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Armenia: Turkish Reshuffle May Threaten Reconciliation

Recent dismissal of Turkish foreign minister Ismail Cem unnerves Armenia, where he is seen as key to an improvement in relations between the two countries
By Ara Tadevosian

Only a few years ago, the sacking of a senior government official in neighbouring Turkey would have left Yerevan indifferent, but this is no longer the case.

This time it reacted to the dismissal of Turkey's foreign minister, Ismail Cem, with unusual alacrity. "Yerevan prizes internal political stability in Turkey," said a government statement.

The two nations, which became totally alienated decades ago, started talking again earlier this year. Whereas before, Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers would meet, at best, once every two years, Ismail Cem and his Armenian counterpart, Vardan Oskanian, have held talks three times in the last six months.

Cem has highly praised their on-going dialogue, insisting that it's "far exceeded his expectations". "Things are clearing up," Oskanian was quoted as saying after one of their meetings, at the World Economic Forum in New York February 1.

In a further sign of the new spirit of cooperation Oskanian and Cem flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, in May for a trilateral meeting with their Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Guliev, to discuss the disputed ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. The two men met again in Istanbul in June.

"We believe that if Armenia and Turkey had established a rapport 10 years ago, the Nagorny Karabakh stalemate would be resolved by now," Oskanian was later quoted as saying.

The enclave and Turkey's genocide of Armenians over eighty years ago remain the two great bones of contention between the two states. Ankara wants Yerevan's troops to evacuate what it calls "occupied Azerbaijani land" and refuses to take the blame for the massacre of 1.5 million people in 1915, or accept it occurred.

Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, is considered a hardliner over Karabakh. His other foreign policy priority is to push for international recognition of the genocide.

The recent rapprochement between the two nations was to a great extent engineered by the United States and the European Union, who have long sought a peace deal for the Caucasus region.

"We are constantly looking for ways to improve Turkish-Armenian relations," the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said recently. "Without going into details, I can tell you we have been in touch with both Turkey and Armenia on the subject."

Oganes Oganesian, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Armenian Parliament, explained Ankara's new willingness to deal with Yerevan in terms of the expanded regional role it has assumed since September 11. "The absence of diplomatic ties with Armenia hobbles Turkey's peacemaking efforts in the southern Caucasus," he said.

Cem's sacking came at a time when the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, at governmental and grassroots levels, was being hailed as irreversible.

Businessmen have been quick to seize the new commercial opportunities. "I've been importing leather goods from Turkey for three years," said Ovannes Abramian, a small trader in Armenia. "My business has become much easier since Turkey relaxed its visa restrictions." Abramian travels to Turkey three times a year to replenish his stocks.

"Before, I had to go to Tbilisi when I needed a visa," he continued, "Now all I need to do is pay 10 US dollars at the border. I can sell my goods a little cheaper."

Lia Bakhshinian, manager of a Yerevan travel agency, Armenia Travel, said easier visa procedures would boost business as more Armenians are travelling to Turkey. "Armenians love Turkish seaside resorts. Up to a thousand of our countrymen a year spend their vacations there. But these figures will soon multiply," she told IWPR.

Analysts say Turkey's transport blockade of Armenia and the lack of economic ties between the two states costs Yerevan between 100-500 million US dollars annually.

Few here oppose better ties with Turkey. "Diplomats, business people and common people are all for it," said Saak Martirosian, a history teacher. "The whole region will be better off if we start being friends again."

Armenian diplomats saw Cem, whom many perceive as the chief architect of Turkish-Greek rapprochement, as the key to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. The latest political crisis in Ankara and Cem's sacking threaten to disrupt the latter.

Hopes plummeted as reports came from Ankara that Cem's successor was to be Sina Sukru Gurel, notorious for his hard line stance on Cyprus.

However, Noyan Soyak, Turkish co-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, hastened to assure the Armenian side that the positive trends in Turkish-Armenian relations would be preserved. He may be well informed. As Ankara has no diplomatic representation in Armenia, it frequently relies on TABDC executives as intermediaries.

Established in 1997, the council is co-chaired on the Armenian side by Arsen Kazarian, a prominent businessman and chief of the Armenian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

TABDC is working on resuming railway traffic between Kars in Turkey and Gumri in Armenia. It also plans to restore some Armenian churches in there. Most recently it took the Armenian string quartet, Comitas, on a Turkish tour last May. The quartet is named after a composer who developed a mental disorder after the 1915 massacre.

"The key to better Turkish-Armenian relations is a changed mentality on both sides," said psychologist Yervand Margarian. "When Armenians stop playing 'victims', and Turks stop being chronically wary of Armenians, our politicians will be ready to talk."

Ara Tadevosian is director of the Yerevan-based Mediamax news agency

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