Strategy, politics, and opportunism

Themes behind Turkey’s surprise move on Armenia

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Friday September 04, 2009

Washington - Just days ago the Armenian-Turkish talks appeared at standstill. Even the customarily optimistic American diplomats were calling the process "frozen" and progress "not inevitable." The Economist cited a Western diplomat who said the effort was "on its last legs."

Armenian leaders, initially optimistic about the process, likewise became downbeat.

And Turkish leaders continued to link the establishment of relations with Armenia to a resolution of the Karabakh conflict, widely seen as a much more difficult dispute to resolve.

What then is behind the Turkish government's surprise decision to move ahead with the normalization process?

Three sets of reasons can be suggested.

Strategy

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – influenced by ideas of Ahmet Davutoglu, now the foreign minister – has made considerable progress in improving relations with Turkey's neighbors.

If in the past Turkey had problematic relations with nearly all countries adjacent to it, today ties have improved considerably with Greece, Iran, Russia, and Syria, and efforts are underway to engage the government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkish leaders believe that by having good relations with neighbors, Turkey frees itself from constraints that hinder the growth of its influence globally. Ankara has long wanted to evolve from the role of the Western outpost it was in the years of Cold War and the subsequent American confrontation with Iraq, or simply as a conduit for oil and gas transportation to Europe.

So far only Cyprus and Armenia relations remain problematic. If the Turkish occupation of Cyprus blocks Turkey's accession to the European Union, one-sided Turkish support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia provides an additional irritant to Turkey's relations with Russia, Europe, and the United States.

"There is a status quo in the Caucasus at the moment which is not useful any of the three countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey," Mr. Davutoglu told Today's Zaman on September 1. And Turkey will continue to challenge the status quo by engaging Armenia and championing the resolution of the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, he added.

But for Turkey the issues of Cyprus and Armenia are eclipsed by the magnitude of problems presented by the country's Kurdish population. As often happens, grand long-term visions can come into conflict with an immediate short-term necessity.

Politics

Nigar Goksel, a Turkish analyst of Armenia, points out that the publication of Armenia-Turkey protocols this October is likely to coincide with parliamentary consideration of the government's "democratization initiative" aimed at expanding rights for Turkey's Kurds.

The measure's critics claim it amounts to an amnesty for members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting a 30-year guerilla campaign against the Turkish government. The Turkish political opposition in turn sees the effort as the ruling party's grab for Kurdish votes.

"It is a tough time for the Turkish government to make an unexpectedly forthcoming step on [Armenia relations] now, given the amount of political capital the Kurdish initiative is using up," Ms. Goksel told the Armenian Reporter.

As part of political bargaining in parliament, it would not be unreasonable to expect Turkish leaders to use the Armenia protocols as a way to deflect opposition from the Kurdish initiative.

Even if the protocols are submitted for ratification, "ultimately there is no guarantee that the protocols will pass parliament," Ms. Goksel said, suggesting a scenario similar to the 2003 parliamentary vote that barred U.S. land forces from transiting Turkish territory in the war against Iraq.

As in the past, the opponents of ratification will likely cite the lack of progress in the Karabakh talks as justifying their opposition, she said. And the government will have other reasons for stalling on the vote.

Opportunism

Those other reasons have to do with Turkey's tactic of using the dialogue with Armenia as a shield against international campaigns for recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

The outright recognition of the Genocide by President Barack Obama would be a major blow to the Turkish government's prestige, leaving Mr. Erdogan vulnerable to his political opposition at home.

In the past U.S. leaders have also used the threat of genocide recognition to mobilize Turkish support for America's foreign policy initiatives. By holding talks with Armenia, Turkey is also trying to shield itself from reopening that vulnerability.

The first Armenian-Turkish announcement on the protocols was conveniently made two days before President Obama's first April 24 statement.

President Serge Sargsian's visit to Turkey at the time when Armenia-Turkey protocols are expected to be signed this October would be a good argument for opponents of the congressional resolution on Armenian Genocide.

At the same time, Turkish leaders would probably believe it in their interest to postpone parliamentary consideration of the protocols, citing a lack of progress in the Karabakh talks and a need to get the Kurdish initiative through the parliament first. Ratification could then be re-launched, say closer to the month of April.

And after April 24, 2010, is done with, what can prevent another postponement?

"This kind of delaying would clearly not be transparent conduct [by the Turkish government], if that is in fact the plan," said Ms. Goksel. And while it is hard to guess the plan and predict what the ultimate outcome will be "there are enough reasons to be suspicious."

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