Friday, October 16, 2009

Win win protocol (I)
    İlhan Tanır/Oguzhan Güler

The much discussed protocol which foresees the normalization of the relationships between the Republic of Armenia and Turkey was signed in Zurich, Switzerland, last weekend.

The foreign ministers of the two countries, in the presence of the Minsk Group foreign ministers, were able to overcome the last minute 'ditch', which delayed the signing ceremony for hours. Consequently, this historic protocol which showed the long-term thinking ability of both sides, instead of yielding to an easy but meaningless pandering of short-term popular sentiments, prompted wide-range discussions within and without the region.

In Washington, DC, I recently had a chance to listen to the three former American ambassadors to Turkey talking about a range of issues related to Turkey. All three Ross Wilson, Marc Grossman and Morton Abramowitz, who sat for a series of interviews for "Studyo Washington", a daily news program on the Washington agenda which broadcasts from America's capital to Turkey for TRT Turk, and who collectively praised the new protocol and argued in various ways how important this protocol was as a way forward to solve complex issues between Turkey and Armenia, and also to prepare a productive terrain for geopolitical concert and regional stability.

The soccer diplomacy failed to carry either national soccer team to the World Cup finals, but was able to fortify a groundwork of diplomatic talks and finally to produce a protocol which promises mutual benefits in light of shared interests. And this makes observers and diplomats alike more hopeful for the ratification of the protocol, and subsequently for better prospective for strategic long-term stability. What has changed, and how have the two sides arrived here?

When one considers the starting point of this protocol as well as the hopes in the future for the restored relationships, the role of Justice and Development Party, or AKP, seems to have been the most important from the beginning. New Turkish foreign policies, such as disentangling historic conflicts with neighboring countries, coincided perfectly with President Obama’s coming into the office. US, exhausted in the region, became more open to such regional partnerships. Turkey's increased presence in regional strategic partnerships showed its self-confidence and therefore helped various parties to believe in Turkey's ability to take on such an historically difficult episode to work towards a peaceful reconciliation. Of course, there were also other variables to urge the Turkish officials to hasten the road map to better relations with Armenia. One obvious reason could have been Obama' s solid campaign promise to support a Congressional resolution that would recognize as genocide the tragic events of 1915. However, that would be immature to assess this development only and not taking into account Turkey's latest pro-active foreign policies in the region.

For Turkey, normalization of the relationship with Armenia is very important for a couple of major reasons: One is to ease the historic tensions by setting up commitees to look at the disputes, including the tragic events of World War I. It is known that the Armenian diaspora, which has a loud voice in various European capitals as well as in America, had became the biggest headache for the Turkish government over the last three decades along with the Cyprus issue. And the continuing assault on Turkey in the world gave Turkey a battered image. Whether or not the Armenian diaspora will be quieter is not known; however, setting up such a commitee to look into the troubling era will ease the jitters. The second is the possible progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, an enclave in Azerbaijan, through this bigger peace context. Finally, better relations with Armenia, and opening up the last closed border in the region is especially important for Turkey's newly gained image of being a good neighbor.

Armenia, economically one of the least developed countries in the former Soviet sphere, will benefit the most from the improved relations with Turkey. Reopening the borders will undoubtedly bring prosperity to the country with increased trade, and also a bigger chance for joining various regional energy and transport projects, which at the end will end up by further stimulating its economy. According to Vardan Ayvazyan, the head of the Armenian Parliamentary Committee on Economic Issues, reopening the border with Turkey will increase Armenia’s exports by 38% and its GDP will register a 3% growth. In the past, Armenia was bypassed in the multi-billion historical energy project, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, as a result of Turkish and Azerbaijani opposition, despite the fact that the shortest possible route was through Armenia and not Georgia. This pipeline route still looks like a scar over Armenia, and it still lingers as one of the biggest disappointments in memory. Now, at the dawn of another historic, as well as richer energy project, Nabucco, the Armenian government officials, in almost every possible occasion, clearly state their willingness to enter partnerships. Hopefully, the normalization of the relations and consequently solving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, will lead to such prosperous future.

Turkey, as is well-known, closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 to protest the illegal occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven districts of Azerbaijan amounting to about a fifth of the Azerbaijani land. It should be known that it is not only Azerbaijan and Turkey, but also the United Nations, took the a similar stance in viewing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and has adopted the resolution #822 and followed it by three others: #853, #874 and #884, reaffirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Turkey, as well as the international community, now wish that Armenia will comply with the UN resolutions. Although it is not an official pre-condition for normalization of the relations, one would predict that without progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it seems that there is little chance for the Turkish parliament to ratify the protocol. Therefore, not being able to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem poses a real danger of getting the sides back to square one, after long months and even years of hard earned diplomatic gains and goodwill.

Next: Protocol from Russia and US perspective as well as the wider region. And where the Turkish and Armenian opposition stand.

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