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By Armen Zakarian
President Robert Kocharian supports the long-awaited reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border but doubts that Ankara will agree to expedite that soon, his spokesman said on Tuesday.

“We assess positively the opening of the border but are at the same time skeptical,” the presidential press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, told reporters, commenting on recent months’ speculation about an imminent change in the Turkish government’s Armenian policy.

The official echoed last week’s comments by Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian who said that talk of the impending lifting of Turkey’s decade-long economic blockade of Armenia has been “extremely exaggerated.” Oskanian said his meeting in New York with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, scheduled for Thursday, will clarify the situation.

Spokesman Kocharian likewise indicated that the talks might prove important for the future of the strained Turkish-Armenian relations that remain a serious factor of instability in the region. “Let us wait until the September 25 meeting. Maybe there will be new developments after it,” he said.

The first Oskanian-Gul meeting, held last May, fueled speculation about a softening of the long-running Turkish policy of linking normalization of relations with Armenia to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Successive Turkish governments have followed that line out of solidarity with Azerbaijan, resisting U.S. pressure to lift the embargo without any preconditions. Some Armenian sources claimed that Ankara might agree to reopen the border for commerce this year without establishing diplomatic ties with Yerevan.

But earlier this month, Gul assured his Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Guliev, that the border’s opening, advocated by Turkish and Armenian business circles, is “not on the agenda” of his government.

Observers believe that progress in the stalled Karabakh peace talks would brighten prospects for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that has long been sought by the United States. U.S., Russian and French negotiators spearheading the conflict’s international mediation are expected to launch a new peace initiative after the October 15 presidential election in Azerbaijan. The vote will almost certainly complete the transfer of power from Azerbaijan’s ailing President Heydar Aliev to his son, Prime Minister Ilham Aliev.

“We should wait for the end of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan,” Ashot Kocharian said when asked whether the Armenian president plans face-to-face talks with the younger Aliev. “There will be new proposals, new visits, and the format [of the negotiations] will be clarified.”

Kocharian declined to comment on which Azerbaijani presidential candidate is more preferable for Armenia, saying that that the ballot is Azerbaijan’s internal affair. Other Armenian officials, though, have said privately that Yerevan is interested in Ilham’s smooth electoral victory.
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