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Turkish-Armenian Diplomatic Ties In The Offing?

  • Antoine Blua

A Turkish boy walks along railroad tracks disused since the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border. The new agreement foresees the border reopening.

A Turkish boy walks along railroad tracks disused since the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border. The new agreement foresees the border reopening.

Turkey and Armenia won international applause on August 31, when they agreed on diplomatic protocols aimed at establishing diplomatic ties and reopening their border after almost a century of hostility.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 27 said the two countries' foreign ministers -- Armenia's Eduard Nalbandian and Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey -- will sign the protocols on October 10 in Switzerland.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a Yerevan-based think tank, tells RFE/RL there is reason to believe the agreement will proceed as planned.

"We've seen a wave of protests and some demonstrations in the Armenian capital, but we've also seen some opposition within Turkey itself,” Giragosian said. “The interesting thing is [that] in many ways, the opposition to the normalization has actually been less than expected by many -- including by the governments of both sides -- which gives ground to some optimism that the protocols will in fact be signed."

That prospect is being seen by many as an opportunity that could help end hostilities stemming from the World War I mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

But even if the protocols were signed, the parliaments of both Armenia and Turkey would have to ratify them before they could take effect. That stands as a significant hurdle, considering the intense positions that have prevented a normalization of relations between the two states.

A main issue of dispute is that Yerevan wants the massacre by Ottoman Turks recognized as genocide, which Turkey strongly rejects.

Armenia scholars say 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks from 1915-23 in a campaign aimed at eliminating the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire.

Ankara says that up to 600,000 Armenians died during World War I and during deportations out of eastern Anatolia. But it says the deaths were in the context of an Armenian uprising, as Armenians sided with invading Russian troops at the time.

Regional Disputes

Turkey recognized the state of Armenia after its independence in 1991, but failed to establish formal diplomatic relations.

In 1993, Turkey closed its border with its neighbor in solidarity with its Turkic ally Azerbaijan over Yerevan's support to ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The enclave falls within Azerbaijan's borders, but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians since they won a three-year war against Azerbaijan in 1994.

Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that deputies will start debating the protocols on October 1.

"This is a very complicated process,” Sharmazanov said. “It will show whether we take the right way or the wrong one. I think we are going the right way. And after that, we'll start the process of ratification. I don't expect it to be done at once."

Armenian critics to the deal, including the Zharangutyun (Heritage) and Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) opposition parties, say it would mean the recognition of the two countries' borders and includes elements that call into question Yerevan's stance on the genocide issue.

But analyst Giragosian says a difficult passage "or even much of a debate" is not expected at the Armenian parliament, given the overwhelming majority of pro-government deputies.

The real challenge, others suggest, might come from Turkey, where the government faces accusations of making concessions that damage the country's interests and of selling out Azerbaijan.

"The protocol establishing diplomatic relations has a higher chance of being endorsed by the parliament,” said Barcin Yinanc, a commentator for the “Turkish Daily News.” “But as for the protocol that foresees the opening of the border, I think that the chances are very dim, unless there is improvement toward a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh."

On September 26, Azerbaijan's officials news agencies quoted the chairman of the Turkish parliament, Mehmet Ali Shahin, as saying the accords on normalizing ties with Armenia will not be ratified as long as the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute remains unresolved. He reportedly made the comment during talks with President Ilham Aliyev in Baku.

Giragosian says both the Armenian and Turkish government have done "far too little" to prepare their societies to for a normalization of relation. And in the case of Armenia, he says, there may be a backlash.

"Opening borders, establishing diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey is pretty much a shared goal of a large majority of the population of Armenia,” Giragosian said. “The problem is the process of this diplomatic negotiation. There's overwhelming secrecy, there's a lack of information that is encouraging only disinformation. And there is also a disconnection or disengagement where the ordinary Armenian citizen and even civil society feel unengaged in this process."

Armenia's President Serzh Sarkisian embarks on a world tour October 1 that will take him to France, Lebanon, Russia, and the United States to explain the benefits of the accord to the Armenian diaspora.

RFE/RL's Armenian and Azeri Services contributed to this report.

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