By Hrach Melkumian
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reaffirmed preconditions for normalizing relations with Armenia, confounding expectations of the long-awaited reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border.
Still, some observers see steady progress in the hitherto unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to normalize relations between the two neighboring nations which were given a new impetus by the recent meeting between Foreign Ministers Abdullah Gul and Vartan Oskanian.
Speaking in the Turkish city of Kars, near the Armenian border, on Friday, Erdogan stopped short of announcing an imminent lifting of Turkey’s economic blockade imposed on Armenia in 1993, at the height of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. He reportedly indicated that Ankara will not reopen the border unless the Armenians stop their campaign for international recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
“Let us leave this issue to historians and deal with politics and turn this century into a century of peace, friendship,” the Yerevan daily “Azg” quoted him as saying.
The remarks came after behind-the-scenes contacts between senior government officials and prominent individuals from the two states, which began from the Gul-Oskanian meeting in Madrid earlier this month. The talks were followed by a meeting in Istanbul of the U.S.-sponsored Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) which reaffirmed its support for reopening the border without any preconditions.
One well-informed Armenian source told RFE/RL afterwards that Ankara is facing mounting U.S. pressure to open the border and might eventually agree to do that without establishing diplomatic relations with Yerevan. There was even speculation that the border’s reopening could be announced during Erdogan’s visit to Kars, which has a railway link with the Armenian city of Gyumri.
The Turkish premier, however, stuck to the policy pursued by his predecessors. But incidentally, he did not mention what has been the main Turkish precondition for the improved relations: a resolution of the Karabakh conflict in favor of Azerbaijan. The Armenian government, which has long complained that the bilateral relations have become “hostage” to the Turkish-Azeri alliance, should find this encouraging.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry reacted to Erdogan’s speech on Monday with a quite positive statement. “Armenia is ready to continue the ongoing dialogue and hopes that it will eventually lead to concrete steps,” the statement said.
According to Rober Hadeller, editor of Istanbul’s Armenian-language daily “Marmara,” solidarity with Azerbaijan still outweighs the need for better ties with Armenia in the eyes of most Turkish policy-makers. “I think that the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border will not be possible in the near future,” Hadeller told RFE/RL. “But what I find encouraging is that there is growing support [in Turkey] for opening the border as soon as possible.”
Another ethnic Armenian observer in Istanbul, Ara Gochunian of the “Zhamanak” daily, sounded even more optimistic. “The fact that the prime minister did not say anything radical should not be a cause for pessimism,” he said. “There has been obvious progress in the bilateral relations since the meeting between Foreign Ministers Gul and Oskanian.”
“It seems to me that that Turkey is not quite in a hurry to take certain steps,” Gochunian went on. “But the main thing is that [Turkish] public opinion is being prepared right now for improved relations with Armenia and that process is gaining momentum.”