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Could Turkey Abandon Preconditions For Relations With Armenia?

  • Stepan Grigoryan

Turkish President Gul (left) and Armenia President Sarkisian in Yerevan

Turkish President Gul (left) and Armenia President Sarkisian in Yerevan

Two months ago, during a summit in Astana on July 7, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian extended an official invitation to his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to travel to Yerevan so they could watch together as their national soccer teams played a match. Since then, public opinion in both countries has been divided as to what lay behind the invitation, whether Gul would accept it, and whether he should.

There are, of course, many factors hindering the normalization of relations between the two countries. Several external players, in particular Russia, have no interest in the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border, as this could lead to Armenia turning toward the West. Any positive developments in Armenia's relations with Turkey would be painful for Azerbaijan. And within Turkey, the normalization of relations with Armenia is not viewed as an urgent priority.

Even before Sarkisian's initiative, Turkey was trying to use its strategic partnership with Georgia and Azerbaijan to broaden its influence in the South Caucasus without regard for its lack of formal relations with Armenia. For that reason, it appeared that Armenia needed a normalization of relations more than Turkey did. It was also clear that Turkey required something more substantial than Sarkisian's proposals to begin normalizing relations, a process that would have to include establishing a joint commission to evaluate historical issues, before it would agree to open the border.

Breakthrough Moment

The situation changed radically, however, after Russia launched large-scale military operations against Georgia on August 8, advancing far beyond the South Ossetian conflict zone. In the wake of Gul's visit to Yerevan, it is obvious that it was the crisis in Georgia, which demonstrated the vulnerability of the countries in the region, that was the deciding factor in this breakthrough in bilateral relations. For that reason, all the problems in Armenian-Turkish relations, including the dispute over the recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians and the deadlocked conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, have now been relegated to the back burner.

Turkey was so concerned by the Russian military intervention in Georgia and by the advance of Russian forces into the southern and western regions of the country that in mid-August it dispatched Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. We can assume that the leaders discussed two issues that are crucial for Turkey. The first was the possibility that Moscow would recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara understood very well that Russia would not be content with simply establishing military control over South Ossetia, but would seek to substantiate that military victory by legal measures, such as recognizing South Ossetia as an independent state.
Defeat in Yerevan could lead to breakthrough.

The second issue was Russia's stance toward the continued functioning of the oil and gas pipelines, and also the highways, that link Azerbaijan and Turkey via Georgia. That issue arose because Russia had engaged in maneuvers in western Georgia to secure control of the ports of Poti and Batumi and the strategic Gori-Poti highway and railway.

Without going into detail, we can say that the war led to the disruption of economic ties across the entire South Caucasus region. The ports of Poti and Batumi were bombed, some stretches of the Tbilisi-Batumi railroad were rendered unusable, and widespread damage was inflicted on Georgia's economic and energy infrastructure.

Armenia suffered serious economic damage because the territory of Georgia is the lifeline that connects it by trade and economic routes to Russia and Europe. According to Armenian government statistics, during the military phase of the Georgian conflict, Armenia's trade turnover fell by a factor of eight.

But Azerbaijan and Turkey also experienced difficulties. Exports via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline were temporarily halted because of the fighting. Almost all energy and transport projects linking Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey were suspended, and today the Georgian economy is on the verge of collapse. In other words, it turns out that limiting its regional cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan could not shield Turkey from serious repercussions.

A Broken Link

It used to be difficult to envisage a situation in the South Caucasus in which Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey did not constitute a self-sufficient system. But as soon as the Georgian link in the chain gave way, the entire system began to break down, and it became clear that in this emergency situation, Armenia could be indispensable. In fact, the August events in Georgia have demonstrated just how important it is to have alternative mechanisms for regional cooperation.

For example, if Armenia had not been excluded from the oil and gas pipelines built in the South Caucasus -- if even one or two of those pipelines had transited Armenian territory -- then the countries of the region could have exported oil and gas via Armenia even amid the Georgian crisis. Or it would have been possible to compensate at least partially for the disruption in Georgian rail traffic by rerouting trains via the railroad from Kars in eastern Turkey to Giumri in Armenia, and then to Tbilisi.

A break in the transport chain
It is of paramount importance that the Turkish leadership, which was the first to realize just how serious the situation was, has come to understand all these problems. We can therefore expect serious and concrete new initiatives from them in the near future -- first and foremost addressing the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. In that context, it is worth pointing out that Abdullah Gul's visit to Yerevan was primarily political, and the soccer match between the Armenian and Turkish teams was of secondary significance, even though it served as a perfect pretext for the two leaders to meet.

It's a shame that the Armenian-Turkish border was not opened even temporarily to allow Turkish soccer fans to travel to the game. But just the fact that a Turkish president has visited Armenia constitutes a serious breakthrough in Armenian-Turkish relations -- not just from a political perspective, but also from a psychological one.

Even a few days ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the president of a country hostile to Armenia traveling to Yerevan. There is no doubt that this visit will help to surmount the huge psychological barrier of mutual distrust and tension that exists between the Armenian and Turkish peoples. The visit will also contribute to the creation of a new atmosphere of good neighborly relations.

It is likely that the Armenian-Turkish border will be opened in the wake of Gul's visit. This would serve as a major stimulus for more active trade and economic cooperation between the two countries, and for including Armenia in regional transport and energy projects. In the long term, it would contribute to Armenia's reorientation toward the West and integration into the European Union and NATO.

Gul's visit will also almost certainly lead to a reexamination of Turkey's relations with Armenia. It is possible that Turkey will very soon abandon its preconditions for normalizing relations. Yerevan has also clearly affirmed its readiness to establish diplomatic ties without preconditions. The situation that has arisen in the South Caucasus requires decisive actions from the leaders of both states.

Stepan Grigoryan is chairman of the board of the Analytical Center for Globalization and Regional Cooperation in Yerevan. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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