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Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

Turkish President Abdullah Gul greeted his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian in Bursa.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul greeted his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian in Bursa.
BRUSSELS -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were all in Zurich last week to ease the reportedly difficult negotiations between Turkey and Armenia. All observers welcomed the two sides' agreement this month to establish diplomatic relations and open their borders.

But analysts say the accord is only a first step on a long road toward full reconciliation between the two countries. People in Turkey and Armenia remain deeply divided over events of nearly a century ago, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in Ottoman Turkey. Armenia and many Western historians say the Turks committed genocide. Turkey denies the charge.

Turkey and Armenia also remain divided over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-controlled enclave in Azerbaijan. Turkey, a close ally of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, sealed its border with Armenia in 1994 in retaliation for the country's invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, which it seized along with seven adjoining Azerbaijani provinces.

But Amanda Akcakoca of the Brussels-based European Policy Center says "everybody gains" from last weekend's deal.

"This rapprochement represents the first step of a process that will open the way to changing the face of the whole southern Caucasus region, including resolving, obviously, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict," Akcakoca said.

Akcakoca says the rapprochement is a "high-risk strategy" for both Turkey and Armenia. Each government faces stiff resistance at home as it submits the accord to parliament for ratification.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan linked the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border to Armenian concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh, telling his AKP party "no positive steps" could be taken before "Armenia withdraws from Azerbaijan."

But Armenia has no intention of relinquishing control of Nagorno-Karabakh, and must contend with the hard-line views of its influential global diaspora. Many Armenians -- who have spent decades trying to persuade foreign governments to recognize the mass killing of Turkish Armenians in 1915-1918 as genocide -- see Yerevan's deal-making with its historic foe as unacceptable.

Azerbaijan opposed the Turkish-Armenian deal, which it described as harmful to its interests and gravely damaging to its relations with "fraternal" Turkey. Analysts say Azerbaijan holds considerable influence over Turkey, which gets much of its oil and gas from Azerbaijan.

Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council of Foreign Relations says Turkey's main motivation appears to have been boosting its influence abroad.

"Turkey really wanted to assume a new role, that of a regional power that reaches out to its neighbors and is able also to resolve long-standing conflicts," Tcherneva said.

Mutual Benefits

A thaw with Armenia fits Turkey's goal of normalizing relations with all its neighbors. Analysts say Turkey also may be hoping to boost its chances of joining the European Union by positioning itself as a key force for stability in the South Caucasus.

Armenia wants to emerge from the relative isolation to which it's been confined since gaining independence in 1991. The conflict with Azerbaijan has locked Armenia out of lucrative regional energy transit projects and forced the land-locked country to rely on support from Russia, which maintains a strong military presence there.

Officials say the Turkish-Armenian deal wouldn't have been possible without backing from Russia. Some reports suggest Moscow was instrumental in persuading Armenia to sign the accord. But Russia remains a major question in the equation.

Some believe Moscow doesn’t want to see a more powerful Turkey near its southern border. But EU diplomats speculate that by "carving up" the South Caucasus between themselves and Turkey, the Russians may be hoping to reduce the influence of the EU and the United States in the region.

Russia has re-established itself as the leading mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the past year. The two countries' presidents often meet under Russian mediation, most recently in Moscow last week. Officials say that as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, Moscow will remain firmly in the driving seat.

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