After years of mud-slinging, Turkey and Armenia appear ready to restore diplomatic ties, but the initial reaction within Armenia suggests that the process could meet with strong political opposition. Watching closely from the sidelines, Turkish ally Azerbaijan, meanwhile, states that it expects Turkey to keep its word -- no diplomatic ties with Armenia until territories bordering the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh are returned to Azerbaijani control.
Late on August 31, the foreign ministries of Armenia, Turkey and mediator Switzerland announced plans for two protocols for the normalization of bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey "within a reasonable timeframe." The draft protocols are expected to undergo internal political consultations during a six-week period and then be signed and "submitted to the respective Parliaments for . . . ratification." The opening of the Armenian-Turkish border, closed since 1993, is expected to take place two months after the protocols enter into force.
In September 1 comments to Armenian diplomats, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan hailed the protocols, underlining that they do not contain any conditions which Turkey set previously for restoring ties with Armenia -- namely, the withdrawal of forces from territories bordering Nagorno Karabakh.
The United States and France have expressed their support for the agreement. No official reaction from Russia is yet available.
In a September 1 interview with the Turkish television station NTV, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was similarly upbeat. "We know that normalization will be a prolonged process, but every such process starts with an initial step, which, in this case, is the recognition of borders," said Davutoglu.
Davutoglu termed such recognition "the most important aspect of good relations between two neighbors."
None of Armenia’s political parties has so far published its official position on the Turkish-Armenian protocols, but Davutoglu’s emphasis on border recognition alone has proven cause for worry among opposition parties. Many fear that such recognition would reconfirm the loss of Armenian territory to Turkey under a 1921 agreement between Ankara and the Soviet Union.
Other worries also persist. Giro Manoyan, international secretary for the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), worries that the protocols do not exclude the possibility that Turkey will attempt to link the restoration of ties with Armenia to the Karabakh settlement process.
Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu commented that "[t]he protocol on normalization of relations doesn’t mean that we renounce our principles on [a] Karabakh conflict resolution," expressing hope that international attention would "focus on the Karabakh problem henceforth."
Vladimir Karapetian, the foreign affairs advisor for former President Levon Ter Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress bloc, shares Manoyan’s unease. The requirement that the protocols be ratified after their signature means that Turkey’s parliament could delay the normalization process indefinitely by linking the protocols’ ratification to a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, he argues.
Armenian legislation does not require ratification of documents for establishing diplomatic relations.
Both opposition representatives also see potential pitfalls in the requirement to create "a sub-commission on the historical dimension."
"If Turkey is interested in revealing the historical truth, it would be better to create a favorable atmosphere for discussing the genocide problem in its own country," objected Manoyan. "It can also discuss this problem with specialists from other countries. But Armenia has nothing to do in it."
In an interview with the BBC published on August 31, Sargsyan said that the genocide problem is one where "compromises are impossible." In his September 1 speech to Armenian diplomats, he said only that "historical problems" will be discussed within the inter-governmental sub-commission, rather than a commission of historians, as earlier proposed by Turkey.
Meanwhile, other "historical problems" still loom ahead. Turkey closed its border with Armenia to support Azerbaijan during its 1988-1994 conflict with Armenia and ethnic Armenian separatist forces over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
News of the protocols ranked as Azerbaijan’s top news item on September 1, and the official reaction came swiftly.
Terming a country’s decision to build ties with a neighbor its "sovereign right," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Elkhan Polukhov told EurasiaNet that the protocol issue "directly touches on Azerbaijan’s national interests and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border without a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is against these interests."
Azerbaijani foreign ministry officials are in "constant contact" with their Turkish colleagues about the protocol and the Nagorno-Karabakh discussions, Polukhov continued. Baku, he said, bases its reaction to the reconciliation news on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s May 14 statement to the Azerbaijani parliament "that the border between Turkey and Armenia will be open only after the full liberation of Azerbaijani occupied territories."
Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Baku-based Atlas research center, believes that Ankara has already agreed with Baku on the issue of its deal with Armenia.
Two days before the protocols’ publication, on August 29, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Firidun Shirinlioglu and special envoy, Ambassador Unal Chevikoz, traveled to Baku and met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
"Therefore, it is likely that Baku agreed. Otherwise, Turkey would not risk deteriorating relations with Azerbaijan," Shahingolu said. Aside from close ethnic and cultural ties, the two countries share interests in strategic energy projects.
If Baku agreed with Turkey’s position, he opined, that could signal that the Aliyev administration hopes for a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks by the end of the year.
One senior parliamentarian from Azerbaijan’s ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party shares that appraisal.
Aydin Mirzazade, deputy chairman of parliamentary committee for defense and security, termed the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement talks and discussions between Aliyev and Armenian President Sargsyan about Nagorno Karabakh "strongly interconnected," Day.az reported.
Vafa Guluzade, who acted as Azerbaijan’s envoy to the Nagorno-Karabakh talks under the late President Heydar Aliyev, however, cautions that "rapprochement without the Karabakh conflict’s resolution will harm relations between Ankara and Baku."
On one point, however, all three countries -- Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan -- can easily agree. Said analyst Shahinoglu: "It is difficult to say how the situation will develop, even in the short- term."
Editor's Note: Haroutiun Khachatrian is an editor and freelance writer based in Yerevan. Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.