Zurich protocols frozen, civilian efforts flourish between Turkey, Armenia

Published 18.10.2010 00:12

Although one year has passed since Turkey and Armenia took a major step and signed protocols in Zurich to improve relations, they have both failed to approve them. Despite the official stalemate, civil society contacts and projects have been active on both sides of the closed border between the two countries.

Observers agree that nearing elections in Turkey will further prolong the ratification of the protocols; however, the process of normalization has not died. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's statements reflect these sentiments.

When asked on Oct. 4 if Switzerland had conducted any telephone diplomacy regarding relations with Armenia, and whether a new process would start, Davutoğlu responded: "The current process has not ended so that a new one can start. This is also an ongoing process for us. It will not end until peace is restored to the Caucasus."

Davutoğlu also said he had a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was engaged in high-stakes shuttle diplomacy with the Turkish and Armenian delegations in Zurich last year, indicating that Turkey has always exchanged its views with the related parties. He added that Turkey will continue to exert efforts to boost relations with Armenia.

Özdem Sanberk, a former Foreign Ministry undersecretary and director of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK/ISRO), said Turkey has not worked on public diplomacy since the signing of the protocols and has, therefore, failed to stress its peace and security-seeking goals in the Caucasus. "Turkey should have continued meetings with both Azerbaijani and Armenian officials to address the problem of the occupation of Azerbaijani land," Sanberk said.

Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan after Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan in 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Even though the Zurich protocols do not refer to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey insists that Armenia settle its dispute with Azerbaijan before the Oct. 10, 2009 protocols are ratified. "

Turkey signed the protocols with all of its good intentions, expecting that the Armenian side will take steps in solving its dispute with Azerbaijan," Sanberk said. "But Armenia did not move. This is not acceptable. We want normalization with Armenia, but this cannot happen while there is an occupation," he said, adding that the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani land makes the region insecure no matter how good Turkish-Armenian relations are.

Meanwhile, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian claimed last week in his Wall Street Journal article that "Turkey has gone back on its word" and that it needs to prove its good intentions by deeds. "Turkey pretends that all problems in the region must have a 'comprehensive solution' once and for all. This is a beautiful phrase, but how realistic is it? It is a mere rhetoric, all words and no performance," Nalbandian wrote, referring to Turkey's linking the Turkey-Armenia normalization process to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "Any Turkish attempts to interfere in the Karabakh process or to link the normalization of its relations with Armenia upon its own perception of progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks, harms both processes," he added.

Sergey Minasyan, head of the political studies department at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, said Armenia is seriously considering ratifying the protocols after next year's elections in Turkey. "This will be a way for Yerevan to put international pressure on Turkey, especially if the Turkish government receives a strong mandate from the public in the election," he said.

ARABAŞLIK 'Physical border closed, mental border open'

Despite the lack of formal diplomatic progress, civil society initiatives continue to flourish between the two countries.

"At the official level, Armenian-Turkish relations are frozen now. But at the level of civil society, cooperation continues. After some time, official dialogue between Armenia and Turkey will resume again," said Dr. Stepan Grigoryan, a political scientist and chairman of the board of the Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation (ACGRC) based in Yerevan.

He said it is likely that this official dialogue will restart after the 2011 elections in Turkey and the 2012 elections in Armenia. "Dialogue will continue as the nations come closer to each other and learn more about each other," he added.

Another observer, Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), also said civil society and people-to-people interactions have become quite dynamic, with regular exchanges and visits on both sides of the closed border. "Within this context, although Turkey has yet to open the closed physical border, the mental border between Armenia and Turkey has opened, at least partially," he said.

One recent example of civil society's efforts is the Ani Dialogue, which brought dozens of Turkish activists, professionals, academics and journalists together on Oct. 14-17 with their counterparts in Yerevan. The Ani Dialogue process, which was established by the South Caucasus and Turkish offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, is a new civil society platform aimed at connecting civil society in both countries as well as shaping regional policy making.

A participant in the dialogue, Hasmik Khachatryan, who is from the independent Gala television channel in Gyumri, Armenia, said she is involved in the project not only because she is interested in improving Turkish-Armenian relations but because she would like to have an open border between the two countries. She explained that she would like to show her viewers that there are civilians who are working on improving relations. "I am also interested in meeting Turks and seeing what they think about Armenia," she said.

Emre İşeri, an academic from Kadir Has University in İstanbul who studies the politics of Eurasia, said he participated in the program because he is curious about what the "other side" is talking about and thinking. "How do things look from the Armenian side? That's what I'm interested in," he explained.

Observers have noted that civil society projects that bring people on both sides of the border closer would also prepare the ground to rebuild the ancient Silk Road bridge in Ani, which once spanned the Arpaçay River (Akhurian in Armenian), separating Turkey from Armenia.

Ani, the ruins of a medieval Armenian city, is near Arpaçay River on the border between Armenia and Turkey. The city was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1319. It is now about 48 kilometers outside of the city of Kars in Turkey.

Last week, Tuna Bekleviç, leader of the Strong Turkey Party (GTP), a small political party from Turkey, crossed the border over the river and announced that if the border is not opened by next year, 1,000 Turks and 1,000 Armenians from both sides of the border will repeat the demonstration. Bekleviç announced on his website that he had crossed the border despite news denying that this was true. He indicated that the act was symbolic and aimed at drawing attention for peace not war.

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