The Russian-Turkish Rapprochement Could Benefit Armenia

As Turkey edges closer to integration into the European Union, long-standing problems on its opposite frontier are holding the country back. In addition to Turkey's troubled history of violence against its Kurdish minority, Turkish relations with neighboring Armenia have been strained for decades. Turkey has refused to recognize the killing of many Armenians in 1915 as "genocide," providing a major sticking point in both Turkey's rapport with Armenia and Turkish attempts to cozy up to Europe. Yet a thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations may be imminent. In an unprecedented move, Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan allowed discussion of Armenia in recent summit meetings with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Both Russia and Turkey in their earlier imperial incarnations wielded much influence over Central Asia. The summit meetings mark rejuvenated and joint Russian-Turkish efforts to engage Central Asia both politically and economically. – YaleGlobal

The Russian-Turkish Rapprochement Could Benefit Armenia

Haroutiun Khachatrian
Thursday, February 3, 2005

Improving Russian-Turkish ties could benefit Armenia, as many experts and officials believe Moscow will place additional pressure on Ankara to lift a trade embargo and normalize relations with Yerevan. The Russian-Turkish rapprochement comes amid a growing US presence in the Caucasus, a region where both Russia and Turkey are considered regional superpowers and where both are eager to maintain their diplomatic and economic clout.

A visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey in December 2004 - the first ever by a Russian chief-of-state - intensified the diplomatic dialogue between the two states, which for decades had been sparring partners. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reciprocated the visit with an official trip to Moscow on January 10-12.

A sizeable increase in trade and business ties provided the backdrop for these summits - Erdogan has forecast that bilateral annual trade is expected to more than double by 2007 to $25 billion -- but the Turkish press has argued that the true significance of these meetings is political. "Turkish-Russian ties gain a political dimension", The Turkish Daily News wrote recently. During Erdogan's trip to Moscow, Putin spoke out in favor of developing economic ties with Turkish Cypriots, a sensitive foreign policy point for Ankara, and promised to act as a mediator to resolve disputes between Turkey and Armenia.

"We both agree that it is necessary to strive towards establishing friendly relations between neighbors," the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Putin as saying on January 11. "[Russia] will do everything possible to settle conflicts in the post-Soviet space . . . acting exclusively as a mediator and guarantor of future accords."

Watching from the sidelines, analysts in Yerevan see the improved ties with Moscow as a sign that Turkey wants to cut its own path in foreign affairs, independent of the views of Washington, a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and longtime military partner. Turkey's relations with both the United States and Israel, a key American ally, have been strained of late. Turkish leaders are concerned about the presence of US forces in Iraq, and, last year, expressed dissatisfaction with Tel Aviv's treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

"We know that our responsibilities are not just internal anymore but in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus and throughout the world," Erdogan said in his 2005 New Year's speech, the Turkish daily Zaman reported. "Being conscious of this responsibility, we will carry Turkey to a more active point."

Ruben Safrastian, head of the Turkey department at the Armenian National Academy of Science's Institute of Oriental Studies, argues that this "active point" means regaining influence over countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. That motivation parallels attempts by Russia to maintain its sway in countries, including Armenia, that were once part of the Soviet Union, he said. "Moscow is trying to use the privileges gained from high oil prices not only in the economic sphere, but also strategically. Thus, the two [regional] superpowers, dissatisfied with their role in the world, are trying to find a new place, a new niche," Safrastian said in a recent interview with the Russian news agency. Among the potential results of such an alliance: a Turkish partnership with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, (which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and joint Turkish-Russian reconstruction projects in post-war Iraq.

It is in the Caucasus that both countries will put their partnership to the test, observers believe. An Armenian diplomat, who asked not to be named, commented that US-Turkish relations started to worsen after Washington began training Georgian troops in 2002. Turkey, formerly Washington's partner for advancing Western interests in the region, is becoming a competitor with Washington for influence, the diplomat said. Although Turkey continues to train Georgian military officers, and handed over $2 million worth of military equipment in 2004, its programs pale in comparison with US training initiatives. Washington has set aside $15 million in 2005 alone for its ongoing Georgian military training program, and Georgia has responded in kind with a contribution of over 800 troops to the US Iraqi reconstruction effort.

Turkey is now looking to engage Russia diplomatically in order to check the growing US influence in the region, the diplomat said. Safrastian echoed this view, telling that "The Caucasus is no longer a source of discord for Russia and Turkey." According to this scenario, Russia's increased involvement in the economies of the south Caucasus countries would be reinforced by expanded trade with Turkey.

While Armenian media and political parties have paid relatively little attention to these events, the government has been watching closely. Although no Russia-facilitated breakthrough is in the works for Armenian-Turkish relations, the topic's presence on the Putin-Erdogan summit agendas was nevertheless considered by Armenian officials as unprecedented.

Accordingly, optimism in Yerevan for a breakthrough is on the increase. The Armenian diplomat said that the government sees the frequent meetings in 2004 between Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul as the basis for an Armenian-Turkish thaw. "They had very thorough discussions and discovered that the two countries can cooperate well in many areas," he said. "We believe that Turkey may initiate some steps to overcome the current deadlock."

Nonetheless, Yerevan is treading carefully. In a January 25 interview with the Turkish national daily Zaman, Oskanian said that he does not believe Russia's mediation will be decisive in resolving long-standing disputes between Turkey and Armenia. In this interview, apparently meant as a message to Turkey's political leadership following the Putin-Erdogan summits, Oskanian again dismissed the reasons usually cited for Ankara's unwillingness to normalize ties with Yerevan. The Armenian government, he said, does not insist that Turkey recognize the slaying of over a million Armenians in 1915 as genocide, nor is it considering claiming any territories or financial compensation from Turkey for lands lost after the border between the Soviet Union and Turkey was finalized in 1921. Oskanian's stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the primary reason for Turkey's decision to close its border with Armenia in 1993, was more prickly, however.

The conflict, Oskanian said, is not a relevant problem for Turkey. "Turkey cannot mediate because it is partial. Russia, for instance, has no preconditions and is neutral. Turkey frequently offers its help as a mediator, and we hold bilateral meetings. We are not against meetings, but don't accept [Turkey's] mediation."

Rather, the key to reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, the foreign minister said, would be a decision by Ankara to reopen Turkey's border with Armenia. "No one can insist that there can be normal relations between two countries if the border between them is closed. . . [W]e can't wait 10-15 years or longer, for Turkey to be accepted into the EU, for there to be some positive movement. We hope that very soon Turkey will open the border."

Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.

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