Thursday, February 19, 2009

Turkey Steps up Talks with Armenia as April Looms

Turkish Weekly

Increased and open diplomatic traffic between Turkey and Armenia has signaled that there are more efforts under way for normalizing relations between the two countries, particularly considering the fact that April 24, the day the White House traditionally issues a statement on "Armenian Remembrance Day" is approaching and, maybe even more importantly, the Armenian diaspora has already started pressuring American politicians to bring a "genocide resolution" to the floor of the US Congress.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan's meetings with his Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, are no longer held in secret. The two have met six times on separate occasions since the soccer match held between the national teams of the two countries on Sept. 6, 2008, in Armenia.

After that historical event came Armenian Foreign Minister Nalbandian's visit to Ä°stanbul to attend a ministerial gathering of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) on Nov. 24. Babacan and Nalbandian later met unofficially in Helsinki, Zurich and, most recently, Munich.

"If Turkey and Armenia increase their meetings, it will be difficult for third parties to interfere with the process," said Sedat Laciner, head of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/USAK), referring to the possibility of US recognition of the Armenian "genocide" allegations due to campaign promises made by President Barack Obama to Armenian-American voters.

Laciner added that Turkey was working toward a solution to its problems with Armenia and that this is why it is trying to prevent efforts in the United States that may block this process of reconciliation.

"The ultimate goals are the starting of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border with Armenia," he told Sunday's Zaman.

It is not so important whether or not US President Barack Obama utters the word "genocide" in his statement on April 24 -- the day when Armenians commemorate the killings of Anatolian Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, which Armenians claim constituted genocide. Rather, it is the climate that will be created afterward that may be concerning, Laciner said, adding, "Dialogue between Armenia and Turkey could break off.

"There is also worry of a possible explosion of nationalist sentiment in Turkey, as predicted by Today's Zaman columnist Omer Taspinar, if a House resolution is adopted.

Taspınar wrote in a Jan. 26 article that "In case the Armenian genocide recognition resolution goes forward and Congress votes in favor of it before March 29, things will go from bad to worse," considering the political calendar in Turkey, where local elections will be held on March 29.

President Obama issued several statements during his election campaign reiterating his intention to recognize the alleged Armenian genocide. But some argue that running for office and running the government are different things. Ä°lter Türkmen, a retired Turkish ambassador and former foreign minister, said the Obama administration would be hesitant to scratch old wounds in the history of Turks and Armenians.

"The United States supports the improvement of relations between Turkey and Armenia," he said.

However, the matter has gotten more complicated as observers note a mounting sense of frustration in the US Congress related to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly following his walkout at the recent Davos summit after an angry exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel's deadly operation in Gaza last month. "The level of resentment is particularly high among the pro-Israel lobby. Some argue that Turkey has lost all its key supporters in Washington and that the Armenian lobby has now a unique window of opportunity to push its agenda," wrote Taspinar, who is based in Washington.

Supporting this idea, former Turkish Ambassador to the US Faruk Logoglu told Sunday's Zaman that the Jewish lobby in the United States was one of Turkey's biggest trump cards. Still, he said, Turkey should not be anxiously looking to make gestures prior to April 24. Instead, it should spread its efforts to normalize relations with Armenia over a period of time.

"We should get Washington's backing first and then move forward with the issue," he said, adding that, in the meantime, not only Ankara, but also Yerevan should communicate to the US administration that normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia carries high importance for both sides and that dialogue is continuing toward a solution.

Logoglu also said it is important for Ankara that Azerbaijan's consent has been obtained and that Russia has been informed about the process.

After all, Turkey closed its border with Armenia because of its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. In a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan, Turkey also severed its diplomatic ties with Yerevan.

Before his landmark meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan in Davos late last month, Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan had talks with Azerbaijani President Ä°lham Aliyev. Indeed, Aliyev had held talks with Sarksyan earlier in Davos concerning the two-decade-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. "We will never leave Azerbaijan alone concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. That is to say that our issues are in a way connected with Azerbaijan," Erdogan said at Davos.

"Efforts may soon yield positive results"

Suat Kiniklioglu, member of Parliament and deputy chairman of external affairs for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), told Sunday's Zaman he is hopeful that a statement by the Turkish side most likely at the beginning of April may pave the way for further rapprochement with Armenia.

"I am not directly involved in the negotiations, but I hear that there are only minor issues left to be settled between the sides. Both Turkey and Armenia are serious in that regard," he said.

Asked if Armenia can be expected to take a step toward the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, he said, "It is possible because Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to negotiate over the issue."

Although last week Yerevan rejected a news report suggesting that Armenia and Azerbaijan had reached a preliminary agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Turkey's support, there are signs that a solution may emerge soon.

Nalbandian has announced many times that negotiations over the resolution of the conflict are being held in the context of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States.

Goran Lennmarker, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly special representative on Nagorno-Karabakh, arrived in Baku on Feb. 12. The Trend news agency reported that the purpose of his visit was to get familiarized with the current situation of the negotiation process so a report could be drafted prior to the winter session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Feb. 19 and 20 in Vienna.

Lenmarker also said he has additional information regarding the transfer of six regions to Azerbaijan and the establishment of a temporary government in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, a delegation from the Turkish Parliament is expected to go to the United States again in March. Kınıklıoğlu said they will further explain to US officials that the Armenian diaspora "does not care about the problems of Armenia" and are even "disturbed" about the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. In that context, the Turkish Coalition of America recently sent a letter to President Obama drawing his attention to the work of more than 30 scholars who have refrained from applying the genocide label to the events of 1915 or whose work exposes parts of the traditional "

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