An omission from Armenia's draft 2005 budget has touched off speculation that a rapprochement with Turkey may be in the offing. The missing line item concerns Yerevan's long-standing effort to win international recognition for what Armenian officials portray as the genocide of 1915-16. Some observers interpret the dropped genocide reference as an effort to extend an olive branch to Turkey.
Even if the interpretation accurately reflects Yerevan's intention, both Armenian and Turkish officials indicate that they will proceed with extreme caution in trying to end decades of mutual hostility. At the same time, regional analysts say both states have powerful economic and political incentives to explore ways to normalize bilateral relations. The normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations has the potential to create a new geopolitical order in the Caucasus.
After details of the Armenian draft budget became public, Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets in early November went into a frenzy of conjecture on the implications of the genocide-recognition omission. Armenian officials moved quickly to squash speculation that Yerevan was substantially changing its position.
Yerevan contends that Ottoman Turkish forces systematically killed ethnic Armenians in 1915-16. According to some Armenian estimates up to 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Armenians then living in the Ottoman Empire died during this timeframe. Ankara has recognized that Armenians died en masse, but says Yerevan overstates the number of victims. In addition, Turkish officials steadfastly deny that the deaths were the result of a coordinated government policy, and, thus, the tragedy cannot be considered as a case of genocide as defined by the 1948 Genocide Convention. Contemporary Turkish officials note that the deaths occurred during World War I, adding that Armenians were caught in the middle of the bitter fight going on at that time in the Caucasus between Ottoman Turkish forces and Russian troops.
On November 9, the Arminfo news agency quoted Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gamlet Gasparian as insisting Yerevan's stance on the genocide issue had not changed. "The issue of international recognition of the Armenian genocide does not concern only Armenia and the Armenians; this is a universal issue and cannot be lessened to the limits of any budget or similar financial documents," Gasparian said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded the next day, adopting a wait-and-see stance. ""Except for the news reports, we have not received any official information about such a change in Armenia's [genocide-recognition] stance," the Anatolia news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan as saying.
Turkish officials say the genocide issue is just one of several obstacles blocking the normalization of bilateral relations. Other issues, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, also must be addressed before Ankara can fully repair its relationship with Yerevan, they add. Turkey has staunchly backed Azerbaijan during the stalemated search for a Karabakh peace settlement. Ankara, for example, is maintaining a trade embargo on Armenia until Armenian forces withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territory situated outside Karabakh proper. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Another factor influencing the normalization question is Turkey's bid the join the European Union. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Representatives of the Armenian Diaspora in France are reportedly putting pressure on the French government to withhold its approval for Turkish membership in the EU until Ankara addresses Yerevan's genocide claim.
While the obstacles to normalization appear formidable, regional economic circumstances are exerting strong pressure on all parties involved to compromise. For Turkey and Azerbaijan, a Karabakh peace settlement would boost the profit potential of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is scheduled to start conveying natural resources from the Caspian Basin to Western markets in 2005. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia also would reassure EU member states as they contemplate Ankara's entry into the organization.
The pressure on Armenia to alter the status quo may even be stronger. Some analysts believe it is in Armenia's vital economic interest to secure the lifting of Turkey's embargo, thus opening up avenues for trade needed to fuel continued Armenian development. Other observers point out that normalization of ties with Turkey would aid Armenia's effort to improve relations with NATO and, in a broader sense, the West. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Armenia's draft 2005 budget contained language urging the government to take action to improve ties with Georgia, Iran and Turkey, Arminfo reported. Thus, the omission of the genocide reference in the same document may well represent the start of a process by Armenia to search for common ground with Turkey.
Many policy-makers and opinion-makers in Turkey remain skeptical over whether the genocide-recognition omission in the Armenian budget represents an initiative to engage Turkey on the issue. The general consensus appears to be that Turkish leaders should wait and see if Yerevan takes any follow-up action before buying into the notion that Armenia is truly open to altering its stance on the genocide issue.
If a rapprochement eventually comes about, the geopolitical landscape in the Caucasus could be significantly altered. Armenia has traditionally been Russia's strongest ally in the Caucasus. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties, which would presumably accompany a Karabakh peace settlement, could prompt Armenia to reorient Armenian political and economic policies towards the West, or, at the very least, weaken the special relationship now binding Yerevan to Moscow.
The potential ramifications of the genocide-recognition omission do not seem to have been lost on Russia, which, in recent months, has expressed displeasure in various ways over Armenian diplomatic efforts to balance Yerevan's relations with Moscow with improved ties with the West. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During a public appearance November 10, the Russian ambassador to Armenia, Anatoly Dryukov, appeared to discourage Armenia from getting too close to the West.
Referring to the recent efforts to by Armenian leaders to cultivate better ties to the West, Dryukov said: "If Armenia prioritizes its national interests, then the vector of relations [i.e. Armenia's special relationship with Russia] will remain correct," the Mediamax news agency reported.
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.