Turkey brilliantly accomplished its objectives in the first round of negotiations ostensibly to open the border with Armenia.
Ever since 1993, when Turkish leaders closed the border, they set two main preconditions for its reopening: Armenia must 1) stop pursuing international recognition of the Armenian Genocide and 2) return Artsakh (Karabagh) to Azerbaijan.
Despite persistent Turkish attempts to impose such harsh terms on Armenia, successive Armenian governments have declared that diplomatic relations should be established and the border reopened without any preconditions. Thus, the standstill continues until today.
During the past year, however, a series of unexpected developments provided new impetus for Armenia and Turkey to repair their contentious relationship. Both countries, under pressure from the U.S. and Europe, were now prodded by a new major actor, Russia, to open the Armenian-Turkish border. As owner of major businesses in Armenia, Russia sought to establish cross border trade with Turkey, thereby also diminishing Georgia’s strategic significance as a sole transit route for the region.
The turmoil in the aftermath of the contested Armenian presidential election last year rendered the new leaders more sensitive to demands from the major powers, expecting in return their support to counter the opposition at home. To be fair, the Armenian government believed that opening the border was also in Armenia’s own economic interest. Moreover, when Armenia’s imports through Georgia were temporarily blocked during last year’s Georgian-Russian war, Armenian officials realized the strategic value of having an alternate border outlet.
Turkey also stood to gain both economically and politically from an open border with Armenia because 1) The population of Turkey’s eastern provinces, living in abject poverty, would significantly benefit from trading with Armenia; 2) Turkey would fulfill one of the prerequisites for European Union membership; and 3) Ankara hoped to preempt the White House and Congress from taking a stand on the Armenian Genocide.
Despite such clear and immediate advantages, Turkish officials prolonged the negotiations in order to secure maximum concessions from Armenia in return for opening the border.
The first glimmer of a breakthrough came on June 23, 2008, when Armenia’s newly-elected president Serge Sarkisian unexpectedly announced, during a Moscow visit, his acceptance of a Turkish proposal to form a “historical commission.” However, the Armenian president insisted that the commission would be established “only after the opening of the border.” Later, the Armenian side announced that it would accept the establishment an inter-governmental commission that would discuss all outstanding issues between the two countries.
As it became clear in late 2008 that Barack Obama would win the presidency and probably keep his promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government launched a propaganda campaign to convince the international community that Armenia and Turkey were engaged in delicate negotiations that would be undermined if third countries acknowledged the genocide. Clearly, the Turks were not sincere in their declared intentions. Had they been serious, the border could have been opened in a matter of days, not months or years! At the height of that campaign, the presidents of Armenia and Turkey held a summit meeting in Yerevan on the sidelines of a soccer match between their national teams. Armenians were encouraged that Turkish officials made no mention of their usual preconditions for Armenia to desist from genocide recognition and to make concessions on Artsakh.
Obama’s visit to Turkey last week had a critical impact on the development of Armenian-Turkish relations. Judging from his circumspect remarks in Ankara, it became clear that the American president had adopted the duplicitous Turkish line that third parties should not comment on the Armenian Genocide while Armenia and Turkey were engaged in serious negotiations.
This carefully orchestrated Turkish ploy, however, almost fell apart at the last minute when President Aliyev of Azerbaijan refused to go to Istanbul and meet with Obama. Aliyev was upset that Turkey was considering opening the border with Armenia while ignoring Baku’s interests. To reassure Aliyev, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan announced that the border would not be opened until Yerevan resolved its conflict with Azerbaijan. Armenia’s Foreign Minister Nalbandian, objecting that Turkey was reviving its old preconditions, canceled his trip to Istanbul. However, he ended up taking a later flight, possibly at the urging of American officials. Aliyev, on the other hand, remained steadfast in his refusal to go to Turkey. Nalbandian’s presence in Istanbul regrettably gave credence to Turkish misrepresentations that the two countries were making good progress in their negotiations.
Thus, Turkey managed to fool Obama and other world leaders into thinking that it was seriously trying to resolve its long-strained relations with Armenia. Consequently, Turkish officials were showered with many accolades and received priceless publicity. The Economist magazine aptly pointed out: “Turkey basks in the glory of a two-day visit by Barack Obama.” To be sure, the Turks managed to get maximal public relations benefits by simply talking about opening the border and succeeded in convincing Obama that it was not a good idea to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide while in Ankara. It remains to be seen whether Turkey has also secured the president’s silence on April 24!
Round 2 of the Turkish ploy is now in full swing, with Azerbaijan threatening to take all sorts of measures against Turkey should the latter dare to open the border with Armenia, without linking such action to territorial concessions on Artsakh. The entire population of Azerbaijan has been whipped into frenzy over this issue. Opposition leaders in Turkey are also up in arms, accusing Erdogan of abandoning “fraternal Azerbaijan’s” interests. Obama, upon his return to the White House, immediately phoned Aliyev to assure him of America’s support for the resolution of the Artsakh conflict as well as normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations.
While the charade goes on, Armenia’s leaders continue to make surprisingly positive statements about their negotiations with Turkey, despite repeated announcements by Turkish officials that the border will not be opened until Yerevan makes concessions on Artsakh.
It now appears that Turkey will place the border negotiations on the back burner until the Minsk Group, composed of the United States, Russia, and France, can come up with some evidence of progress on the Artsakh negotiations. Only then would Turkey consider opening the border with Armenia.
To counter these Turkish/Azeri ploys:
1. Armenia’s leaders should start playing hardball with Turkey and Azerbaijan and not get overly concerned with making a good impression on the major powers in trying to accommodate their demands.
2. Armenia should stick to its long-avowed position of no preconditions for opening the border and establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey, and resist pressures from Russia, the U.S., and Europe.
3. Armenia should consider setting Oct. 7 as a deadline for opening the border. In case of Turkish inaction by that time, Sarkisian should refuse to go to Turkey for the return soccer match, thus exposing Turkey’s ploy on improving relations with Armenia.
4. Long in advance of any border accord, the Armenian parliament should safeguard Armenia’s national security by prohibiting all foreigners from purchasing land in sensitive border areas and making investments in certain strategic resources.
5. Armenia and Armenian Americans should condemn, in the strongest possible terms, Gul’s blatant denial of the Armenian Genocide during a joint press conference with Obama in Ankara last week, televised live worldwide. To set the record straight, Armenian Americans should immediately submit to the U.S. Senate the counterpart of the House genocide resolution. After all, it makes more sense to pass such a bill in the Senate, which has never approved a resolution on the Armenian Genocide, rather than in the House which has already adopted two such resolutions in 1975 and 1984.