkish foreign minister, greets his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandian before their meeting in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // Divided by a painful past and a long-running conflict in the Caucasus, Turkey and its neighbour Armenia, pushed by a unique combination of internal and external factors, may be on the verge of a historic rapprochement as high-level contacts between the two countries gather steam, analysts say.

"It is our aim to completely normalise relations between the two countries," Ali Babacan, the Turkish foreign minister, said after a meeting Eduard Nalbandian, his Armenian counterpart, in Istanbul on Monday. Mr Nalbandian, who visited Turkey for a meeting of the Black Sea Economic Co-operation, a regional organisation that has its headquarters in Istanbul, shared Mr Babacan's optimism. "I think this is a very good moment and we have a chance to do it now, to turn the page together, to open the border, to normalise relations," he said.

Despite sharing a 300-kilometre border, Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations, and the border is closed. Relations have been overshadowed by the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in today's Turkey during the First World War, killings that constituted the modern world's first genocide according to Armenia, and by a bloody conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave on the territory of Turkey's close ally, Azerbaijan.

But a recent thaw that started when Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, visited the Armenian capital, Yerevan, for a football match in early September - becoming the first Turkish head of state to visit the neighbour - has nourished hopes that better times are ahead. "Since Gul's visit to Armenia, there has been a definite improvement in the general atmosphere," said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a think tank in Istanbul. "There have been a series of meetings that helped to overcome some of the lack of trust."

Analysts agree that the key to translating this improved political climate into concrete steps to bring the two countries closer lies in the progress on the Karabakh issue. Since a ceasefire ended the war over the enclave in 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan have failed to resolve the dispute. At a meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, in Moscow this month, Serzh Sarkisian, the president of Armenia, and Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, agreed to push for a "political settlement" but did not give details.

Mr Ulgen said Armenia was expected to make some kind of gesture in connection with the Karabakh question in the near future and that this step would enable Turkey to reciprocate by opening the border. "There is a new willingness on the Armenian side. They are aware that Turkey cannot move without it. This was made very clear to the Armenian government by the Turkish authorities." Cengiz Candar, one of the most respected foreign policy commentators in Turkey, wrote in yesterday's Radikal newspaper that once the "Azerbaijan burden" had been lifted, Ankara would be able to move fast in improving relations with Armenia. "If there is no 'traffic accident', we will see a normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations, which means the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the ground border, in the first quarter of 2009," Mr Candar wrote.

Mr Babacan and Mr Nalbandian agreed to continue bilateral talks. A highlight planned for the coming year is a visit by Mr Sarkisian to Turkey in October for another match between the two national football teams. Such a visit would carry enormous significance. Armenia and many international experts said the government of what was then the Ottoman Empire decided to get rid of Armenians in Anatolia once and for all in 1915 and killed 1.5 million people; but Turkey, which puts the number of victims much lower, said the deaths were the result of a resettlement programme in chaotic wartime conditions and that many ethnic Turks were killed as well.

In an interview with the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman published yesterday, Mr Nalbandian indicated his government might be warming to the Turkish idea of creating a joint commission of historians to look into the disputed genocide issue. According to the newspaper, Mr Nalbandian said the position of his government concerning the commission had changed. Also, the Turkish press has been reporting that the national carrier Turkish Airlines wants to start charter flights to Yerevan.

"There is a new climate to solve the problems in the region," Mr Babacan said shortly before Mr Nalbandian's visit to Istanbul. "This is an important window of opportunity." This window has been opened by many different developments that have come together, Mr Ulgen said. "There is a confluence of factors." On the Turkish side, there is the personal initiative of Mr Gul as well as a recognition that the traditional "policy of obstructionism" towards Armenia had not paid off. Newspaper commentators also point to the possibility that the new administration in Washington may recognise the killings of the Armenians as genocide and that the best chance for Turkey to prevent that from happening is an improvement in relations with Armenia.

For its part, Armenia wants to break out of the isolation brought on by the simmering conflicts with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan. In addition, the Russian-Georgian war in the summer had demonstrated to the Armenians "that frozen conflicts in the region can come back to haunt leaders in the region", Mr Ulgen said. Although new steps, such as the establishment of official relations, would not directly address the thorny genocide question, Turkey has shown in its rapprochement with its western neighbour Greece in recent years that it is possible to put into place confidence-building measures and to improve relations without tackling the most sensitive issues head-on. Turkey and Greece are much closer today than they were 10 years ago, although they have made no progress in resolving their dispute concerning territorial claims in the Aegean.

Still, the much-praised window of opportunity in the Caucasus will not stay open forever. Turkey and Armenia will have to move quickly to come up with tangible improvements, such as a boom in cross-border trade, if they do not want to risk a rise of internal pressures pushing for a return to the old policies of enmity. "Leaders should show their commitment for progress and show their populations concrete results," Mr Ulgen said.

tseibert@thenational.ae