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Turkey Signals Opening To Armenia Must Include Nagorno-Karabakh Progress

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is juggling the desire for Armenian contacts with the need for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul is juggling the desire for Armenian contacts with the need for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Commentaries in both the Turkish and Armenian press for weeks have predicted that the border between the two countries could soon be opened.

But the optimism has been based more on diplomatic gestures than public statements from either government.

There was the "football diplomacy" of Turkish President Abdullah Gul's attendance at a World Cup qualifier match in Yerevan in September. That visit suggested an atmosphere of goodwill was being created which -- like the "ping pong" diplomacy between Washington and Beijing in the 1970s -- could lead to normal relations.

There also have been meetings between the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers.

More recently, there was the additional impetus of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Turkey early this month. Obama said in Ankara on April 6 that Washington strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.

But if all this has suggested fast movement, Ankara now appears increasingly to be offering public signs that a slowdown may be coming.

Speaking in Prague on April 21, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan affirmed that Turkey and Armenia are moving forward with contacts. But he also stressed Turkey's interest in solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

"As of now, we are at a quite advanced stage in this process," Babacan said. "Also, in the South Caucasus there are other problems, like the situation that we now see in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or the Nagorno-Karabakh issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan."

'Comprehensive Solution'

It was over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that Turkey broke off relations with Armenia in 1993. Ankara and Baku are close allies, and Turkish officials often speak of Turkey and Azerbaijan as "one nation, two countries."

As speculation has mounted of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, Baku is reported to have become increasingly worried that a deal could bypass the thorny Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

But speaking in the Czech capital, Babacan underlined that Ankara is not only maintaining its engagement with Armenia but it is also working to resolve problems that Armenia has with what he called "other countries," including Azerbaijan.

Is the writing on the wall in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert?
He noted Turkish officials are in close contact with U.S., Russian, and French mediators leading the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. And he said he envisions a "real possibility" for the signing of an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace agreement this year.

Babacan made similar statements last week at a meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization in Yerevan.

Turkey's "Hurriyet Daily News" reported him saying at the time to Turkish reporters that "we want a comprehensive solution and full normalization." He added that the road to a solution must run parallel with talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Turkish newspaper "Today's Zaman" reported on April 21 that Turkey's talks with Armenia would be on the agenda of next week's meeting of Turkey's powerful National Security Council, comprising top state officials and army generals.

The newspaper added that Turkish President Gul would visit Baku shortly after the meeting to "inform the Azerbaijani administration about the decisions Turkey has made regarding normalization with Armenia."

All this could signal weeks or months of difficult diplomacy ahead.

Role For Washington?

Armenian leaders say Ankara did not raise the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh during months of conciliatory meetings with the Armenian government.

Yerevan previously has ruled out direct Turkish involvement in the international efforts to end the dispute over the predominantly Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan.

Where, then, might a breakthrough be made?

Babacan may -- or may not -- have provided a hint as he spoke in Prague about Ankara's interest in working with Washington, its NATO partner, to alleviate trouble in Caucasus hot spots.

"We have initiated the Caucasus Stable Tent Cooperation Platform involving five countries, namely the Russian Federation, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- and actually yesterday we had the third deputy minister-level meeting of the platform," Babacan said. "So this is a comprehensive approach that we have which targets stability and peace in our region."

Washington is anxious to bolster friendly states in the Caucasus following the Russia-Georgia war in August. It has appeared to endorse Ankara's policy of becoming more active in the region while Moscow seems determined to reassert its influence over the former Soviet republics.

That could mean increasing pressure from Washington on all three states -- Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- to find ways to cooperate in the suddenly more volatile Caucasus.

If so, it may mean the stakes are now too high to let the possibility of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement pass without trying to include progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well.

RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report

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