Sunday, January 24, 2010

Things Fall Apart

Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu in Zurich in October. PHOTO from Hürriyet

As the chances for ratification of two protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia crumble, the future of the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia looks quite dim. The protocols were signed it Zurich in October, where both countries agreed to normalize diplomatic and bilateral relations, including opening the border and setting up numerous subcommissions, the most important of which would look at the "historical dimensions" betweent the two countries. However, Turkey has since made Turkish ratification contingent upon resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict despite making it clear in Zurich that ratification of the protocols would not be contingent on settling the rather intractable conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Erdogan has also stated that Armenia should remove its troops from the 13 percent of the territory it occupies inside Azerbaijan before borders are opened.


Turkey's position changed as its relations with Azerbaijan grew increasingly endangered after Zurich. Azerbaijan fears Turkey will sell it out on Nagorno-Karabakh, and opposes any Turkish rapprochement with Armenia before the conflict between it and Armenia is resolved. Armenians in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan revolted in 1993 with the assistance of Armenia, shortly after which Armenia essentially occupied. Following Armenia's invasion, Ankara broke off diplomatic relations with Yerevan and sealed the border. In addition to Armenia's campaign for genocide recognition, Nagorno-Karabakh has long been at the heart of tensions between it and Turkey.

Tensions with Azerbaijan had been high since the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement commenced in fall 2008, reaching a boiling point soon Zurich when President Gul appeared alongside Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan at a football game in Bursa. For public relations purposes, Turkish fans were prevented from entering the stadium with Azeri flags to protest the recent accords. Images of Turkish soldiers confiscating the flags in a none too delicate manner were aired on Azeri television, and a diplomatic splat soon blew up between Turkey and Azerbaijan, long considered "two states, but one nation." Soon after, Azerbaijan removad Turkish flags at a monument honoring Turkish soldiers who had died in Azerbaijan's 1918 independence war. In addition to fears surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan resents the price it receives for the natural gas sold to Turkey. The two countries remain in protracted negotiations over the issue.

The Turks are not without fears of their own. They fear increased ties between Russia and Azerbaijan, which include a recently signed major energy agreement providing or the sale of Azeri gas to Russia. Turkey needs Azeri gas in order to complete its plans for the Nabucco pipeline, and the more gas sold to Russia means the less gas for Turkey. Even worse would be a pipelines connecting Azeri gas to Russian supply routes, which Azerbaijan has used well to help terrify Turkey into submission. Russia has not proved instrumental to the peace process to the extent that it has done little to quell these fears, signing the energy accord in the heat of Turkey-Azerbaijan tensions.

All of this has led Turkey to look for the fastest exit route. Having introduced the Protcols to Parliament, Erdogan has declared his part done. Though Turkey stated at Zurich it could not guarantee ratification, the new conditions make it virtually impossible. Also important to note, Erdogan's ruling AKP controls a majority that could easily pave the way for ratification should the government be so

Fighting Over History

At the same time, Turkey and Armenia have very different visions of what a historical commission would look like: the Turks see it as an opportunity to open up discussion on the killing and insert more context into a debate of historical events that for many Armenians is shortly and simply understood as a state-planned campaign to exterminate them; meanwhile, the Armenians envision the commission as discussing relations post-1915. Concerns that discussion in such a commission would compromise the Armenian government's campaign for international recognition of the 1915 killings as genocide -- and, just as importantly, that of the Armenian diaspora -- have led to massive nationalist opposition in Armenia -- in which President Sargsyan's ruling party is less well-positioned than his Turkish counterpart. The nationalist opposition to the protocols has been tremendous, and drawn protests from the diaspora cross the world, most significantly in the United States.

Also disputed is the Turkish-Armenian border, premised on the 1921 Treaty of Kars. Armenian nationalists do not accept and bitterly resent the treaty, which was signed under pressure from the Russian government; the Armenian government, for its part, has never explicitly recognized the border.

Decision Time in Armenia

Turkey's exit strategy came on Jan. 13 when Armenia's Constitutional Court heard a challenge to the constitutionality of the protocols. While the Court affirmed them as legal, it seemed to place two important conditions on their implementation. The first of these involved the historical commission, which the Court ruled must not contradict Armenia's Declaration of Independence, which states that Armenia remain committed to its international genocide recognition campaign. The second involves a part of the Court's opinion that declares relations between the two countries must remain solely bilateral and not involve a third party. This would rule out Turkey's post-agreement demand that Nagorno-Karabakh be made part of the process.

Turkish nationalist opposition turned the court decision into political fodder. Soon after the Constitutional Court decision, the Turkish Ministry issued a statement declaring the conditions it establishes unacceptable. Perhaps more damaging is the Foreign Ministry's declaration of its sincerity as opposed to that of Armenia, Erdogan declaring that Turkey did not put the Protocols before its Constitutional Court. However, Erdogan clearly ignored that the Armenian government in power was not responsible for the constitutional challenge. Turkey, on the other hand, had said the protocols would not be conditional on Nagorno-Karabakh.

As of now, the future of the protocols appear dead in the water. Turkish experts have talked about trying to get Russia to pressure the Armenians, but as the International Crisis Group's Sabine Frazier lays out, the ball seems in Turkey's court. Should Armenia play its cards right, it could still pass the Protocols regardless of the conditions placed on them by its Constitutional Court. Since no specifics on the historical commission were ever determined and Nagorno-Karabakh intentionally not addressed, it will be hard for Turkey to cry foul, instead looking like the recalcitrant one at the end of the day. Such an appearance would make Turkey the diplomatic loser of a peace process some international observers could well say Turkish leaders were never serious about to begin with. Given that Turkey's problems with Azerbaijan are significant, and not unforeseeable, the real question seems to be why the Turkish government even initiated the process.

For a wonderful analysis of the issues at the heart of the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, including the benefits for both countries, see the Balkans Project's excellent October interview with Nigar Goksel. Goksel also had an excellent interview with the Armenian Reporter in June where she elucidates conflict resoluton efforts at the societal level. For a more comprehensive history of the conflcit as it stood before the August and October agreements, see also the International Crisis Group's April 2009 briefing of Turkey-Armenia relations. And, not to overwhelm with links, but for a commentary by a Turk who is supportive of the process, but critical of Erdogan's charges of Armenian insincerity, see Milliyet columnist Semih Idiz's recent column.

UPDATE I (1/27) -- Responding to the Armenian Constitutional Court's decision, U.S Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon averred that the Court's decision does not place conditions on the Protocols as asserted by Prime Minister Erdogan and the Turkish Foreign Ministry. In a clarification of Gordon's remarks, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley echoed Gordon's remarks, confirming they were on the record and that the United States views the Court's decision as an advancement of Armenia's ratification of the Protocols, which will now be submitted to the Armenian Parliament for a vote.

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