Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, used to say of the Palestinians that they
never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Turkey, sadly, seems to be falling into
that same habit in its relations with Armenia. And, as with Palestine, failure to act only breeds wider
regional instability. In the two weeks before US President Barack Obama's
recent visit to Turkey, there was almost universal
optimism that Turkey would open its border with Armenia. But Obama came and went, and the
border remained close.
Turkish-Armenian relations remain more
about gestures than substance. Indeed, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dismissive recent statements hint that Turkey may even be backtracking on its
plans to establish more normal bilateral ties.
Those ties have been strained since 1993, when Turkey closed its border
with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan in the Armenian-Azerbaijani
conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. When Erdogan and Gul came to power in
nothing changed. The border stayed closed.
In my first meeting with Gul, who was Turkey's foreign minister in 2003, he
acknowledged that Turkey had not benefited from its policy
of linking Armenia-Turkey relations to a resolution of the Azerbaijani-Armenian
conflict. Turkey, he said, wanted to establish
normal bilateral relations with all neighbors. That was music to my ears, and I
told him so.
But Azerbaijani pressure prevailed, and Turkish policy did not change.
course, at that time, Turkey's own interests were not what they
are today. Accession talks with the European Union had not begun;
Turkey wanted an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan; the resolution
Armenian genocide had not gathered steam around the world; Turkey's
economy was not in crisis; and
Georgia-Russia tensions were not in a free-fall.
Today, the world is so different that even Russia and the United States
agree about opening the
Turkish-Armenian border. Indeed, in the face of Russia-Georgia strains,
Turkey can benefit from a new role in the Caucasus. Its proposed
Cooperation and Security in the Caucasus" is a first step. And public
opinion in Turkey is more ready than ever for a
rapprochement with Armenia.
Such a move would make Europe happy, too. Although Erdogan likes to
call Turkey a natural bridge between East and
West, Europe is waiting for Turkey to assume the function that
geography has bestowed upon it. As for Azerbaijan, now that a pipeline
from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan is operational, Azerbaijan
needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Azerbaijan.
And, this month, Turkey has a deadline. Obama committed
himself during his presidential election campaign to calling the violence
against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire by its name - genocide. The
anniversary of those events is April 24.
One would think that these developments provide Turkey with a great opportunity to act in
its own best interests and open its border with Armenia. But Turkey has already missed two such
opportunities. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the right time to establish
diplomatic relations with Armenia. Turkey did not, instead offering mere
recognition of Armenia's independence. No functioning
relationship could come from that.
Then, in 2004, with the beginning of EU accession talks, Turkey had
ample cause to explain to Azerbaijan why improved relations with
Armenia were inevitable. It did not do so,
allowing the opportunity slip away.
History is now offering Turkey a third chance to play a greater
regional role. By actually opening borders, or at least announcing a real date
and actual modalities, Turkey would open doors to a shared
future. But Gul and Erdogan are signaling that they cannot. Before Obama made
it back to Washington, they forcefully and repeatedly announced -
presumably to appease Azerbaijan - that they would not act to open
the border until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was resolved.
But Turkey and Azerbaijan are wrong. Keeping the border
closed will not solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On the contrary, an open
border would facilitate resolution of the conflict - not because it would be a
tradeoff for something else, or come with strings attached, but because an open
border demonstrates evenhandedness towards all neighbors.
An open border between Armenia and Turkey would mean that Azerbaijan could not shirk negotiations. My
grandmother from Marash would have said that Azerbaijan today believes that, with Turkey, it "has an uncle in the
jury," and thus that it can persist in its petulance and intransigence.
An environment of compromise requires a regional environment devoid of threats
and blackmail. Without Turkey tipping the scale for the benefit
of one side in this conflict, both sides must become more accommodating,
especially on security issues. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is about security.
Armenia, sandwiched between two hostile states, is
unlikely and unable to agree to security compromises. Closing a border is an
act of hostility. Opening that border would mean creating a normal regional
History is offering Turkey the opportunity to take regional
relations to a new level. Symbols and gestures are insufficient. And waiting
for a Nagorno-Karabakh solution is no solution at all. It is merely one more
Vartan Oskanian, president of the board of the Yerevan-based Civilitas
Foundation, was Armenia's foreign minister from 1998 to
2008. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project
Syndicate (c) (www.project-syndicate.org