Time to hope

nalbanty-c25dc8It is no doubt Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian’s visit to İstanbul to attend a ministerial gathering of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) on Nov. 24 will be remembered in the two countries’ diplomatic history as the most concrete step toward cooperation after the match held between the countries’ national teams on Sept. 6 in Armenia.

While his visit was an ordinary working visit done in connection with Armenia’s term presidency of the BSEC, and his meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan was not official, it became more obvious during the dinner hosted by Babacan at the Four Seasons that this visit had other meanings.

As I was waiting for the dinner to end, I asked a Turkish Foreign Ministry official about who requested the tête-à-tête meeting. “Does it really matter?” the official replied. “The thing is they are talking with each other inside, which is the important bit.” At the end of the night, Babacan said, “Both parties have the political will to normalize relations.” This implied that these acts were not just made as agenda-setting maneuvers; the intention to normalize relations with Armenia is a sincerely made wish.

Nov. 24 was a considerably busy day for the Armenian delegation. It was the first time the meeting hall of the BSEC Secretariat saw so many reporters. More than 100 Turkish and foreign reporters attended the news conference, which was warm and free from tension. In general, Nalbandian emphasized the importance of resuming diplomatic relations unconditionally and called on the Turkish side to open up the border.

Responding to a question about whether Armenia will put an end to the Armenian diaspora’s activities, he said, “Armenia never did it and will not do it,” implying that Armenia does not influence the diaspora. He provided information about the trilateral declaration signed in Russia and emphasized that the issue will eventually be solved in compliance with the international law. He said he is optimistic about Turkish-Armenian relations.

When he was questioned about the possible effects of the US presidential election on bilateral relations, Nalbandian said: “This is an issue between two countries. Opening border gates will be beneficial to both sides.” He reiterated that Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan will watch the match between two national teams in 2009 in Turkey.

After the news conference, Nalbandian attended the reception at the BSEC. The BSEC member countries were both surprised and happy that the BSEC could provide an occasion for such a meeting. Another piece of happy news was that Turkish Airlines (THY) is preparing to launch regular flights to Yerevan.

The two ministers, who were obviously tired after a two-and-half-hour meeting accompanied also by their undersecretaries and the dinner, held a brief conference in which they said that talks are proceeding in a positive atmosphere. After the conference, Nalbandian presented a special Armenian whistle made from an apricot tree, which is a popular instrument in Armenia and which was introduced to Turkey by Civan Kasparyan, to Babacan as a gift symbolizing friendship.

The Turkish press attached special importance to Nalbandian and live broadcast vehicles followed him all through his talks. Those who closely monitor Turkish-Armenian relations will remember that during and after Gül’s visit to Armenia on Sept. 6, the Turkish press attached great significance to the bilateral relations. The same applied to the Nalbandian visit, the repercussions of which continue. A number of authors examined the reasons for his visit, stressing the change of Russia’s stance toward favoring a solution or the possible impact of the policy Obama will likely follow on the Armenian issue.

Turkish-Armenian relations are certainly important for the welfare and peace of the Caucasus, but the political will seen on both sides cannot be explained only with such arguments. The Turkish and Armenian governments openly state that they are sincere and favor resolving the issue. One of the factors that motivate Turkey is its intention to ensure stability in the region, which includes Georgia. This is also what the US, which is thought to be Turkey’s strategic ally, seeks.

As we appreciate the bold steps taken by both countries, we need to understand their lack of confidence in their publics. As Sarksyan’s pro-dialogue stance was criticized by nationalist groups inside Armenia and among the diaspora, some Turks still argue meaninglessly that Armenia should recognize Turkey’s borders. Since the day it declared its independence, Armenia has not made any claim about Turkish borders; it is also unacceptable under international law not to recognize the borders of a country with which one seeks to establish diplomatic relations.

The Armenian Indepen-dence Declaration, which defines Turkey’s eastern pro-vinces as “western Armenia” from a historical point of view — which tends to be remembered whenever bilateral relations improve — was in place in 1991 when Turkey recognized Armenia, and the Turkish-Armenian border gates were open until 1993. On cannot understand why this declaration, which had been ignored in the past, should now serve as an obstacle to improving relations.

The Armenian community in Turkey, which recoiled and started to act more cautiously following the planned murder of Hrant Dink, is closely following these developments. The Armenian minority felt happy when they saw Kirkor was remembered in the ads prepared for İstanbul as the 2010 European Capital of Culture, but they were saddened by the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s failure to mention that Ani ruins were Armenian heritage on the Web site designed for the ruins.

If we know how to look at it, we can see that there is room for hope for Turkish-Armenian relations. Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisyan announced that the Armenian Electricity Administration and a Turkish corporation signed a deal during Gül’s historic visit to Yerevan. Turkey plans to convene the deputy undersecretaries of five countries in December for the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.

While it is still a ripe idea, it seems that there are plans for convening Russian, Turkish, Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani presidents in İstanbul in 2009. The first opportunity for this will be the meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be held in Helsinki on Dec. 5. Nalbandian said they are ready to assess a proposal for a trilateral meeting among Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Helsinki. If border gates are opened and diplomatic relations established, we have time until the match in 2009, and we should make good use of this time. As talks are now held openly, not secretly as done in the past, everyone is hopeful for concrete progress. But we must be alert against provocations

November 30, 2008

Today’s Zaman 

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