Local Turkey watchers cautioned at the same time that the landmark development will not have an immediate impact on the Turkish government’s policy towards Armenia.
The AKP and its top leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, scored a crucial victory in the referendum on their package of sweeping amendments to the Turkish constitution adopted following a 1980 coup. The amendments will curtail the powers of Turkey’s powerful military and secularist state apparatus that has for decades supported it.
Turkish and Western observers believe that the vote result will also boost the AKP’s chances of winning a third term in power in the next parliamentary elections due in less than a year from now.
According to Ruben Melkonian, a Turkey specialist and senior professor at Yerevan State University, an AKP win in the 2011 polls could in turn embolden the Erdogan government to restart the dramatic rapprochement with Armenia, which ground to a halt last spring.
“If the ruling party wins the parliamentary elections and continues to rule, then Turkey-Armenia relations can be kick-started,” Melkonian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The alternative to the ruling party in Turkey is the Kemalists and nationalists, and they have a pronounced hostile attitude towards Armenia and the Armenians.”
Turkey -- Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses a news conference in Istanbul, 12Sep2010
“With this referendum, the Justice and Development Party strengthened its positions in Turkey,” agreed Artak Shakarian, another Armenian pundit specializing in Turkey. “If the party further consolidates its power in Turkey, then it could take some steps relating to the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.”
The Western-backed rapprochement began two years ago and culminated in the signing in October 2009 of Turkish-Armenian agreements to establish diplomatic relations and open the border between the two neighboring states. Ankara subsequently failed to ensure their ratification by the AKP-dominated Turkish parliament as it reverted to a long-standing linkage between the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations and a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan.
Yerevan responded by officially freezing Armenian parliamentary ratification of the two “protocols” in April. President Serzh Sarkisian was at the same time careful not to annul them altogether, leaving the door to renewed fence-mending talks with the Turks.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed this stance as “very statesmanlike” when she visited Yerevan in July. “And now the ball is in the other court,” Clinton said, urging Ankara to honor the normalization deal.
In Melkonian’s words, Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, another prominent AKP figure, have failed to do that because of what he described as “anti-Armenian sentiment” prevalent among the Turks. “The freezing of Turkish-Armenian relations in the run-up to the constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections somewhat fits into events taking places in Turkey’s internal political life,” he said. “When these events end in success for the AKP, it will kick-start contacts with Armenia with greater confidence.”
Shakarian sounded a more cautious note, saying that Erdogan plans to contest a presidential election due in 2012 and will continue to avoid fresh overtures to Armenia, for fear of a domestic nationalist backlash, until then. “Erdogan is still not confident about his election victory,” he told RFE/RL.