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Turkey's 'Armenia Opening' Far From A Done Deal

Presidents Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia (left) and Abdullah Gul of Turkey meet in Prague in May, another step in Turkey's "Armenia opening."
Presidents Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia (left) and Abdullah Gul of Turkey meet in Prague in May, another step in Turkey's "Armenia opening."
Turkey's foreign policy since the Justice and Development (AK) party came to power in November 2002 has taken an intriguing twist: while various tensions have started to define its relations with old allies the United States and the European Union (tensions that were not entirely Ankara's fault), a new focus on regional issues -- accompanied by a rising regional prowess -- has gradually taken center stage.

Of course, one cannot dissect the regional from the global in today's world and, in the case of Turkey, this is all the more true. Take a compass and draw a wide circle whose center is Ankara, and you will see that "Turkey's region" is an area of global importance that includes Russia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Turkey's regional focus has been shaped largely by Ahmet Davutoglu, a respected international relations expert who, until he took over the Foreign Ministry in May, chose to stay behind the curtains.

Davutoglu is the author of the now best-selling "Strategic Depth: Turkey's International Position," and he is regarded as being very close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His priority in office is summarized in the motto "zero problems with neighbors," and this year, the first steps toward a breakthrough in two major problems have been taken: the Kurdish and the Armenian questions.

Breaking Stalemates

Of course, the Kurdish question is essentially a "Turkish problem," as it involves the republic's relations with its Kurdish citizens. Twenty-five years after the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched its violent campaign against the state, Turkey is now talking about a rapprochement with its Kurds.

The regional implications are profound: If Turkey manages to "make peace" with its own Kurds, relations with oil-rich northern Iraq will advance, making Turkey a major player in a key area it has shied away from for decades, fearing the domestic implications on the Kurdish issue.

Serious obstacles -- mainly opposition from Turkish nationalists and doubts on the Kurdish side -- remain. The "Kurdish opening," as it is called, has been a hot topic of debate here for weeks.

The "Armenian opening" was announced on September 1 and aims to solve an even more intractable problem. Relations have been sour since 1993, when Turkey closed the Alican border crossing with Armenia in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan. Since then, Ankara has tied a normalization of relations to Armenia's renunciation of claims the 1915-16 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was genocide and to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

But after months of secretive talks, evidently involving the Azerbaijani government to some extent, Ankara and Yerevan have reached an agreement.

The draft protocol calls for the opening of the land border between the neighbors two months after the accord is approved by both parliaments. Armenia is expected to recognize the current borders with Turkey, drawn in 1921. A joint "subcommittee" will be formed to do research on the 1915-16 events and it is hoped that both nations will open their archives to committee members.

Under the preliminary agreement, Turkey and Armenia will continue talks under the mediation of Switzerland with the goal of signing a protocol by October 12. That would pave the way for Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian to travel to Bursa on October 14 to attend a friendly soccer match between the two national teams.

Karabakh Question

But the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh remains the potential spoiler, as Armenia maintains this is a separate issue that has nothing to do with Turkey. But the opposition in Turkey argues that no deal should be reached until the Karabakh situation is resolved, to the approval of even some in the ranks of the ruling AK party.

As a result, even these early moves have been harshly criticized by the Turkish opposition, especially the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main social-democratic opposition party whose stance on many issues -- including the Kurdish question -- is close to that of the nationalists.

Members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation hold up a banner reading "No concessions to Turkey" during a demonstration in May.
"Unlawful Armenian demands were succumbed to," MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has said. CHP leader Denis Baykal added, "We will not vote for this unless the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani [territory] ends."

Oddly enough, nationalists in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora seem to be acting in silent accord with them. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian has called on the Armenian opposition to protest in Yerevan on September 18 against the rapprochement. Meanwhile, the European Armenian Federation has called the agreement "a dangerous step backward."

"The international community should not let Turkey impose its denialist policies on Armenia through such agreements," said Hilda Tchoboian, the president of the federation.

A Win-Win Situation?

As the issue is an international one, a glance at what the "international community" is thinking deserves attention. The prevailing opinion in Turkey is that the whole process is linked to the so-called Great Game being played in the Caucasus.

According to press reports, one catalyst is the Russia-Georgia war of last year: evidently, the EU increasingly sees Tbilisi as an "unreliable" energy partner and wishes to involve Armenia in the planned Nabucco natural-gas pipeline.

The Russian reaction is also intriguing. According to one Russian analysis, Moscow expects to be among the winners of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, calculating that its clout in Yerevan will be useful if Armenia jumps on the Nabucco train.

As for the United States, President Barack Obama, in his historic speech to Turkish lawmakers in Ankara on April 6, called for a normalization of relations and opening of the borders.

In short, it appears that almost everyone sees a possible Turkey-Armenia rapprochement as a win-win situation. Everyone, that is, except for the nationalists in both countries. And before hopes get too high, it should be recalled that those interests have trumped common sense many times in the past.

Taylan Bilgic is the managing editor of the "Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL