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Is Situation Ripe For Peace Between Turkey And Armenia?

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (left) and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (left) and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan

If the historic visit by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Armenia is followed by more diplomatic contacts and negotiations, it may prove to have been truly a far-reaching strategic event for the whole region.

It will not only have a direct impact on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but it will open up unprecedented doors for Armenia economically. The landlocked country will reduce its dependence on Iran and Russia and it can hope to achieve strategic security, after centuries of costly domination by despotic Ottoman rulers and later animosity by Turkish nationalist political forces.

Is the ground ready for a continuing rapprochement between the two neighbors? From the Armenian perspective, conditions for a final and lasting peace with Turkey have been gaining momentum since the country became independent in 1991.

As long as Armenia was part of the Soviet empire, it was the Armenian diaspora that defined the political discourse and embodied the aspirations of the 8 million Armenians scattered from Los Angeles to the far corners of Russia. But once Armenia became independent, it was only a matter of time before its governments would be seen as the main political and diplomatic representatives of a "world nation." In this sense, there are many similarities between Jews/Israel and Armenians/Armenia, as two nations that have been historically scattered throughout the world and only a minority of which lives in the historic homeland.

Since 1991, successive Armenian governments very quickly abandoned the diaspora's hard line vis-a-vis Turkey and sought peace and dialogue with Ankara. However, the conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan put Turkey in the tough position of having to choose between its ethnic kin and its problematic neighbor. So far, Turkey has chosen the former and has avoided diplomatic relations with Armenia and closed its vital border with its neighbor.

But this may gradually change now, although issues remain as complicated as ever. Armenia wants from Turkey a recognition of the genocide that took place during World War I. Without it, no Armenian government can establish truly normal relations with Turkey, just as Israel could have never accepted post-World War II Germany as a friend without German acceptance of responsibility for the Holocaust.

However, unlike Israel, Armenians most probably will not ask for the kind of wide-ranging compensation that Germany agreed to. The great majority of Armenians, for example, know very well that any territorial claims on Turkey are not only out of the question but even dangerous for the safe existence of their small country. Perhaps some mutual agreement to protect the Armenian cultural heritage in the former Armenian-inhabited parts of Turkey could serve as a sweetener added to the recognition of the 1915-18 tragedy. It is simply hard to imagine any other concessions from Turkey.

Nagorno-Karabakh Puzzle

The other complication is Armenia's dispute with Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Without a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, it hard to see how Armenia and Azerbaijan can solve this issue. At the same time, without a peace agreement for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is hard to see how Turkey and Armenia can solve their historic differences.

Geographically caught between Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia yearns for strategic security. The roots of the Karabakh war lie in the events of 1915-18. It is the never-ending psychological trauma Armenians feel of impending annihilation at the hands of the Turks that led to the fight against Azerbaijan to secure the existence of their enclave. If Turkey and the Armenians had solved their differences before the last days of the Soviet empire, it is hard to imagine that the issue of Karabakh would have escalated into a bloody, full-scale war.

Of course, many at the time believed that the Russians, fearing a complete loss of control over their periphery, somehow encouraged the conflict, based on the dictum of "divide and rule." Perhaps so, but Russia's recent actions in Georgia also pose a big question mark as to what Russia will do if Armenia moves ahead to reach a full normalization of relations with Turkey. That would really give Russia cause for concern. Armenia, landlocked and sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan, was ready to be an outpost for postcommunist Russia in the region. But peace with Turkey would fundamentally change the geopolitical reality.

In the coming months and years, Russia can still play a lot of cards it has hidden up its sleeve. Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan need all the wisdom, fortitude, and vision they can get to find a three-way formula that would satisfy all three parties and still either circumvent Russia or include it in the deal. After all, Armenia can still host Russian military bases and Azerbaijan can give a large enough piece of the oil and gas pie to its former masters in Moscow.

Mardo Soghom is senior media market analyst for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL