Analysts in Turkey are cautioning that Ankara's recent initiative to normalize relations with Armenia can be expected to generate intense public scrutiny and political opposition.
Turkish and Armenian officials on August 31 announced that they intend to sign protocols that could lead to renewed diplomatic ties and the reopening of the two countries' borders. The coming weeks have been, in effect, set aside for public debate on the draft protocols. Those public discussions are widely expected to be contentious.
Increasing the degree of difficulty for Turkish policymakers is the fact that the government's push for the normalization of Armenian ties is coming at the same time as an anticipated official move to deal with the lingering Kurdish issue. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turks, then, are being asked not only to set aside decades of hostility for Armenians, but also to look at the Kurdish question in a new light. "We are going through exceedingly difficult times, because you are talking about a public that has been indoctrinated for decades on these two issues. Now we are talking about preparing the public psychologically for dealing with these two problems in a different way," said Lale Sariibrahimoglu, a political analyst based in Ankara.
"More important than any legal change is to prepare the public ? to accept that we should normalize our relations with Armenia, and deal with the Kurdish problem because these are in Turkey's interest," Sariibrahimoglu added.
The government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) certainly seems to be paying more attention to promoting public debate this time around. When a vague "roadmap" to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia was announced last April, it offered few details. The protocols released in early September - which must be ratified by the parliaments of both Turkey and Armenia - provide concrete details regarding how and when the two countries will restore diplomatic relations.
"This is time it's more open, it's more explainable to the public. A public debate about how important this is for regional peace and that is as open as possible is very important," says Noyan Soyak, the Istanbul-based vice-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council.
Said Suat Kiniklioglu, an AKP member of parliament, where he is spokesman of the Foreign Affairs Committee: "I think the level of detail and the timing show that the two sides are quite serious about it."
"The good thing about this is that we have something on paper and it shows a roadmap for how diplomatic relations can be established, and how the borders can be opened. It's now much more concrete and it provides hope for those who want Turkish-Armenian normalization to happen," he added.
Despite the level of detail contained in the draft protocols, which were agreed upon with the help of Swiss mediation, it remains an open question whether or not the Turkish and Armenian parliaments will ratify the documents.
Turkey's main opposition parties, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have already indicted that they will vote against the agreement. "We will not go to vote in favor of the protocols ? unless the [Armenian] occupation [of Azerbaijani territory] ends," Deniz Baykal, leader of the CHP, said during a party meeting earlier this week. Meanwhile, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the MHP, accused the AKP of ignoring Turkey's national interests. "We'll not vote in favor of the protocols," he said, in a written statement.
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is a complicating factor for the ratification of the protocols. Turkey is Azerbaijan's strongest ally, and Ankara imposed its economic blockade on Armenia in 1993 to support Baku's efforts to retain control over Karabakh. Currently, Armenian forces control Karabakh, along with large areas of Azerbaijan proper that surround the enclave. [ For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The announcement last April of the existence of a "roadmap" to renew ties between Turkey and Armenia led to a strong backlash from Baku, and to what seemed like a stepping back from the deal on Ankara's part.
During a May 14 address to the Azerbaijani parliament, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared "that the border between Turkey and Armenia will be open only after the full liberation of Azerbaijani occupied territories."
Although the recently released protocols make no mention of a linkage between the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties and the Karabakh peace process, "there's no doubt that the Karabakh issue looms over this reconciliation process," says Kiniklioglu.
"If there is no movement on Nagorno-Karabakh, it will be up to the Turkish parliament to assess the situation and judge accordingly."
Observers believe the Turkish government is now counting on international pressure to increase on Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach some kind of agreement regarding the disputed territory. Although the AKP has a majority in parliament, many observers believe that it will be difficult to ratify the protocols without any movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh front.
"Erdogan obviously feels that Turkey wants to see something on Nagorno-Karabakh before they can take it to parliament. The problem is [that the protocols are] in Turkey's interest, even if nothing happens on Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey's overwhelming national interest is in putting this Armenian problem behind it," says Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
"It will be very embarrassing for Turkey if this breaks down in some unclear way," Pope added.
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.