Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Azerbaijan slams Turkey-Armenia diplomatic deal

The foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey signed historic protocols re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries in Switzerland on October 10. However, Azerbaijan's harsh criticism of its ally Turkey normalising ties with Armenia before the resolution of Baku's conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region shows just how unstable this region remains.

If the protocols are approved by the two countries' parliaments, the Armenia-Turkey border is set to be re-opened by the end of this year, ending 16 years of virtual geographic isolation for Armenia. The two countries have been at loggerheads since the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the end of World War I. Turkey closed its border between the two countries in 1993 to show its support for Azerbaijan during the Nagorno Karabakh war, which left 30,000 dead and Armenian separatists occupying the ethnically Armenian enclave as well as seven surrounding districts in Azerbaijan.

As a landlocked country whose longest borders are with Azerbaijan and Turkey (though it also shares borders with Georgia and Iran), Armenia will reap solid economic gains from the reopening of the border. "In the short to medium term, transit costs will fall," points out Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies (Acnis). "However, the benefits will be mainly for Russian-owned companies in the telecoms, railway and energy sectors. Armenia is in danger of becoming the secondary beneficiary."

But the signing the protocols by no means guarantees the border will be opened this year. Leaders of parties in Armenia's ruling coalition - the Republican Party, Orinats Yerkir and Prospering Armenia - publicly endorsed the protocols in a statement issued October 2. However, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has faced a high degree of antipathy to a rapprochement with either Turkey or Azerbaijan from the Armenian diaspora. It may be even harder going in the Turkish parliament. "The real test will be to sell the deal to the parliaments," says Giragosian. "This agreement is much more about Turkey's own plans for the region, rather than a move to please the US or the Europeans. But while in Armenia there is support from the parliamentary majority, in Turkey the government is deeply over-extended politically."


Meanwhile, Armenia's talks with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno Karabakh dispute before its signing of the protocols with Turkey didn't achieve any significant progress. There had been high hopes for the meetings after Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev claimed on October 4 that the negotiation process has "already entered its final phase."

However, Armenian government officials downplayed his statement in the run-up to the talks. "It is obvious that anyone expecting a breakthrough at the meetings in Chisinau [at the CIS summit] has had their expectations downgraded," says Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group. "The agreement on the basic principles really is in its final stages. But the core issue to this day is the status of Nagorno Karabakh. It is very difficult to agree on any formula for that, when one side thinks Nagorno Karabakh should be allowed to decide its own fate - which would lead to either independence or union with Armenia - and the other side is absolutely opposed to any compromise of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity."

Giragosian agrees: "The two sides are still far apart diplomatically. We don't expect any breakthrough or substantial progress in negotiations."

In mountainous Nagorno Karabakh, the belief that "land is blood" prevails, says Sheets. The ethnically Armenian enclave was located within Azerbaijan's borders at the break-up of the Soviet Union and is still formally part of Azerbaijan, but effectively it's been under Armenian control since 1993.

While Karabakhis react with incredulity to the idea of a peace deal or the return of any occupied territories to Azerbaijan, the mood in Baku and Yerevan has become more pragmatic. "The further you get from Nagorno Karabakh, the more Armenians think about the economic situation, and they are aware that it is suffering as a result of the conflict," says Sheets. "In Azerbaijan, there is also a degree of realism among politicians, especially once it was seen as a realistic possibility that some of the occupied territories could be returned."

But while there has been a certain amount of progress in negotiations and political will from both sides, the status of Nagorno Karabakh remains at the core of the conflict. Neither side is yet willing to compromise on this, and Azerbaijan's warning that the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border could cause instability in the volatile South Caucasus serves as a reminder of how the region remains a tinderbox.

"The normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia before the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory is in direct contradiction with the interests of Azerbaijan and casts a shadow over the spirit of brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, built on deep historical roots," the Azerbaijani foreign ministry said in a statement. "Azerbaijan believes that the unilateral opening of the Turkish-Armenian border calls into question the architecture of peace and stability in the region."

By Clare Nuttall . Published on 12 October 2009
Copyright (c) 2009. bne. Reprinted with the permission of Business New Europe
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.

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