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Turkey/Armenia: President Demirel Strives For Rapprochement With Neighboring Country

Prague, 28 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish President Suleyman Demirel has invited his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, to participate in the celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Kocharian has accepted, but it is not clear whether he himself will attend.

Armenian presidential adviser for public relations Gassia Apkarian told journalists in Yerevan two days ago (Aug.26) that an announcement will be made shortly who will represent Armenia at the ceremonies in Ankara and Istanbul on 27-28 October.

This development is the most concrete manifestation to date of Ankara's and Yerevan's desire, expressed by both after Kocharian's election as president in March, to improve bilateral relations.

Although Turkey recognized in late 1991 the independence of Armenia, along with that of the other former Soviet republics, it has never established formal diplomatic relations. And despite flourishing informal business contacts, Ankara has refused to reopen the border crossing with Armenia that was closed at the time of an Armenian offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993.

The Turkish government insists that reopening the border and establishing formal diplomatic relations is contingent on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from six districts of Azerbaijan adjacent to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Yerevan's recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed Armenian-populated enclave.

Turkey is keenly interested in promoting a lasting political solution to the Karabakh conflict, fearing that continued instability in the Transcaucasus may adversely affect the prospects and time frame for construction of the proposed Main Export Pipeline to transport Azerbaijan's Caspian oil from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean terminal at Ceyhan. The realization of that project will not only benefit Turkey financially; it is considered symbolic of Turkey's aspirations to be recognized as a regional power.

From the Armenian perspective, the primary obstacle to improved relations with Turkey the refusal of successive Turkish governments to acknowledge that the killings of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 constituted a deliberate policy of genocide. The new Armenian leadership has pledged that securing international recognition and condemnation of the killings will be a key tenet of its foreign-policy.

In this context, the timing of Demirel's proffered olive branch may be intended to highlight the distinction between Ottoman Turkey and the Republic of Turkey and thus to underscore Ankara's argument that the latter should not be held morally responsible for the crimes committed by the former.

In addition, the Turkish leadership may hope that by adopting a more conciliatory attitude toward Armenia, there may be less likelihood that other countries will follow the example of France in formally condemning the Armenian genocide. Turkey reacted with shock and anger when the French National Assembly (lower chamber of parliament) adopted such a resolution in July.

Furthermore, Demirel's overture raises the possibility of Ankara's reconsidering its position of linking the establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia to Yerevan's making concessions over Nagorno-Karabakh. This would constitute a retreat from Turkey's hitherto unwavering support of Azerbaijan's position on resolving the Karabakh conflict. In the same vein, Demirel's invitation to Kocharian may be intended to convey the message to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev that Ankara expects him to deliver on his professed commitment to implementing the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline project.

But the Turkish leadership may also be gambling that Kocharian will decide against traveling to Turkey and send instead a lower-level delegation to the October anniversary celebration. Earlier this month, Kocharian declined an invitation to travel to Baku to attend an EU-sponsored conference on the TRACECA project.

Kocharian's foreign policy adviser, Aram Sarkisian, said then that Kocharian's participation would have given an overtly political dimension to what is first and foremost an economic forum. Sarkisian noted that "anti-Armenian hysteria in the Azerbaijani press" would have turned Kocharian's presence at the conference into "a political show."

Another reason why President Kocharian may not attend is the possible adverse public reaction in Turkey to such a visit--especially in the light of his key role in coordinating the Karabakh Armenians' military victory over Azerbaijan.

Similarly, Armenian public opinion, and several of the political parties that currently support Kocharian, may object that for him to accept Demirel's invitation would be to present the Turkish president with a public relations victory, without any guarantee of receiving anything in return. The Armenian president thus has to weigh the seriousness of a possible domestic political backlash against the opportunity to drive a wedge between Turkey and Azerbaijan.