Dynamics of Azeri-Armenian-Turkish Relations: A Three-Legged Chair

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, the California Courier
Oct. 2, 2008

All indications are that Armenian and Turkish leaders have agreed in recent weeks to improve their long frozen relations based on the following terms: Turkey will open its border with Armenia, establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan, and set up several inter-governmental commissions, one of which would deal with Ottoman-Armenian relations, including the issue of the Armenian Genocide.

Many Armenians both in Armenia and the Diaspora have serious problems with the apparent willingness of Armenian authorities to participate in a historical commission specifically devoted to the Genocide. Turkish officials have repeatedly stated that their intent in involving Armenians in a joint commission is to discourage other countries from adopting resolutions on the Armenian Genocide.

Another serious obstacle to Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is the Artsakh (Karabagh) conflict. For years, Ankara had made the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Artsakh a pre-condition for normalizing relations with Armenia.

Last week, the Presidents of Armenia and Turkey as well as the Foreign Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey were in New York to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations. While it is not known what the three Foreign Ministers discussed in their private meeting, one can gain an insight into their discussions from remarks delivered at the U.N. by Turkish, Armenian and Azeri officials.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul addressed the General Assembly on Sept. 23 and gave a glowing report on Turkey’s recent diplomatic initiatives. His aim was to lure U.N. members into supporting Turkey’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat at the Security Council next month, as well as facilitating his country’s eventual entry into the European Union. In contrast to previous U.N. appearances, when Armenian and Turkish officials would get involved in acrimonious debates, Pres. Gul concentrated on his visits in early September to Armenia and Azerbaijan and expressed the hope that frozen conflicts in the region, “including the occupied Nagorno Karabakh,” would be resolved, “on the basis of respect for the principle of territorial integrity.”

Pres. Serzh Sargsyan addressed the General Assembly two days later, recalling his invitation of Pres. Gul to Yerevan to watch with him a football match between the national teams of the two countries. Pres. Sargsyan stated that he was “pleased with the Turkish President’s bold decision to accept my invitation which made him the co-author of my ‘football diplomacy’ initiative.” The President also said, “I am confident that the time has come to solve Armenian-Turkish problems, and on that issue I observed a similar determination by Pres. Gul. I am convinced that it is necessary to move fast and resolutely in that direction.”

In contrast to his courteous words toward Pres. Gul, Mr. Sargsyan was very critical of Azerbaijan. He discussed at length the status of Artsakh and its right to self-determination, even independence. He castigated the 39 U.N. members who had voted earlier this year for a pro-Azerbaijan resolution on Artsakh which encouraged Azeri leaders to become more belligerent. Pres. Sargsyan concluded his statement by describing Armenians as “a people who had survived genocide.”

Interestingly, Pres. Sargsyan delivered his remarks in Armenian – a first in U.N. history. Despite his fluency in Russian, he chose to speak in Armenian, not one of the six international languages spoken at the U.N. Unfortunately, the circulated English text of the President’s remarks, while generally well translated by Armenian personnel, deviated occasionally from the Armenian original, altering the meaning of some of his words.

Two days later, the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, addressed the General Assembly and called for “the withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied lands and restoration of full sovereignty of Azerbaijan over these territories.” Devoting a major portion of his remarks to the Artsakh conflict, Mammadyarov praised the states that had sided with Azerbaijan in the earlier General Assembly vote.

It is abundantly clear that while Armenian and Turkish leaders are treating each other with courtesy and respect in their U.N. remarks -- indicating that they are making headway in their rapprochement, this does not seem to be the case between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The officials of the two countries used the U.N. podium to publicize their disagreements.

Since Turkey has made the resolution of the Artsakh conflict a pre-condition to normalizing relations with Armenia, it remains to be seen how the on-gong war of words between Armenia and Azerbaijan would impact the improvement of Armenian-Turkish relations.

Here is a possible scenario for regional developments in the upcoming weeks or months: After Turkey de-links the Artsakh conflict from Armenian-Turkish relations, it would open the border with Armenia and establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan. In return, Armenia would participate in a historical commission with Turkey and the government of Artsakh may make a face-saving gesture to Turkey and Azerbaijan by withdrawing from a small portion of the buffer zone that has no particular historic or strategic significance for Armenians. However, when Turks and Azeris realize that Armenians are unwilling to make further territorial concessions on Artsakh, Turkey could then break its newly established relations with Yerevan and once again close its border with Armenia.

It is difficult to predict if such a scenario would actually materialize. Would Turkey’s leaders be willing to place their country’s interests ahead of those of Azerbaijan? Would Armenians accept to withdraw from some of the buffer zones around Artsakh?

After the upcoming presidential elections in Azerbaijan and parliamentary elections in Turkey, it would be more apparent if the budding relationship between Armenia and Turkey survives the lack of progress in the resolution of the Artsakh conflict.