Amid mounting pressure from Azerbaijan, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has again made the normalization of his country’s relations with Armenia conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Baku.
"The Azerbaijan-Armenian dispute should be resolved first. Then, problems between Turkey and Armenia can be solved, too," Erdogan told a news conference late on Wednesday.
"We hope the U.N. Security Council takes a decision naming Armenia as occupier in Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for a withdrawal from the region. This is a process the Minsk Group... could not succeed in for 17 years. We hope this trio will accomplish that," he said, according to Reuters news agency.
A Karabakh settlement was until recently Turkey’s main precondition for establishing diplomatic relations and reopening its border with Armenia which it had closed in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan. The Turkish government appeared ready to drop that linkage when it embarked on an unprecedented dialogue with Yerevan last year.
After months of intensive negotiations the two sides have come close to normalizing bilateral ties. Recent reports in the Turkish and Western press said a relevant Turkish-Armenian agreement could be signed this month.
However, Erdogan poured cold water on those reports late last week when he stated that Turkey can not reach a “healthy solution concerning Armenia” as long as the Karabakh dispute remains unresolved. Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian denounced the statement as an attempt to scuttle the Turkish-Armenian dialogue. It is not clear if Nalbandian raised the matter with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan when he visited Istanbul earlier this week.
The two ministers held a brief meeting there with U.S. President Barack Obama, who publicly made a case for improved relations between the two neighbors during a two-day visit to Turkey. Obama also stressed the importance of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, a major U.S. policy goal in the region, in an ensuing phone conversation with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev.
Senior Azerbaijani officials have expressed serious concern at the possible breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian ties, saying that it would weaken Baku’s position in the Karabakh conflict. “It would be painfully damaging to the Turkey-Azerbaijan brotherhood and to the ideas of Turkic solidarity,” the political parties represented in Azerbaijan’s parliament said this week in a statement reported by the APA news agency.
“With its policy [Turkey’s governing] Justice and Development Party is stabbing Azerbaijan in the back,” Vahid Ahmedov, a pro-government member of the parliament, was reported to say on Wednesday.
The Turkish newspaper “Today’s Zaman” reported on Thursday that Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul will visit Baku soon to discuss the Azerbaijani concerns with Aliev. Citing an unnamed Turkish government official, the paper said that the Turkish-Armenian border will likely remain closed at least until October. “Ankara will use the time until November to ease Azerbaijan's concerns,” it said.
In Armenia, meanwhile, there are growing calls for official Yerevan to halt negotiations with Ankara if they do not lead to an agreement soon. “If Turkey suddenly succumbs to Azerbaijan’s threats and these negotiations yield no results soon, then I think the Armenian side will not carry on with them,” Giro Manoyan, a senior member of the influential Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), told reporters on Wednesday. “The negotiations can be deemed failed if they don’t produce quick results.”
Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian took a similar view in an interview with RFE/RL earlier this week. “I believe the ball is on the Turkish court today,” he said. “Turkey should overcome its dilemma and open the border. Or else, Armenia should call a halt to this process.”