They Play Good Football – But the Deciding Goal Is Yet to Be Scored

The historic fence-mending pact Turkey and Armenia signed in Zurich Saturday night, October 10 2009 was a hopeful pointer toward rational solutions for some of the severe problems plaguing the southern Caucasus.

The two signatories established diplomatic relations and agreed to reopen their border which Turkey closed in 1993 during the war over the Nagorno Karabakh enclave in support of its ally Azerbaijan's claim against Armenia. Its reopening was preconditioned then by an agreed settlement of the dispute over the tiny landlocked enclave populated by Armenians and embedded in Azerbaijani territory.

Yet Ankara has now given way on this point and agreed to the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border without a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement or the Armenian troop withdrawal from the lands they seized.

The Turks and Armenians both know that the dispute will not be settled until Russia and America get together to force an Armenian pullout. Such cooperation on the disputed enclave did indeed come up in US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Tuesday, Oct. 13, but not as an isolated case. It was to be part and parcel of progress toward accommodations for the Caucasus, the Caspian and the Black Sea regions, including the disposition of US-backed Georgia and the regions' oil and gas riches.

(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 416 of October 9: Washington and Moscow Advance a Step at a Time).

The first crack in the long iced-over Armenian-Turkish relationship came about a year ago when president Abdullah Gul became the first high-ranking Turk to be welcomed in Yerevan for decades. Covert negotiations from late 2007 enabled him to watch the September 2008 World Cup qualifying match in football (“soccer”) between Turkey and Armenia. It took “football diplomacy” to paper over the long feud over Turkey's refusal to acknowledge as genocide the 1915 massacre of one and-a-half million Armenians driven out of northeast Turkey to the south during World War I.

Turkey needed to save face

Three landmark events followed 2009 in quick succession. Armenia's next national memorial day for the genocide victims fell on April 24. On that day, the US president traditionally delivers a speech, the contents of which have been fought over for decades by Turkey and Armenia. However, two days earlier, Ankara and Yerevan agreed on a “road map” for establishing diplomatic relations, a document which was never made public.

Although he had pledged in his campaign to recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide President Barack Obama dodged round the explosive word to avoid stepping on the delicate negotiations afoot between the two governments. In his speech, he chose the Armenian term for “Great Catastrophe” instead.

This choice instead of helping engagement ruffled feathers.

On their visits to Azerbaijan in May, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan and foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu both resumed hard positions and made the resolution of the Armenian-Azeri dispute over Nagorno Karabakh a precondition for re-engaging with Yerevan. This gave rise to Armenian suspicions that the Turkish leaders had gone through the motions of diplomacy simply to extract this concession from the US president.

So what happened in the interim to enable them to go forward in October?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that once again football came to the aid of diplomacy. The breakthrough was achieved by Armenian President Serge Sarkisian's threat to cancel a scheduled visit Turkey to watch the World Cup qualifier rematch on October 14 unless borders were opened and relations established.

The Turks relented, denying indignantly they were swayed by this threat. But they certainly understood that another snag in fence-mending diplomacy would be placed at their door and lay them open to being accused not only of being bad sports but of not being serious about mending the quarrel.

Armenians accept the limits of their position

Any such flop with Armenia would go to the heart of Turkish foreign minister Davutoglu's foreign policy of “zero problems” with neighbors. The Armenian president's cancellation would have seriously flawed Ankara's strenuous self-portrayal as a key Middle East-European power and peacemaker, holder of the key to bridging differences between adversaries.

It was also not forgotten that making peace with Armenia and owning up to the 1915 genocide are among the pre-conditions for Turkey's admission to the European Union.

This could not be allowed to happen at a time that Ankara saw new hope of its admission to the European club. While France and Germany are still against its membership, Turkey's foremost sponsor, Sweden, took the seat of the EU's rotating presidency in June.

Armenia, for its part, beset by economic difficulties owing to the seven-year Turkish-Azeri blockade, agreed to two departures from its long-held positions for the sake of getting Turkey back on track for a deal:

1. Yerevan and Turkey met halfway on the acceptance of a panel of historians for establishing the true events of 1915 to which both were opposed in the past.

Armenia totally rejected any kind of formalized scholarly discourse on the subject on the grounds that since most western historians agree genocide was perpetrated, just opening the subject up to formal historical scrutiny would grant a measure of credibility to Turkey's disclaimer.

The Turks for their part blocked historical inquiry in case genocide was confirmed by scholars, thereby opening the door to Armenia pressing territorial claims to the parts of Eastern Turkey populated by its community before 1915.

This mistrust was fueled by Armenia's refusal to formally recognize their shared border after it gained independence in 1991. It has been partly allayed by Armenia's recognition of their shared borders as a condition for their opening under the protocols the two countries have signed.

This breakthrough is more symbolic than real. Armenia, which is much weaker than Turkey, is hardly in a position to stake claims to Turkish territory.

Fear of ex-pats fueled parliamentary obstruction

2. Yerevan dropped its demand for Turkish restitution to the Armenian people on the same lines as Germany's compensation to the Jewish people for the World War II Holocaust.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that although the accord is in itself an important feat of diplomacy, its implementation faces a good many hurdles.

For one, the accord and the protocols defining bilateral relations is subject to ratification by the parliaments of both countries.

In Yerevan, the opposition may do its utmost to veto it, while Ankara will face Azerbaijan's objections to any Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as long as the Nagorno Karabakh issue is outstanding.

A third and no less important factor is the flat opposition of Armenian expatriate organizations, especially in the United States, to Yerevan burying the hatchet with Ankara as long as Turkey refuses to confess to the 1915 genocide.

The Armenian president did not make this a sine qua non for establishing diplomatic relations with Ankara. But Armenian Diaspora organizations, which hold powerful leverage inside Armenia due to their financial largesse are expected to treat the accord as a sellout and not let the matter rest until they have lobbied Armenian lawmakers to veto the accord by withholding ratification.

Obama administration, Russian and European diplomats will certainly be on hand to help the Turks and Armenians overcome these hurdles because the establishment of diplomatic ties between them will ripple out to the broad strategic environment.

Turkey's aspirations as regional peacemaker hinges on accord

It will provide fresh impetus for a peace accord between Armenia and Azerbaijan who are formally at war over landlocked, fertile Nagorno Karabach and its 138,000 Armenian citizens. For over a decade, Russia, France and the US co-chair the OSCE's Minsk Group, have been attempting to broker an end to the dispute which harks back to the century-old contest between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic and Persian influences.

It will impact on Russia, Armenia's backer, in the southern Caucasian, and the consequent layout of the network of pipelines carrying oil and gas from the southern Caucasus to Europe.

An accord with Armenia and its smooth implementation would bolster Turkey's bid for European Union membership. But its credibility as a regional peace mediator, a role which Erdogan yearns, remain in doubt when disputes with immediate neighbors remain unsolved particularly after his failed mediation initiatives in conflicts between Israel and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq.

Nevertheless, Tuesday, Oct. 13, the Turkish prime minister insisted that Armenia must withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territories” and an agreement on Nagorno-Karabach was critical to the Turkish parliament's ratification of the Turkey-Armenia protocols signed on Oct. 10. Although Yerevan did not respond, Sarkisian indicated that his government would walk away for the agreements if the Turkish parliament did not ratify them “within a reasonable time frame.”

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