By Emil Danielyan and Armen Koloyan in Prague
Senior diplomats from Armenia and Turkey have held more confidential negotiations in an effort to deepen an unprecedented thaw in the historically strained relations between their nations that was underscored by Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s recent visit to Yerevan.
Reports in the Turkish media have said that the talks took place in Switzerland early last week and centered on a joint Turkish-Armenian declaration that could be issued after the upcoming meeting in New York between the two countries’ foreign ministers.
According to the “Hurriyet” daily, the Turkish side was represented by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ertugrul Apakan and his deputy Unal Cevikoz. Diplomatic sources in Yerevan confirmed the information, telling RFE/RL that the Armenian delegation was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Kirakosian.
Armenian and his Turkish diplomats already held similar talks in Geneva in July and May, setting the stage for Gul’s historic September 6 trip to Yerevan. Gul and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian sounded unusually optimistic about the future of bilateral ties after their face-to-face talks in the Armenian capital.
“There have always been contacts between Armenian and Turkish diplomats and there is nothing extraordinary about those meetings,” Nalbandian said on Friday, commenting on the latest Turkish press reports. He also did not deny that the two sides are working on a joint declaration that would mark a further step towards the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
The declaration is expected to be high on the agenda of Nalbandian’s meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul scheduled for Thursday. The meeting will take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Citing a government source in Ankara, the “Turkish Daily News” reported on Monday that the document will underline the two governments’ stated commitment to a rapprochement and call for the creation of Turkish-Armenian commissions dealing with economic and other issues of mutual interest. The paper said one of the planned committees would be made up of historians tasked with studying the “common history” of the two nations and, in particular, the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
Ankara has for years been pushing for a Turkish-Armenian study that would determine whether the massacres constituted a genocide. Yerevan opposed the idea until recently, saying that the Armenian genocide is fact recognized by historians and governments.
In an interview with the Turkish daily “Milliyet” published on Sunday, Sarkisian reiterated that he is not against the Turkish proposal in principle, but said the commission of historians should be set up only after Turkey agrees to establish diplomatic relations and open the border with Armenia.
“I have said that before setting up any committee it would be better to establish diplomatic relations and open the border,” he said. “And then we can establish different committees and sub-committees on every issue.”
Sarkisian also made clear that the would-be commission’s findings and recommendations must not be binding for Armenia. “A group of academicians and historians will sit down and say something,” he said. “Suppose I recognize their decision. What if my successor comes up and says ‘I don't'?’
“In other words, the decision of this committee can not be binding. It can only be a recommendation for governments and decision-makers.”
The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh is another, arguably more serious obstacle to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, with Turkey anxious not to upset Azerbaijan, it close Turkic ally. Just days after his Yerevan trip Gul traveled to Baku to allay Azerbaijani leaders’ apparent fears about a possible softening of his country’s policy on Armenia. Ankara has also initiated a trilateral meeting in New York this week of Babacan, Nalbandian and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
“The government of Armenia has started to much better understand just how important the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is to Turkey,” Babacan told the Azerbaijani APA news agency on Wednesday. He would not say if a Karabakh settlement remains a precondition for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.
For his part, Nalbandian sought to dispel domestic concerns about Turkey’s involvement in the Karabakh peace process that has long been spearheaded by the United States, Russia and France. “Negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict are continuing within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group and on the basis of proposals made by its [U.S., Russian and French] co-chairs,” he said.