By Ruzanna Stepanian
A Turkish journalist writing for one of the world’s leading newsmagazines calls it unimaginable that any government in her country will reopen the land border with Armenia without “being able to report some progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.”
In an interview with RFE/RL Amberin Zaman, who is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and wife of US Charge d’Affaires in Armenia Joseph Pennington, said that in taking that step Turkey would need to tell the Turkish public and Azerbaijan that “this is helping move forward the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
“Because that’s indeed why the border was closed in the first place,” explains Zaman, who is also the columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Taraf and had worked for such leading newspapers and media organizations as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Voice of America, the Daily Telegraph, also covering as reporter the 1992-1994 war in Karabakh.
“But I think that the primary goal is to establish diplomatic ties and the fact that Armenia and Turkey will be talking officially and openly will certainly have an impact on helping serve Karabakh.”
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 out of solidarity with its Turkic ally Azerbaijan that was suffering military defeats from ethnic Armenians fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh for independence from Baku.
The unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute and the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide continue to be the main obstacles to the normalization of bilateral ties between the two neighboring states.
Still, Zaman points out the existing ties between Armenia and Turkey, including direct air links and the opportunity for Armenian ships to call at Turkish seaports. She says that unlike the opening of the whole land border, the reestablishment of the rail link does not appear that unimaginable given the recent war in Georgia.
“Turkey can say that it is reopening this rail in order to help send humanitarian supplies to help with the reconstruction of Georgia and indeed Azerbaijan too, because the disruption of rail links has had a very negative impact not only on Armenia, but also on Azerbaijan. So Turkey can step in and say it is doing it for regional peace. So that would not be unimaginable,” Zaman says.
“As for opening the land border, I don’t see that happening in the immediate future. And I think there has to be some give on Karabakh before that happens.”
Overall, the Turkish journalist believes that both Armenia and Turkey have every reason to be “extremely optimistic about the way things are going.”
She describes the recent visit of the Turkish leader to Armenia as “a historical moment” in relations between the two countries.
“I believe that the visit went extremely smoothly. I had the opportunity to actually see both presidents during halftime. They seemed incredibly relaxed, very happy, they sounded extremely cordial and the messages that we heard after the match from both sides were extremely positive,” Zaman says.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Yerevan on September 6 at his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian’s invitation to watch a World Cup qualifier between the two countries’ national football teams. The visit was taken as a significant step towards the normalization of historically strained Armenian-Turkish relations.
“There was a lot of risk taking on both sides,” says Zaman, praising both leaders for “courageous decisions”.
“I think it was an extremely courageous decision on the part of President Sarkisian to extend this hand of friendship. It was politically risky given the domestic political situation here [in Armenia]. And certainly [it was] quite risky for Abdullah Gul too, because he wasn’t quite sure what he’d face in Armenia.”
While acknowledging how important the genocide issue is viewed by Armenians, Zaman also thinks that “there will be so much else that will be discussed that people will stop focusing on this issue.”
“It is because we haven’t been talking that the conversation has been dominated by the genocide issue,” she says.
“I think that Turkish people deep down know that some terrible things happened in their country to the Armenian people who were part of our country, who were sons of our soil, just as we are, and I think there is this recognition that it’s time to heal the wounds of the past.”