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Nagorno-Karabakh: Hint Of Turkish Role In Peace Talks Raises Questions

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

International efforts to resolve the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave appear to be gaining momentum. Mediators from the U.S., France and Russia visited the capitals of the Caucasus last week to explore ways of invigorating the talks, which were sidetracked last year after the killings in the Armenian parliament. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports that one proposal -- which so far lacks the backing of all major participants -- would give Turkey a greater involvement in the process.

Prague, 18 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- American, French and Russian mediators traveled to South Caucasus recently in an effort to boost peace talks between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Co-chairmen of the so-called Minsk Group, which has been tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- also known as OSCE -- to hammer out a final settlement between the two countries, met last week with Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev in Baku and with Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan.

Carey Cavanaugh of the United States, Jean-Jacques Gaillarde of France, and Nikolai Gribkov of Russia also held talks with President Arkady Gukasyan in Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic.

No details of the talks were made available. But there is little doubt that the mediators discussed with regional leaders U.S. suggestions that Turkey - who is also a Minsk Group member and has NATO's second-largest army -- could help settle the 12-year conflict that killed thousands on each side and turned about 800,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis into refugees.

Armenia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Bagratuni explains:

"Some of the OSCE Minsk Group's co-chairmen, in particular U.S. representative Carey Cavanaugh, did convey the idea that Turkey could play a certain role, first in the resolution of the conflict, then in the post-conflict period. That is, we are talking here about Turkey's participation in the reconstruction of those that have been destroyed during the war."

Cavanaugh was quoted as saying last Tuesday in Baku that "Turkey would be a key player in implementing any peace settlement in the region." He gave no other details.

"The importance of Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace is great," trumpeted the Turkish Cumhuriyet daily newspaper the next day.

Meanwhile, sources close to the peace talks contacted by RFE/RL played down Cavanaugh's statements, saying that Turkey's participation in the peace negotiations is not on the agenda.

These sources say Ankara could play a major role in helping bring economic stability to the region and help reconstruct local infrastructures. But this would happen only after a peace agreement is signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A western diplomat, who asks not to be named, tells RFE/RL that "both sides recognize that compromises will be needed (to come to a peace agreement) and that these compromises will not be easily accepted by public opinions (both in Armenia and Azerbaijan)." He says that trade between Turkey and Armenia would have to be renewed so that local populations could see the compromises were not made in vain.

Before heading for the South Caucasus, the Minsk Group mediators were in the Turkish capital Ankara, where they reportedly received a promise from Foreign Minister Ismail Cem that Turkey would lift its trade embargo on Armenia if the Karabakh dispute is worked out.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry could not be reached for comments. Diplomatic and economic normalization between Turkey and Armenia is a key element in the Karabakh issue.

Although Turkey officially recognized Armenia's independence in 1991, it has never established diplomatic relations with Yerevan because of the Karabakh issue.

In 1993, Armenian troops made a breakthrough into Azerbaijan's territory, taking control of six administrative districts close to the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. As a sign of solidarity toward Baku, Turkey retaliated by closing its border with Armenia.

Relations between Turkey and Armenia are also tense over Yerevan's demands that massacres carried out during World War One by Ottoman authorities be considered as genocide. Yerevan claims that a million Armenians living under Ottoman rule were killed from 1915 to 1917. Ankara categorically rejects the claims, saying that some 300,000 Armenians and thousands of Turks were killed during domestic unrest. French senators, Italian deputies, and European parliamentarians have recently recognized the genocide, prompting harsh criticism from Turkey. Earlier this year, US President Bill Clinton stopped a resolution going through Congress formally accusing Turkey of genocide by saying it would hurt US security interests.

Bagratuni could not say whether Armenian authorities link their demands over the 1915-1917 genocide to normalization of their relations with Ankara.

Ankara also blames Armenia for allegedly supporting Kurds separatists in eastern and southeastern Turkey. Yerevan has repeatedly denied the accusations.

As Bagratuni explains, Yerevan believes that talks about Turkey's involvement in the peace process are premature.

"We, of course, consider Turkey as one of those regional countries that could play a constructive role in the resolution of the conflict, in the reconstruction of the (conflict) zone, as well as in the development of the entire Southern Caucasus in the future. But, in the present situation, we cannot see Turkey's role as positive."

Turkey sees a peace agreement as a prerequisite to the reopening of its frontier with Armenia and lifting trade restrictions on Yerevan. But Armenia would like to see Ankara abandon what it calls Turkey's "systematic pro-Azerbaijan policy" on the Karabakh issue and lift its economic embargo first.

Everybody agrees that much depends on the bilateral dialogue between the Azeri and Armenian heads of state. Both presidents have said in the past that they would like to come to an agreement over Karabakh before their mandate expire.

Sources close to the peace talks stress that both men were close to an agreement at the end of last year, following a series of face-to-face meetings. But the murders of Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisyan and several other officials in parliament in October that year brought the process to a stalemate.

The diplomat tells RFE/RL that both Kocharian and Aliyev are perfectly aware that time is running out. He says they are both seeking a way to resolve this stalemate.