Armenia: New cards at play

A Turkish concession to Armenia that isn’t quite historic, but which could lead to greater things

A Turkish concession to Armenia that isn’t quite historic, but which could lead to greater things

yerevan araratTurkey has made a historic concession to Armenia, the neighbour it does not recognise, during secret talks in Vienna, according to CNN Turk reporter Barçın Yinanç. She says in her blog entry that the Turks have stopped demanding a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute before diplomatic relations are established. The two countries are now on track to setting up a high commission to look into relations between them. “It is an important step that could be considered historic,” says Ms Yinanç. But is it really that?

Turkey was the first country to recognise Armenia when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Things faltered after that; diplomatic relations never really got off the ground, and while Turkish embassies sprung up in nearby former Soviet republics like Azerbaijan and Georgia, relations with Armenia remained unofficial. When war broke out in 1994 between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey sealed shut its 268km border with Armenia. Azerbaijan did the same.

Neither border has opened since, and it has been Armenia that suffered most. The country is hopelessly poor. Its only realistic avenue for trade with the west is through a small border with Georgia, hundreds of kilometres north of the capital.

In the 12 years since the border was sealed, the Armenians missed out on the opportunity to be a corridor for one of the largest oil pipelines outside of Russia and the Middle East. The pipeline in question goes from Azerbaijan to southern Turkey via Georgia; taking it through Armenia would have been a far more sensible route, and cheaper too. Think of the millions of dollars that could have resuscitated their economy. All because a closed gate.

With the situation as gridlocked as it is, it is interesting that the Turks seemingly blinked first yesterday. They have always had the upper ground: sure, the closed frontier does not help the regional economy in eastern Turkey, but the effect on the country’s national economy is small, and the enthusiasm to resolve the dispute has consequently been smaller still. So why the concession?

It might be a case of preemptive action. See, for all their weaknesses, the Armenians have one powerful bargaining chip – that of a potential genocide in 1915. The facts are disputed; the Armenians say it was part of a centuries-long conspiracy to eliminate their kind in Ottoman Turkey, the Turks deny it with arguments that range from “it didn’t happen” to “we didn’t do it”. Armenia’s influential diaspora has exploited it abroad to considerable success over the years, be it with Canada’s recognition of the events as genocide or French motions making it an offence to deny it ever happened. But it wasn’t really until talk popped up of including genocide recognition in Turkey’s EU accession talks that the diaspora began to pose a serious diplomatic threat.

Perhaps Turkish authorities are beginning to see that the diaspora can make things even more uncomfortable for them. Perhaps they see that Armenia can no longer be ignored. Perhaps they are aware that a stricter definition of their position over the massacre – or genocide, or non-entity, or whatever – might be needed very soon.

Yesterday’s Turkish concession is actually tiny. With it, they have simply agreed to meet and talk about the possibility of meeting again, perhaps that time with someone keeping the minutes. That means little on its own. But it might be the starting point for a greater concession, an admission of the vaguest sort that something horrible happened 91 years ago. Now that would be historic.

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