YEREVAN: Will Turkey’s current turmoil between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country’s powerful army complicate and delay the country’s boldest initiatives in years – the moves to address decades-old tensions with both Armenians and Kurds?
Restructuring the role of Turkey’s army is vital, but if Turkey cannot follow through with the Armenian and Kurdish openings, the country’s own domestic situation, its relations with the two peoples, as well as tensions in the Caucasus, will undoubtedly worsen. Of the several flashpoints in the region, including that between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the tension between Armenians and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is among the most challenging.
As to Georgia and Russia, the disproportionate size, weight, and power on one side are enough to deter any return to violence. Moreover, there are no entangling alliances complicating the matter. Georgia is not a NATO member, and the United States, it is clear, will not go to war with Russia over Georgia.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle is more precarious. It is no longer a two-way tug-of-war between two small post-Soviet republics, but part of an Armenia-Turkey-Azerbaijan triangle. This triangle is the direct consequence of the process of normalization between Armenia and Turkey, which began when both countries’ presidents met at a football game.
That process now hinges on protocols for establishing diplomatic relations that have been signed by both governments but unratified by either parliament. Completing the process depends directly and indirectly on how Armenians and Azerbaijan work to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
This snarled three-way dispute, if not carefully untangled, holds many dangers. Turkey, which for nearly two decades has proclaimed its support for Azerbaijan, publicly conditioned rapprochement with Armenia on Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan.
Turkey, a NATO member, is thus a party to this conflict now, and any military flare-up between Armenians and Azerbaijanis might draw it in – possibly triggering Russia’s involvement, either through its bilateral commitments to Armenia, or through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia and Russia are members.
Given energy-security concerns, any Azerbaijani conflict would also seriously affect Europe. Iran, too would be affected, since it is a frontline state with interests in the region.
Armenians and Azerbaijanis have not clashed militarily for more than a decade and a half. But this is only because there has been the perception of a military balance and a hope that ongoing negotiations would succeed.
Today, both factors have changed. The perception of military parity has altered. With Azerbaijan having spent extravagantly on armaments in recent years it may now have convinced itself that it now holds the upper hand. At the same time, there is less hope in negotiations, which appear to be stalled, largely because they have been linked to the Armenia-Turkey process, which also seems to be in limbo.
The diplomatic protocols awaiting ratification by the two countries’ parliaments have fallen victim to miscalculations on both sides. The Armenians came to believe that Turkey would find a way to reconcile Azerbaijan’s interests with the Turkish opening to Armenia, and would open the border with Armenia regardless of progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The problem is that Turkey initially closed the border precisely because of Nagorno-Karabakh, rather than any bilateral issue.
Turkey believed that by signing protocols with Armenia and clearly indicating its readiness to open the border, the Armenians could somehow be cajoled or pressured into resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh problem more quickly or cede territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. But this has always been unlikely in the absence of a comprehensive settlement that addresses Armenians’ greatest fear – security – and fulfils their basic political requirement, namely a definition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.
Both sides seem to be somewhat surprised by the other’s expectations. Indeed, there is a growing fear that a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is more distant now, because Turkey’s public backing has raised Azerbaijan’s expectations, while some Armenians fear collusion between neighbors out to railroad them into an unsustainable agreement.
This is Turkey’s moment of truth. The Armenia-Turkey diplomatic process has stalled, and the Turkish government’s effort at reconciliation with the country’s large Kurdish minority has soured. Just as a loss of confidence among Kurds and Turks in eastern Turkey will rock the shaky stability that they have recently enjoyed, a loss of hope for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute may end the tentative military calm between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
But the situation is not irretrievable. Endless public sparring between Turkish and Armenian officials through the media is not helping. It is time for both countries’ leaders to speak privately and directly with each other, with an understanding of the instability that could result from any failure to complete the diplomatic opening that the two sides initiated.
So, even as Turkey tries to deal with the consequences of its history at home, and redefine the army’s role in society, it must reset its tortured relationship with Armenia. The recent resolution passed by the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Congress, which called upon President Obama to ensure that US foreign policy reflects an “appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning the Armenian Genocide, should serve as a wake-up call to both Turkish and Armenian governments that Armenians are not about to question the historical veracity of the genocide. After all, if France and Germany can face their tortured history, Turkey should be able to do so as well.
The two sides must step back, look at the situation dispassionately, acknowledge the deficiencies in the protocols, address the other side’s minimum requirements, and bear in mind that a single document will not heal all wounds or wipe out all fears.
The international community must support this effort. The problem should not be dismissed as a mere settling of old scores. What is at stake is the future of a region critical to Eurasia’s peace.
Vartan Oskanianwas Armenia’s foreign minister from 1998 until 2008. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).