Hopes have risen in recent weeks that a breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process may be at hand. The Karabakh question was among the topics discussed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a July 18 meeting at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. "I was satisfied to hear the Russian position that it was time to start settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Erdogan as saying at a post-meeting news conference.
Turkey has been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue, and maintains an economic blockade against Armenia in order to keep pressure on Yerevan to strike a deal with Baku. In recent months, however, Ankara and Yerevan have probed for ways to end the Turkish embargo and to normalize relations.
As recently as early June, the prospects for normalization appeared dim. But the two sides have not given up. On July 12, the Turkish television channel CNNTurk revealed that Turkish and Armenian diplomats had engaged in secret talks in an undisclosed European city, during which Ankara reportedly extended proposals aimed at easing mutual animosity. Turkish and Armenian officials have confirmed that a dialogue is ongoing, but have remained tight-lipped about specifics. Turkish media sources have said another round of discussions could occur soon, with Armenia responding to the Turkish proposals.
The major stumbling block on normalization concerns the killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the early 20th century. Armenia is seeking international recognition of the 1915-23 tragedy as genocide. Turkish leaders insist the mass deaths of Armenians did not constitute genocide. Ankara instead characterizes the Armenian casualties as tragic victims of a partisan struggle that raged within the context of the First World War.
During an exchange of letters between Turkish and Armenian leaders in April, Erdogan proposed the establishment of a joint commission to examine the issue with the aim of reaching a consensus interpretation of history. Armenian President Robert Kocharian rejected the proposal, countering that the two countries should form an inter-governmental body that grapples with all questions of bilateral interest.
Ankara has a considerable interest in normalizing its relations with Armenia, as Turkey's dwindling chances of gaining entry into the European Union over the near- to mid-term depend partly on whether Turkish and Armenian officials can settle their differences. During a mid-June visit to Turkey, Joost Lagendijk, the co-chair of the Turkish-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission, indicated that Turkey's chances to overcome growing EU skepticism about Ankara's accession aspirations could depend on its ability to normalize relations with its neighbors. "Turkey must strengthen its relations with Armenia," the Anatolia news agency quoted Lagendijk as saying.
Turkish leaders have sought to reassure Azerbaijani officials that the special relationship between Ankara and Baku will not be weakened by a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. Turkey's ambassador in Baku, Turan Morali, stressed in a television interview broadcast July 14 on Azerbaijan's ANS television that there were "no grounds" for concern about the strength of the Ankara-Baku relationship. Morali went on to tout the potential benefits of a Karabakh peace settlement.
"There will be a new environment for joint work in the region if the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is solved," Morali said. "One should lay and reinforce the foundation [for a durable peace].
Beyond the desire for a Karabakh settlement in the near term, Turkish leaders appear concerned about Azerbaijan's domestic political situation. Azerbaijan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in November and some political analysts have raised the possibility of election-related unrest in Baku, noting that rigged elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan led to revolutionary upheaval in those countries. Ferai Tinc, writing in the daily Hurriyet on June 27, said; "It seems that Azerbaijan will be the next stop for velvet revolutions. They [opposition leaders] have already put orange handkerchiefs in their pockets."
Azerbaijani opposition parties have stepped up the pressure on President Ilham Aliyev's government in recent months, staging public rallies in favor of fair elections. Prior to Erdogan's arrival in Baku, Azerbaijani opposition leaders issued an "Istanbul Declaration," containing a variety of demands aimed at ensuring electoral honesty in November. Opposition leaders not only sought to ensure equitable representation on election commissions, they also called for guarantees of freedom of assembly before and after the election.
Aliyev and other leading members of the government have promised that the elections will be free-and-fair. At the same time, the Azerbaijani president said on the eve of Erdogan's arrival that "there would never be a velvet revolution in Azerbaijan."
During his visit, Erdogan appeared to promote the idea of political dialogue between Aliyev's administration and the opposition. "Throughout history only those regimes that made their people relate to their government with love and trust, not fear, could succeed," Erdogan said during a June 30 address to the Azerbaijani parliament. "In a globalized world, one-sidedness and arbitrary rule are clearly not a solution. We will either be part of a free world, adopting democratic values, or take our place in a darkness that resists change and refuses democracy and human rights. We [Turkey] have chosen the former, and also invite all our friends to walk down this path."
In encouraging democratization in Azerbaijan, Turkey must tread carefully, given that any political dispute could have a severe impact on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. So far, Erdogan's advocacy of democratization in Azerbaijan does not seem to have rankled Aliyev's administration.
Editor's Note: Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.
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