Turkey is sponsoring additional Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in an apparent effort to hasten the normalization of its historically strained ties with Armenia.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan sat down with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in New York on September 26 as Ankara sought to keep up the momentum in its unprecedented rapprochement with Yerevan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The trilateral meeting came amid signs that the United States and other international mediators will make another attempt to hammer out a framework peace accord on Karabakh before the end of this year.
Babacan and Foreign Ministers Eduard Nalbandian of Armenia and Elmar Mammadyarov of Azerbaijan disclosed few details about their discussions, telling journalists only that they focused on a Turkish proposal to create a new regional organization that would include the three South Caucasus states as well as Russia and Turkey. "We discussed the Caucasus Cooperation and Stability Platform, an initiative proposed by Turkey, and started negotiating on some concrete regional issues during today's meeting," Babacan said in remarks broadcast by Armenian state television. He said Nalbandian and Mammadyarov reaffirmed their countries' support for the platform and asked the Turkish side to initiate more tripartite talks.
The three ministers' meeting, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, is widely linked to a dramatic thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations that culminated in Turkish President Abdullah Gul's historic September 6 visit to Yerevan. His talks there with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan raised hopes for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the border between the two neighboring states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Turkey has long made the normalization of relations with Armenia conditional on a resolution of the Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan, a country with which it has a close ethnic and cultural affinity.
The Turkish-Armenian "football diplomacy" raised fears in Azerbaijan that Ankara might soon drop this precondition in return for Armenian concessions on other issues. Gul clearly sought to allay these fears when he flew to Baku just days after his trip to Yerevan. Both he and other Turkish officials stressed the importance of a Karabakh settlement for Turkish-Armenian dialogue. "These two processes have a mutually reinforcing character - any positive development on one would significantly have a stimulating effect on the other," Babacan wrote in a commentary published by the International Herald Tribune on September 23.
"It will be much easier for the Turks to move forward with Armenia if there is progress on Nagorno-Karabakh," one well-informed Western observer dealing with Turkey and the region told EurasiaNet. Just how they hope to help achieve a breakthrough in the long-running Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks is not clear.
While the Armenian leadership continues to believe that Turkey is inherently unfit to act as an impartial Karabakh mediator, it does not object to some kind of a Turkish involvement in the peace process. In a September 24 speech, Sargsyan stressed that the Turks can only "assist" in that process by creating a "positive atmosphere" for US, Russian and French mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are understood to have already agreed on most of the basic principles of Karabakh peace that were formally put forward by the mediators in November 2007. The framework peace accord envisages a gradual settlement of the bitter conflict that would let Karabakh's predominantly Armenian population to determine the disputed territory's status in a future referendum.
At the start of 2008, US officials involved in the peace process were optimistic that the conflicting parties could bridge their few remaining differences and conclude a peace deal by the end of the year. The ensuing political turmoil in Armenia, along with a toughening of the rhetoric coming out of Baku, seemed to dash those early hopes. Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and his new Armenian counterpart, Sargsyan, re-energized the talks when they held their first face-to-face meeting in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, in June.
Russia's war with Georgia appears to have heightened the Western and possibly Russian mediators' sense of urgency. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, Washington's top Karabakh negotiator, indicated during a recent visit to the conflict zone that the outgoing US administration will step up its efforts to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute in the coming weeks. "The recent events in Georgia underscore the importance of a timely resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," Bryza told a news conference in Baku on September 18.
Bryza and the French and Russian diplomats co-chairing the Minsk Group are now pushing for another meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Nalbandian and Mammadyarov discussed the possibility of such a meeting during their separate talks in the mediators' presence in New York earlier on September 26. Speaking to journalists after his September 16 talks in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Aliyev said there is now "a good basis" for ending the Karabakh conflict.
Gul similarly spoke of his "feelings of great content and optimism" as he returned to Ankara from Baku on September 11. Armenia and Azerbaijan both have "an honest and sincere desire for a settlement," he said, according to the Anatolia news agency. Writing in the Turkish Daily News on September 25, Cengiz Candar, a veteran Turkish columnist, said Ankara expects an Armenian-Azerbaijani deal to be cut shortly after the October 15 presidential election in Azerbaijan, which the incumbent Aliyev is widely expected to win. "Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia will be formed concurrently, and the sides will announce the opening of borders," he said.
What the Turkish government will do if the Karabakh conflict remains unresolved is an open question. Ankara and Yerevan are reportedly close to overcoming another Turkish precondition for normalizing bilateral ties: an end to the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the World War One-era massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The Sargsyan administration seems ready to accept a Turkish proposal to form a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians that would jointly study the mass killings and deportations.
Many in Armenia and especially its worldwide Diaspora oppose such a study, saying that it would call into question the very fact of what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. They also view the Turkish proposal as a ploy designed to scuttle the genocide's recognition by more foreign nation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Sargsyan appeared to dismiss such concerns as he addressed hundreds of influential members of the Armenian-American community in New York on September 24. "We must talk about all topics," he said. "Only those people who have nothing to say and suffer from complexes avoid contacts, conversations."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.