By Emil Danielyan
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev warned Turkey at the weekend against reopening its land border with Armenia before a resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The warning, issued during Guliev’s Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul’s visit to Baku, appeared to expose Azerbaijan’s unease over recent months’ attempts at the improvement of Turkish-Armenian relations, actively encouraged by the United States.
“If Turkey makes even a minor move towards Armenia, it may harm both Azerbaijan's and its own national interests,” Guliev told reporters. “Any move of this nature should be attentively examined, and we hope that in general, moves of this nature will not be made until the Karabakh conflict is settled.”
“Turkey and Armenia are independent states and are conducting their policies independently,” he said, according to an Azerbaijani TV report monitored by the BBC. “But naturally we have, so to speak, many expectations from Turkey because Turkey is a country that is giving much support to Azerbaijan with regard to the occupation that Azerbaijan has been suffering. That is why, we are naturally following Armenian-Turkish relations with special sensitiveness.”
Turkey closed its border with Armenia for travel and commerce at the height of the Karabakh war in 1993, making the lifting of the blockade conditional on the disputed region’s return under Azerbaijani rule. But Ankara’s decade-long linkage of bilateral ties with Yerevan to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict appears to have been weakened by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the course of last year.
The apparent policy change came to light during a series of face-to-face talks between Gul and Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. The most recent of their meetings took place in Brussels on December 5 and, according to Oskanian, saw further progress towards the normalization of bilateral relations. Armenian officials say Ankara is now considering a gradual reopening of the Armenian border that would not entail an immediate establishment of diplomatic ties.
Pressure on Ankara to soften its Armenian policy mainly comes from the U.S. government and domestic business circles that stand to gain from cross-border commerce with Armenia. Mehmet Cirav, head of the main business association in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, was quoted in the Turkish press as saying last month that the embargo should be scrapped “as soon as possible.” Cirav argued that an open border with Armenia would benefit the Turkish economy.
Support for improved relations is also strong among Armenia’s leading businessmen who view Turkey as a potential market for their goods and a cheaper transit route for import and export operations.
However, Azerbaijan fears that the lifting of the Turkish blockade would ease Armenia’s socioeconomic hardships and thereby strengthen its bargaining position in Karabakh peace talks. Guliev said he “always” brings up the issue at his meetings with Gul and other Turkish leaders.
Gul, meanwhile, was rather ambiguous on the subject during his trip to Baku. The Associated Press reported that he ruled out the border’s opening “for now,” while Turkish television quoted him as saying bluntly that such a move is “out of question” before a Karabakh settlement respecting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Gul at the same time made it clear that Turkey will maintain diplomatic and civil society contacts with Armenia, the absence of which he said was in the past exploited by unspecified “other countries.” He also called for a trilateral meeting on Karabakh between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Turkish ministers.
The Karabakh dispute was not among the preconditions for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement set by Erdogan in a speech last June. He instead demanded a halt to the continuing Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
That campaign achieved another success last December when the lower house of Switzerland’s parliament voted to recognize the slaughter of some 1.5 Armenians as genocide. Official Yerevan welcomed the resolution, while expressing hope that it will not damage its ongoing “dialogue” with Ankara.
The Turkish authorities strongly condemned Swiss vote in line with its long-running policy of genocide denial that has involved threats of economic sanctions against Western countries recognizing the Armenian tragedy.
That policy has been indirectly questioned by more than 500 Turkish intellectuals, among them scholars, artists, human rights activists and journalists. The French daily “Le Monde” reported on Thursday that in a joint statement they denounced the Turkish Education Ministry’s recent history guidelines for the country’s schools that defend the Ottoman rulers’ treatment of Armenians and other Christian minorities at beginning of the 20th century.
The guidelines require Turkish teachers to instruct students about the “unfounded claims of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians” regarding the bloody events of 1915. The signatories of the protest statement reject them as “racist” and “hate-provoking.”
“This decision by the Turkish authorities comes in a context marked by the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the French Parliament in January 2001 and the worldwide presentation of Atom Egoyan’s film ‘Ararat’ in 2002,” “Le Monde” wrote.