[NEWS ANALYSIS] Despite much resistance, experts urge steadfastness in Turkey-Armenia talks

April 27, 2009, Monday/ 17:01:00/ ABDULLAH BOZKURT
Angered by the US president's description of the events of 1915 as a "great atrocity" that fell upon Armenians living in Ottoman lands, the Turkish public reacted strongly to Barack Obama's statement, despite its omission of the "g-word." But cool heads in Ankara and Yerevan urge the Turkish government to remain steadfast in its ongoing dialogue with Armenia.

"Given the unique opportunity now before us, we can only hope that Turkey and Armenia will be able to move forward together, coming to terms with the legacy of the past, but based on a shared commitment to the future," said Richard Giragosian, the director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan. Speaking to Today's Zaman, he said, "There is a new sense of opportunity from within Turkey evident in the dynamic and genuine nature of change within the country and with a growing and increasingly critical examination of the past." Giragosian believes the Turkish efforts in this process are sincere and should be supported.

"Much more than any 'public relations' ploy or political tactic, this effort now under way within Turkey today to set aside previous taboos regarding many issues, ranging from the Kurdish issue to the Armenian genocide, must be encouraged," he noted.

"The dialogue process must go on despite all pressures to break it down," said Ersin Onulduran, who heads the department of international relations at Ankara University. In an interview with Today's Zaman, Onulduran questioned what Turkey has gained so far by keeping the border closed and imposing an embargo on Armenia. "Armenians have not changed their position one bit," he said. "With increasing trade and more active engagement, we can greatly benefit from normalization and help lift the pressure applied on us by the international community," Onulduran explained.

Yet the grievances and concerns raised by Azerbaijan continue to be a major stumbling block to the process despite all assurances having been given to Baku by the president and prime minister of Turkey, both of whom had said Ankara would never endanger Azerbaijani interests. "I think the Azerbaijanis are acting emotionally and are playing a dangerous game with Russia," said Onulduran, stressing that the Turkish government cannot allow its foreign policy to be hijacked by the Azerbaijanis.

Bülent Aras, a professor of international relations at the İstanbul-based Işık University, says he completely understands Azerbaijan's position. "The Azerbaijanis would like to let Russia know that they understand Russia is in control and, as such, that they are paying respect to the biggest power broker in the region." He said the Azerbaijanis learned the lesson last year when Russia occupied parts of Georgia and are very sensitive to Russian demands.

Nonetheless, the process, with the backing of the international community and especially the US and the EU, will go on and the border will likely be opened within two to three months, Aras predicted. "Russia is also interested in seeing a stable region, but demands to get credit for any peace-brokerage deal," said Aras, who also cautioned that Baku's slipping away from Turkey's sphere of influence will weaken Turkey's hand in the Nabucco project, a pipeline that connects Caspian gas to Europe via Turkey.

On the other hand, Giragosian argues that "for the Turkish side, the rather strong and determined pressure from Azerbaijan, calling on Turkey to back away from any deal with Armenia poses a significant new obstacle." He concedes, however, that "such recent difficulties have also arisen on the Armenian side, as well, with passions all the more heightened because of the traditional April 24 commemoration of genocide by Armenians throughout the world."

After a long and difficult process of secret diplomacy that culminated in the first visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state last September, Giragosian says, "The outlook for Turkish-Armenian normalization has demonstrated that both sides now finally seem ready to re-examine their past and redefine their future." He warns, however, that both sides have done little to prepare their respective public opinions for a possible breakthrough. "The most significant limitation is the lack of preparation by both the Turkish and the Armenian governments, which must build support within the society and shape public opinion in advance of any agreement to normalize relations," Giragosian underlined.

Onulduran suggests the government needs to pursue relations with Armenia despite opposition from the public. He estimates that the backlash would not be very great and that the Turks will eventually understand the motive behind the diplomatic engagement. "For Turks, the issue of Cyprus is far more sensitive than the Nagorno-Karabakh problem," he added.

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