Sunday, May 3, 2009

Armenia-Turkey 'deal' played up ahead of Obama trip

Speculations mount about a possible Armenia-Turkey deal
Anonymous sources cited on timing, substance
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Friday April 03, 2009

Armenian and Turkish leaders shaking hands in Davos earlier this year.

Washington, - With President Barack Obama on his way to Turkey just weeks before Armenian Genocide commemoration day, and unprecedented high-level meetings between Armenia and Turkey, expectations for progress in relations between Armenia and Turkey are once again being fueled.

Armenian officials contacted by the Armenian Reporter would not comment on whether an agreement with Turkey was imminent, but did confirm that Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian will attend the Istanbul conference, which Mr. Obama will address.

Writing on April 1, the Wall Street Journal cited anonymous diplomatic sources as claiming that Armenia and Turkey "could soon announce a deal aimed at reopening their border and restoring relations" and that "the timing of the deal is being choreographed" with Mr. Obama's trip, the paper's Brussels and Istanbul correspondents reported.

One of the Journal correspondents contacted by the Reporter would not reveal if any of the officials he spoke with were from Armenia.

The outlines of the deal, as described by these anonymous sources would include "opening and fixing borders, restoring diplomatic relations and setting up commissions to look at disputes, including one on the tense history between the two nations."

The latter issue - of a commission - has been one of the more controversial matters. In 2005, the Turkish government first proposed establishing a "commission of historians" allegedly to study the genocide. Seeing it as a ploy against genocide affirmation, President Robert Kocharian made a counteroffer suggesting a bilateral commission to look into all issues.

President Serge Sargsian has taken a similar position.

Another sticking point has been Turkey's preconditions related to the Karabakh conflict, but those appear to have been set aside for the moment.

Long-held suspicions and mounting speculations

With Turkish officials saying that a Congressional resolution about the Armenian Genocide would undermine progress in the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia, many longtime observers wonder whether the speculations are just intended to provide an excuse for President Obama to go back on his pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Already, when asked about the issue, spokespersons for the White House have responded repeatedly that the administration's "focus is on how, moving forward, the United States can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past."

Turkish media has speculated for months about an imminent breakthrough in relations between Armenia and Turkey, and Western media too have started speculating on the topic. Much of the fodder for such speculation has been provided by officials involved.

Both Armenian and Turkish officials have said a breakthrough is close.

Foreign Minister Nalbandian said last November in Istanbul that Armenia-Turkey normalization "could be done in a quick way, because I do not see any major obstacles."

According to Turkey's Sabah newspaper, senior members of the Turkish parliament for the ruling party, visiting Washington last month, told their congressional counterparts not to move on the Armenian Genocide resolution, as an Armenia-Turkey deal was imminent.

Other officials told the Armenian Reporter they believe some kind of a deal is likely, although one key Armenian official discounted newspaper reports.

End-game, kind of

Ten months ago, when the Armenian Reporter asked experts if they expected such a breakthrough, most were not optimistic.

It was in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal on July 9, 2008, that President Sargsian first sought to convey his determination to normalize relations with Turkey.

The initiative since then seems to have been boosted by the aftermath of the war in Georgia - which drew Russia and Turkey closer together - and the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president.

President Abdullah Gül made his unprecedented half-day visit to Yerevan in September.

And two months ago President Sargsian and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met at Davos, Switzerland.

More talks have taken place between the two countries' foreign ministers and other officials.

Expectations for a breakthrough had been raised before, perhaps artificially so. But the most recent talks do appear to be reaching a kind of an end-game.

Turkish leaders' overriding concern seems to be to get President Obama to continue the previous administrations' policies on the Armenian Genocide issue.

The first crucial test of that will be President Obama's comments on the subject in Turkey and in the anticipated April 24 commemorative statement.

From the Turkish perspective, success in getting President Obama to sidestep the issue should be a good enough catalyst for a positive change in Turkey's policy toward Armenia.

But this is true only if, as a senior Turkish official told this newspaper, it is in fact their intention "to have best relations with Armenia," and "good relations" with Armenians in the diaspora.

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