YEREVAN: Turkey, sadly, seems to be falling into the bad habit of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity in its relations with Armenia. But this failure of will and vision is only breeding wider regional instability.
In the two weeks before US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Turkey, there was almost universal optimism that Turkey would open its border with Armenia. But Obama came and went, and the border remained close.
Turkish-Armenian relations remain more about gestures than substance. Indeed, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dismissive recent statements hint that Turkey may even be backtracking on its plans to establish more normal bilateral ties.
Those ties have been strained since 1993, when Turkey closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. When Erdogan and Gul came to power in 2003, nothing changed. The border remained closed.
In my first meeting with Gul, who was Turkey’s foreign minister in 2003, he acknowledged that Turkey had not benefited from its policy of linking Armenia-Turkey relations to a resolution of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. Turkey, he said, wanted to establish normal bilateral relations with all neighbors. That was music to my ears, and I told him so.
But Azerbaijani pressure prevailed, and Turkish policy did not change. Of course, at that time, Turkey’s own interests were not what they are today. Accession talks with the European Union had not begun; Turkey wanted an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan; the resolution condemning the Armenian genocide had not gathered steam around the world; Turkey’s economy was not in crisis; and Georgia-Russia tensions were not in free-fall.
Today, the world is so different that even Russia and the US agree about opening the Turkish-Armenian border. Indeed, in the face of Russia-Georgia strains, Turkey can benefit from a new role in the Caucasus. Its proposed “Platform for Cooperation and Security in the Caucasus is a first step. And public opinion in Turkey is more ready than ever for a rapprochement with Armenia.
Such a move would make Europe happy, too. Although Erdogan likes to call Turkey a natural bridge between East and West, Europe is waiting for Turkey to assume the function that geography has bestowed upon it.
As for Azerbaijan, now that a pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan is operational, Azerbaijan needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Azerbaijan.
And, this month, Turkey has a deadline. Obama committed himself during his presidential election campaign to calling the violence against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire by its name – genocide. The anniversary of those events is April 24.
One would think that these developments provide Turkey with a great opportunity to act in its own best interests and open its border with Armenia. But Turkey has already missed two such opportunities. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the right time to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia. Turkey did not, instead offering mere recognition of Armenia’s independence. No functioning relationship could come from that.
Then, in 2004, with the beginning of EU accession talks, Turkey had ample cause to explain to Azerbaijan why improved relations with Armenia were inevitable. It did not do so, allowing the opportunity slip away.
History is now offering Turkey a third chance to play a greater regional role. By actually opening borders, or at least announcing a real date and actual modalities, Turkey would open doors to a shared future. But Gul and Erdogan are signaling that they cannot.
Before Obama made it back to Washington, they forcefully and repeatedly announced -presumably to appease Azerbaijan – that they would not act to open the border until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved.
But Turkey and Azerbaijan are wrong. Keeping the border closed will not solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On the contrary, an open border would facilitate resolution of the conflict – not because it would be a tradeoff for something else, or come with strings attached, but because an open border demonstrates evenhandedness towards all neighbors.
An open border between Armenia and Turkey would mean that Azerbaijan could not shirk negotiations. My grandmother from Marash would have said that Azerbaijan today believes that, with Turkey, it “has an uncle in the jury, and thus that it can persist in its petulance and intransigence.
An environment of compromise requires a regional environment devoid of threats and blackmail. Without Turkey tipping the scale for the benefit of one side in this conflict, both sides must become more accommodating, especially on security issues. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is about security. Armenia, sandwiched between two hostile states, is unlikely and unable to agree to security compromises. Closing a border is an act of hostility. Opening that border would mean creating a normal regional environment.
History is offering Turkey the opportunity to take regional relations to a new level. Symbols and gestures are insufficient. And waiting for a Nagorno-Karabakh solution is no solution at all. It is merely one more missed opportunity.
Vartan Oskanian,president of the board of the Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation, was Armenia’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2008. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, (www.project-syndicate.org).