Last week's announcement by Turkey and Armenia that they have agreed on a set of protocols that will lead towards the normalization of their relations and the opening of their borders was certainly welcome news. A previous breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian reconciliation -- last April's vague declaration that the two countries had agreed on a "roadmap" for restoring relations -- quickly fizzled out when Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that there would be no progress on the Armenian front until the "full liberation" of the Azeri territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, occupied by Armenian forces since 1993.
What's different this time around is the release of the detailed protocols, which offer a clear path towards the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border and renewal of diplomatic ties between Ankara and Yerevan. But has Turkey really changed its position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue? Will the Turkish parliament, which must ratify the protocols for them to take effect (as does Armenia's), support the move without any concrete action on the Nagorno-Karabakh front? From an analysis piece I have up on the Eurasianet website:
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is a complicating factor for the ratification of the protocols. Turkey is Azerbaijan’s strongest ally, and Ankara imposed its economic blockade on Armenia in 1993 to support Baku’s efforts to retain control over Karabakh. Currently, Armenian forces control Karabakh, along with large areas of Azerbaijan proper that surround the enclave.
The timing of the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani lands is one of the primary sticking points in the Karabakh peace process.
The announcement last April of the existence of a "roadmap" to renew ties between Turkey and Armenia led to a strong backlash from Baku, and to what seemed like a stepping back from the deal on Ankara’s part.
During a May 14 address to the Azerbaijani parliament, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared "that the border between Turkey and Armenia will be open only after the full liberation of Azerbaijani occupied territories."
Although the recently released protocols make no mention of a linkage between the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties and the Karabakh peace process, "there’s no doubt that the Karabakh issue looms over this reconciliation process," says Kiniklioglu.
"If there is no movement on Nagorno-Karabakh, it will be up to the Turkish parliament to assess the situation and judge accordingly."
Observers believe the Turkish government is now counting on international pressure to increase on Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach some kind of agreement regarding the disputed territory. Although the AKP has a majority in parliament, many observers believe that it will be difficult to ratify the protocols without any movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh front.
"Erdogan obviously feels that Turkey wants to see something on Nagorno-Karabakh before they can take it to parliament. The problem is [that the protocols are] in Turkey’s interest, even if nothing happens on Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey’s overwhelming national interest is in putting this Armenian problem behind it," says Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Over at Today's Zaman, the Brookings Institute's Omer Taspinar also takes a look at last week's announcement, saying it might be a bit to early to break out a bottle of "nice Caucasian champagne to celebrate." The protocols being ratified by both the Turkish and Armenian parliaments is a big "if," Taspinar says. Reminding readers that this breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian relations started with Turkish president Abdullah Gul going to Armenia for a World Cup qualifying game between the two countries' national teams, Taspinar writes:
The good news is that the so-called “soccer-diplomacy” is alive and well. The not so good news is that we are still at halftime, and the fanatic supporters of the two national teams can cancel the game or disqualify their teams by throwing sharp knifes on the field........So, last week's announcement comes just in time to maintain the façade of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. If no sharp knives are thrown onto the field, soccer diplomacy will inch forward. It may still be too early to speak of a genuine rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan. Yet, no one accuses the two parties of not trying. Negotiations between stubborn neighbors are never easy. But as Winston Churchill wisely said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
So where is this Turkish-Armenian "roadmap" actually going to lead to? The next few weeks will give a clearer indication of that. One thing is clear: the protocols agreed upon by Ankara and Yerevan might not refer to Nagorno-Karabakh, but the "roadmap" for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation leads straight through the heart of that disputed territory.