Ramifications of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement
Vahan Dilanyan

The Russian-Georgian war of last August and the global financial crisis are among the forces that have brought about essential changes in the political situation in the Caucasus. Propelled by changes on the ground, and new Washington policies under the Obama Administration, relations between Turkey and Armenia are improving, and presage a new era of economic cooperation in the region.

Before now, all the energy programs in the region have by-passed Armenia, because of hostile relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, on one hand, and Armenia, on the other. But during the war last August, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines suddenly appeared vulnerable.

Given the threat of war to energy supplies that are critical to Turkey and other countries in the West, Turkish and Armenian leaders took historic and courageous steps towards reconciliation of their frozen relations of the past 15 years, ever since Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 after Armenia won the fight against Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey backed Azerbaijan.

Turkey has demanded, as pre-conditions for opening the border, that Armenia withdraw all its troops from Nagorno Karabakh and give up its claim that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Armenian citizens in 1915. Armenia has called for opening the border and the establishment of diplomatic relations "without any preconditions."

Turkey and Armenia intensified their negotiations in August 2007 with diplomats regularly meeting in Geneva to discuss the issues related to reconciliation. With the added impetus of the August 2008 war, Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visited Yerevan in September last year, to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match, and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian met Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan in January 2009 during the World Economic Forum in Davos. The next meeting of the Armenian and Turkish presidents, in Prague on May 8, 2009 saw the “verification of common wishes.” President Sarkisian told reporters at the time, “We agreed to respect the agreement reached.” 

Since mid 1990s US has worked intensively on establishing a dialogue between Turks and Armenians through meetings among civil society actors. Both nations have entertained high hopes that President Barack Obama will bring a new urgency to improving Turkish-Armenian relations and stability in the Caucasus as a whole.

On his early April visit to Ankara, President Obama made it clear that Washington fully supports dialogue between Ankara and Yerevan. He told the Turkish Parliament: “An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. That is why the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.”

On April 22 Turkey and Armenia, together with Swiss mediators, signed a joint statement saying: “The two parties have achieved tangible progress and mutual understanding in this process and have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner.” In effect, the two sides agreed to a road map for normalizing relations.

On April 24 Obama tried to please all sides by uttering the Armenian term “Medz Yeghern”, meaning “great calamity”, while praising Turkey and Armenia for their peacemaking efforts. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet opined that Turkey signed the agreement under US pressure to avoid from the Obama’s possible use of the term “Genocide”.

The US State Department welcomed the agreement. "It has long been and remains the position of the United States that normalization should take place without preconditions and within a reasonable timeframe," said spokesman Robert Wood.

The “road-map” agreement clearly represents an achievement of Obama’s policy in the Caucasus. It essentially reaffirms the traditional American position in support of Turkish-Armenian dialogue, and balances the recent Russian influence over the process. 

Not surprisingly, Baku is not pleased with the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, since the road map does not specifically address the Nagorno-Karabakh issues. However, the Obama Administration sees the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, and the opening of their border, as a critical step in establishing trust in the region.

The "positive mood" created by the Turkish-Armenian roadmap, "gives a new energy to accelerate our work to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," said Matthew Bryza, US Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group.

Good Turkish-Armenian relations will also bring the United States and Russia closer in the Caucasus. Armenia is the only nation in the region with Russian troops, while Turkey is an ally of the United States as a fellow member of NATO. After the border is opened and diplomatic relations established, there will be no need for a continued presence of Russian troops in Armenia.

The effect will be to help NATO’s enlargement in the East, with Turkey as the key player in the Caucasus. And, given Armenia’s friendly relations with Iran, improved Turkish-Armenian relations could benefit the West’s relations with Iran.

Turkey imports 65 percent of its natural gas and 25 percent of its oil from Russia. Seventy percent of Armenia's energy sector is owned by Russians, and Armenia’s railroads belong to Russian Railways. These facts create obstacles to Armenia’s complete integration with the West through Turkey. However, the re-opening of Kars-Gyumri rail-road, which could be one of the 1st steps of the road-map, is welcomed by Russia as well.

Moscow now supports the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, even though it has always been worried about losing control of the Caucasus if Armenia integrates with Turkey. The August war cut some of Russia’s traditional access to the South. Now it needs to establish alternative access through Armenia and Turkey, while trying to isolate Georgia.

Moscow’s willingness to buy Azerbaijan’s gas, which is expected to become one of the main suppliers for the Nabucco pipeline, and its intention to realize the Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran railroad, is in line with this strategy as well. 

If Turkey manages to stabilize good relations with Armenia, new routes for natural gas to Europe could open up in the future, decreasing Russian leverage against Europe. 

Vahan Dilanyan is Chairman of the Political Developments Research Center, in Yerevan, Armenia. http://vahand.wordpress.com/