Publicly, Turkish officials express their continued support for a rapprochement process with Armenia, despite Yerevan having recently suspended the ratification process for peace protocols signed with Ankara last October. But observers say that political considerations are making it very difficult for Turkey to move forward on the issue.
"Unfortunately, everything has been frozen," says Noyan Soyak, the Istanbul-based Vice-Chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council.
"There isn’t an agreement now on even basic points. We don’t see any minimum agreement to move forward, which is unfortunate, because we believed that this?. was a unique period," Soyak continued. "It was a very important chance that was given to both countries by the international community, but both countries couldn’t use the chance to solve the problems, or even talk about the problems."
The protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia call for the renewal of diplomatic ties, opening of the common border - closed by Turkey in 1993 after Armenia invaded the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh - and the establishment of a historical commission to investigate the mass murder of Armenians by Ottoman forces during World War I. [For background see the EurasiaNet archive].
Since their signing, the protocols languished in the parliaments of both countries while waiting to be ratified. Each side charged the other with attempting to add conditions that were not previously agreed upon. [For background see the EurasiaNet archive].
Yerevan officially suspended the ratification process on April 22, accusing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of derailing the process by insisting that it be linked to progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. [For background see the EurasiaNet archive].
Turkish officials say that from their perspective, the protocols are still alive. "The protocols are waiting in my drawer to be overseen by the committee. They are not frozen," says Murat Mercan, a member of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and chairman of the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Speaking before parliament in late April, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that Turkey remains committed to improving its relations with Armenia.
"We can opt for preserving the status quo and we can live happily and comfortably for a while as a result. But we will end up leaving a troubled Caucasus to our grandchildren," Davutoglu said. "The status quo in the Caucasus is not in the interests of Turkey or Azerbaijan or Armenia or Russia, but so far no brave step has been taken to change it. Now, what we want is to change it."
"Our parliaments will ratify the protocols when political conditions are ripe," he added.
But Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University says he believes there will be little progress on the Armenian issue until after the next Turkish general elections, which are scheduled for 2011. "The parliamentary opposition is dead set against these protocols and they want the protocols to be withdrawn from where they are in the [foreign affairs] commission," Aktar says. "The government cannot take the risk of another battlefront with the opposition, in addition to the other things they have going on. That is the position."
Indeed, members of the opposition have already been working to attack the AKP’s Armenia policy by stoking nationalist sentiment. Deniz Bolukbasi, a member of the hardline Nationalist Action Party (MHP), recently told parliament that signing the protocols with Armenia was a "historical mistake."
"The Justice and Development (AK) Party government could not display the courage to withdraw the protocols. The AK Party government continued with its weak stance by expressing that they would be loyal to the ’signature’ on the protocols," he said.
Onur Oymen, a leader of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), also called on the government to shelve the protocols. "The protocols with Armenia should not be ratified unless Armenia withdraws from Azerbaijani territory, and Armenia gives up its assertions on the incidents of 1915," he said in late April. [For background see the EurasiaNet archive].
In a recently released analysis, Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that Ankara may have entered its negotiations with Armenia with unrealistic expectations. "Turkish officials, perhaps as a result of undue US assurances, had an overly optimistic impression of how well the Karabakh peace negotiations were going. When the officials learned in December 2009 that the talks were deadlocked, they found themselves boxed in," he wrote.
"More broadly, Turkish officials have displayed naivety about the Karabakh issue. They have derived their information on the conflict from Azerbaijani sources. They underestimated how fundamental the Karabakh question is to Armenians, believing that Yerevan could be prevailed upon to cede several of the occupied regions around Karabakh in exchange for the re-opening of the Armenia-Turkey border," de Waal added.
"There is almost no chance that [Armenian President Serzh] Sargsyan, a Karabakh Armenian, would give up conquered territory for the sake of the Turkish border. Even if he wanted to - which is doubtful - domestic opinion simply would not allow it," de Waal continued.
For now, observers say, much of the progress in Turkey-Armenia relations will likely depend on the work of non-governmental actors in the two countries. "I would say the Armenian-Turkish dialogue is steered by the civilian actors and not by official actors. This track is even more important now," says Aktar.
"There are so many track-two diplomacy projects going on, which is a good development," says Soyak, whose organization works on improving business ties between Turkey and Armenia. "I believe the civil societies in both countries are ready to move forward. The universities and business associations are ready for cooperation, but at the end of the day it depends on political agreements."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.