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U.S. Hopes To Keep Armenia-Turkey Reconciliation Process Alive

U.S. President Barack Obama brought Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (left) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together in Washington, at least for a photograph.
The latest U.S. call for continued progress in Turkish-Armenian normalization -- in this case by Washington's ambassador to Armenia, Marie Yovanovitch, in an RFE/RL interview -- comes at a difficult time.

Government opponents in both countries are becoming increasingly hostile to the Turkish-Armenian protocols, signed in October.

Moreover, the Turkish government is gearing up for a major challenge in national elections due to take place next year. The popularity of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is declining and there's no sure sign that his majority in the parliament will survive another national poll.

In fact, there are some troubling signs pointing in the opposite direction. On May 4, Erdogan suffered one of his biggest defeats in a parliamentary vote on proposed amendments to the constitution. Some members reportedly broke party ranks to oppose one of the key articles in Erdogan's constitutional package, highlighting his inability to maintain party discipline when it comes to the nationalist agenda.

Speaking after Sweden's vote to recognize the Armenian genocide, Erdogan vowed that the Turkish parliament would reject the protocols if they went to the floor for a vote.

Rocky Road

It has been a bumpy ride since the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers committed their countries to the process of diplomatic normalization in October.

The United States, Russia, and the European Union hailed the deal as a possible new beginning in those two countries' histories, but such euphoria was short-lived.

Renewed skepticism arose alongside rising bilateral tensions, driving home the reality that century-old animosity could not be transformed into normalcy in a matter of months, or even years.

Then, as the anniversary of the Ottoman-era mass killings of Armenians approached, the Armenian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere mobilized in an effort to push for resolutions recognizing the massacre as genocide.

Turkey angrily denounced resolutions in both the United States (specifically the House Foreign Relations Committee) and Sweden, withdrawing its ambassadors from both countries. Erdogan angrily hinted at the possible deportation of thousands of "illegal Armenian workers."

There's another irritant for Turkey, too. There is ample speculation that its closest regional ally, Azerbaijan, has opposed the protocols since they were conceived. Baku, that argument runs, believes that by opening its border with Armenia, Turkey would lose leverage that it might otherwise apply to force Yerevan into concessions over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Indeed, Turkish leaders have repeatedly suggested that the country's border with Armenia will not be opened in the absence of a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. For his part, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has suspended the parliamentary ratification process of the protocols.

Eyes On The Prize

From the early days of his presidency, Barack Obama has made it clear that a top priority in the region is to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has brought an unprecedented level of intensity to the resulting diplomatic effort, and remains in constant contact with the Armenian and Turkish leaders.

Shortly before the ratification process was halted, Obama and Clinton each held lengthy talks with senior Armenian and Turkish officials. They knew that the Armenian president was prepared to halt the ratification process, but they were also assured that the protocols would remain intact.

"President Sarkisian's announcement makes clear that Armenia has not ended the process but has suspended it until the Turkish side is ready to move forward," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon said in a statement.

Ambassador Yovanovitch expressed similar optimism in her RFE/RL interview, noting that there were three, not one, ceremonies in Turkey to mark Armenian Remembrance Day.

U.S. officials suggest there are encouraging signs that the reconciliation process is taking hold within civil society in both countries.

Armenia's leading business association and three local civic groups last month vowed that they would work together to deepen contacts between Armenians and Turks.

Yovanovitch went on to note that closed borders in 21st-century Europe are "not a phenomenon that can continue to exist."

So what can we expect next? Will the Armenian and Turkish leaders restart the process soon or wait until after Turkey's national elections? Will talks again take the form of the quiet diplomacy mediated by the Swiss?

"I'm not a fortune teller so I can't tell exactly what the future is going to bring. But I think that at the end of the day it's up to both sides to figure out how they want to move forward and when they want to move," Yovanovitch said.

But one thing's for sure. The Obama administration has not signaled any willingness to give up on the process, and some level of active engagement by U.S. officials is likely to continue.

Harry Tamrazian is director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL