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Turkey: Plans To Improve Armenian Ties Stumble Over Genocide Issue

Turkish Foreign Ministry officials now say there are no immediate plans to improve relations with Armenia, following a week of relative optimism that the two countries were moving closer. Russia's plans to improve ties with Armenian rival Azerbaijan could have been the impetus for improving relations, but the effort was scuttled last week by Armenian comments that Turkey appears to be changing its position on the issue of Armenian genocide. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch writes that whatever the current state of official ties, the two countries appear to be moving toward better relations.

Prague, 16 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey has sent contradictory signals over the past few days on its reported intention to improve ties with neighboring Armenia.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was ending a landmark visit to Azerbaijan last week, media reports said Ankara was considering ways to improve its relations with Armenia.

Yet, within days the Turkish Foreign Ministry abruptly denied the reports, saying Turkey's policy regarding Armenia had not changed.

Domestic and foreign media last week quoted unidentified Foreign Ministry officials as saying the Turkish administration had given its consent "for a plan to win over Armenia" in the hope of heading off recent Western parliamentary resolutions accusing Turks of genocide against Armenians 85 years ago.

One official was quoted as saying Ankara was exploring ways to convince Yerevan's political leadership to urge the Armenian diaspora to drop its genocide claims through low-level diplomatic contacts. But he made clear that Turkey has no immediate plans to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia.

Sami Kohen is a columnist for the Turkish Millyet daily newspaper. He explains to RFE/RL:

"The Foreign Ministry proposed the cabinet of ministers, the government, to reconsider its attitude toward Armenia, listing a few suggestions for the normalization of relations, considering the long-term interests of the two countries, and also [considering] that there could be a rapprochement that would be beneficial in all respects. But this would fall short of formal restoration of diplomatic relations."

Although Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia's independence in 1991, it has never established diplomatic relations with Yerevan because of the 13-year conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. In 1993, Armenian troops made a breakthrough into Azerbaijan's territory, taking control of six administrative districts close to the enclave. As a sign of solidarity with Baku, Turkey retaliated by closing its border with Armenia.

But Ankara now says it has no immediate plans to alter its views on Turkish-Armenian relations.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement, dated 13 December and faxed to RFE/RL, reads: "Turkey's policy toward Armenia and its parameters are well-known."

Kohen believes the Foreign Ministry's earlier proposed rapprochement is likely to go unheeded. Among possible reasons for the hitch, he mentions ongoing efforts by the Armenian diaspora to lobby Western parliamentarians over the so-called "genocide issue."

Reporting on Ankara's alleged new policy towards Armenia, the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet last week wrote: "The Foreign Ministry foresees that normalization of Turkey's relations with Armenia could help prevent the activities of the Armenian diaspora." The newspaper quoted a Turkish official as saying the genocide issue should be dealt with by historians, not politicians.

Bertrand Buchwalter is a researcher for the Istanbul-based French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IFEA). He points at what he believes is a new development in Ankara's policy towards Armenia.

"What surprised me is the willingness to circumvent this 'mediator' (here he is referring to the Armenian diaspora) to establish a direct dialogue between Turkey and Armenia."

French, Italian and European parliamentarians have recently adopted bills condemning the killing of 1.5 million Armenians living under Ottoman rule between 1915 and 1917 as "genocide." Last year the U.S. House of Representatives dropped a genocide motion after President Bill Clinton said it would spoil Washington's relations with Ankara and hurt U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The foreign affairs committee of the French lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, last week approved a similar bill which will be put before the Assembly next Thursday. The bill is a private initiative of individual deputies and has been disowned by the French government, which fears that it will spoil its relations with Ankara.

Turkey reacted swiftly to the French vote, accusing the National Assembly of "rewriting history."

Turkey has always rejected Yerevan's genocide claims, saying some 300,000 Armenians and thousands of Turks were killed in what officials describe as internal fighting during the final years of the Ottoman empire.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan on Friday welcomed any moves by Ankara to improve ties with Yerevan. Speaking on Armenian television on Friday, Oskanyan also hailed what he believes may signal a change in Turkey's attitude towards the genocide issue.

"Turkey has come to the conclusion that going against this question in this way has not borne any fruit. It has somehow reconciled with the fact that this question is there and will continue to exist."

Turkish authorities reacted swiftly to this statement.

A Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that "this kind of statement would have killed any willingness -- supposing there were such a willingness - to normalize relations with Armenia." Sami Kohen goes further:

"This was a cold shower. Just at the moment when the Foreign Ministry had made these proposals and when the government was about to consider them, they got a formal reaction coming from Yerevan which is extremely negative. So I think that the hopes that existed have been dashed by this statement."

Yet, experts believe that dialogue between the two countries is still possible.

They say a growing number of voices in Turkey advocate better relations between the two countries. They also say the very fact that the Turkish Foreign Ministry has suggested a change in Ankara's policy towards its neighbor is a positive sign.

Buchwalter believes that, even if dialogue is not restored soon between the two states, things are moving in the right direction.

"Dialogue -- provided there will be a dialogue -- has been in the air for long. Things are being prepared. [Last week's media reports] did not come out of the blue."

Kohen says development of what he calls "normal relations" between Turkey and Armenia would help Ankara play a greater role in the South Caucasus and would be beneficial to both countries.

Buchwalter says a dialogue between the two countries would boost "Turkey's regional ambitions."