Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian's announcement on April 22 that he is recalling from parliament the two protocols on normalizing relations with Turkey signed in Geneva last October does not, as Sarkisian himself stressed, signify the end of the process of rapprochement that he has advocated for the past three years. The protocols were, after all, only submitted to the legislature for ratification two months ago.
The effective suspension of the ratification process, and the terms in which both Sarkisian and the three-party coalition government announced it, do, however, raise questions about how and on what terms dialogue with Turkey will be resumed, especially in light of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's repeated linkage of ratification with the withdrawal of Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In a recent policy brief
issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Thomas de Waal suggests that while the two sides could still make "small steps" to reaffirm their commitment to the process, actual ratification of the protocols may be on ice until after the Turkish parliamentary elections in 2011.
Sarkisian explained in his April 22 statement that from the outset, Armenia was committed to ratifying the protocols, provided that Turkey did so unconditionally and within what he termed "a reasonable time frame." Turkey has, however, declined to do so, and has instead "done everything" to drag out the process. Armenia is thus forced to conclude that "Turkey is not ready to continue the process and to move forward," Sarkisian said.
Armenia, Sarkisian continued, "considers unacceptable the pointless efforts of making the dialogue between Armenia and Turkey an end in itself; from this moment on, we consider the current phase of normalization exhausted."
At the same time, Armenia continues to believe that eventual ratification of the protocols is in the best interests of the nation. For that reason, Sarkisian continued, "Armenia shall retain her signature under the Protocols, because we desire to maintain the existing momentum for normalizing relations, because we desire peace. Our political objective of normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey remains valid, and we shall consider moving forward when we are convinced that there is a proper environment in Turkey and there is leadership in Ankara ready to reengage in the normalization process."
Sarkisian further made a point of expressing gratitude to his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul for the "political correctness [he] displayed throughout this period and the positive relationship that developed between us." Sarkisian did not mention Erdogan, who over the past year has consistently taken a much harder line than Gul, especially in pegging ratification of the protocols to progress in resolving the Karabakh conflict.
By contrast, the more toughly worded statement by the three Armenian coalition parties noted "the Turkish side's inconsistent and evasive positions and policy of constantly setting preconditions." It rejected as "unacceptable" statements by Turkish politicians in general and Erdogan in particular linking ratification of the protocols with "a settlement of the conflict between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan." The coalition statement too affirms that continuation of the ratification process at the present state is "meaningless" in light of Turkey's unwillingness to drop preconditions.
In his recent CEIP policy brief, de Waal addresses the question of why Turkey committed itself to opening the border with Armenia in protocols that make no mention whatsoever of the Karabakh conflict, let alone making progress toward resolving it a precondition for doing so. De Waal suggests that Ankara badly underestimated not only the negative reaction from Baku to the entire rapprochement process, but also "how fundamental the Karabakh question is to Armenians."
De Waal thinks that either the Turkish side was counting on Armenia to withdraw from some Azerbaijani territory in exchange for the reopening of the border, or that there would be progress in the OSCE Minsk Group talks in the months following the signing of the protocols. When that progress proved elusive, Gul found himself "boxed into a corner."
Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian too implied that Ankara miscalculated in assuming that Yerevan would agree to compromises in the Karabakh talks for the sake of salvaging the ratification process; that, Nalbandian said on April 16, "is their problem."
Whether Sarkisian gave Erdogan prior warning of his decision to suspend the ratification process when the two men met in Washington on April 12 at Erdogan's request on the sidelines of the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington is not clear. Just days later, on April 18, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey will not open the border until Armenia ends its occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for his part affirmed on April 19
on the eve of a visit to Baku that "it is out of question for Turkey to open its border gate without the ratification of the protocols."
Similarly unclear is whether, as the Azerbaijani news agency 1news.az
reported on April 17 quoting "Hurriyet," Erdogan told both U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington that Ankara "expects definite steps from Armenia," and that an Armenian withdrawal from the Azerbaijani districts of Fizuli and Agdam would be a "desirable" first step.. A Google search failed to find any such statement on "Hurriyet's" English-language website.
The most recent variant of the so-called "Madrid Principles" -- the OSCE-drafted blueprint for resolving the Karabakh conflict -- reportedly envisaged a phased Armenian withdrawal from five of the seven Azerbaijani districts currently controlled by Armenian forces (Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Zangelan and Qubadli), but does not specify over what timeframe and in what order.
The Line of Contact that separates Azerbaijani and Armenian forces runs along the eastern border of Agdam in the north and Fizuli in the south. Given that the loss of Agdam would render the central region of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the capital, Stepanakert, and the nearby town of Shusha vulnerable, including to Azerbaijani artillery attack, Agdam and Fizuli are the two districts where Azerbaijan would most probably focus any military offensive aimed at restoring its hegemony over the region by force, as Michael Mensoian pointed out in a detailed analysis
published last month in the "Armenian Weekly."
De Waal suggested that Armenia could demonstrate its good faith by agreeing to open communications across its territory between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan. That would entail transit across the southernmost regions of Azerbaijan south of Karabakh that are currently under Armenian control. Whether Sarkisian's position domestically is strong enough for him to agree to such a concession is questionable, however.