Karabakh Eyes Armenia-Turkey Thaw With Suspicion

The recent warming in the relations of the two estranged neighbours provokes ambiguous reactions in Nagorny Karabakh.

Karabakh Eyes Armenia-Turkey Thaw With Suspicion

The recent warming in the relations of the two estranged neighbours provokes ambiguous reactions in Nagorny Karabakh.

In the Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, there is only one topic of discussion right now: the possible restoration of the ties between Armenia and Turkey, opening of the borders, and what it all means for people here.

With the Swiss playing the role of mediators, Armenia and Turkey on April 23 announced they had agreed on a so-called road map leading towards normalisation of relations, broken off by Turkey in 1993.

Political parties, NGOs and local authorities in Nagorny Karabakh have reacted by maintaining that the problem of Armenian-Turkish relations cannot be resolved aside from the Karabakh conflict.

They say the border issue, acknowledgement of the 1915 Armenian genocide and the problem of Nagorny Karabakh’s status must be solved in one package.

The unrecognised republic, which has a population of about 140,000, has been demanding independence from Azerbaijan since 1988.

At the beginning of the Karabakh conflict, Turkey – which hotly disputes the scale of the killings of 1915, as well as use of the term genocide – proclaimed itself Azerbaijan’s “elder brother” and in 1993 imposed a blockade on Armenia.

Many Armenians continue to regard Turks and Azerbaijanis as members of the same nation, associating both with the terrible events of 1915.

Therefore, political experts in Nagorny Karabakh view the problem of Armenia-Turkey relations and the Karabakh issue as elements of a single national issue.

“It’s a very tricky situation for Karabakh, since we place Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan relations in one bracket,” Hrachia Arzumanian, a local expert on security issues, told IWPR.

Arzumanian says local people were surprised to hear that Armenia and Turkey had agreed on a road map towards better relations just before April 24, when Armenians traditionally commemorate the events of 1915.

They had been expecting to hear the word genocide in a speech by United States president Barack Obama that day. He had promised to use the term during his presidential campaign. In the event, Obama used the Armenian phrase mets yeghern instead, which means great massacre.

“Now this trump card gives them [the Americans] a good excuse to draw back from recognition of the genocide,” Arzumanian continued.

“Another strange thing here is whether Turkey has made this step forward towards warming relations without preconditions and whether Karabakh will pay the price for this.”

David Babaian, head of information for the Nagorny Karabakh president, Bako Sakahian, doubts the entity will be sacrificed on the altar of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.

On the contrary, “the thaw in Armenia-Turkey relations simply rules out the rhetoric of one-sided concessions to Azerbaijan”, he said.

“It’s in Turkey’s interests to emerge as the main geopolitical actor in the South Caucasus; but it must do so without setting any preconditions, because this undermines that whole process,” he went on.

The information chief noted that in the Azerbaijan-Karabakh conflict, if the balance of power tilted too far against the entity, “this threatens not only us, but Armenia too. The Armenian authorities know this, so I think the [peace] process is for the sake of all Armenians and for Karabakh’s sovereignty as well”.

Not everyone is convinced that Nagorny Karabakh stands to benefit from a rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara, however.

“I am against the border reopening right now, on the eve of anniversary of the genocide, and I’m afraid that in taking this step Armenian diplomacy is losing its advantage,” David Ishkhanian, a representative of Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF, in Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorny Karabakh), said.

Ishkhanian said Azerbaijan and Turkey remained united in pursuit of their anti-Armenian policy.

“It’s time to reopen a ‘Karabakh front’ in diplomacy and unite the efforts of the diaspora, Armenia and Karabakh towards reaching our common goals,” Ishkhanian said.

Meanwhile, April 24, the 94th anniversary of Armenian holocaust, was marked by extraordinarily active and crowded rallies in Nagorny Karabakh.

People lit candles all night long while youth organisations arranged a torch-lit procession, which ended with burning of the Turkish flag – notwithstanding the protests of law-enforcement agencies.

A large number of Nagorny Karabakh residents gathered at the memorial to the genocide victims in the capital Stepanakert in spite of rainy weather.

“This year, especially with regard to recent political developments, I was particularly eager to take part in the commemoration of the genocide and tell the whole world about the necessity of its recognition,” Anush Gavarian, of the Club of Young Political Analysts, said.

“It wasn’t Armenia that closed its borders with Turkey but vice-versa. Turkey acted against Armenia and still tries to speak set preconditions.”

No fan of the current reconciliation process, Gavarian said she feared a repeat of events in the 1920s, when Russia and Turkey “decided to sacrifice Armenians and possibly the whole of Karabakh for the sake of their own interests”.

Gavarian was referring to Stalin’s decision to place overwhelmingly Armenian populated Nagorny Karabakh within the borders of Azerbaijan.

Karen Ohanjanian, leader of the Social Justice Party, told IWPR that local people felt uninvolved and marginalised by much of the recent diplomatic activity.

“The public has no knowledge of the context of the road map or about the talks between Armenian and Russian presidents on the principles of Karabakh conflict resolution,” Ohanjanian said.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently met his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsian near Moscow to discuss energy cooperation and the Karabakh conflict.

“I hope no preconditions are set at our expense or, as leader of one of the most powerful parties in Nagorny Karabakh, I will take steps to mobilise the masses to prevent any alteration of the Karabakh security system,” Ohanjanian said.

“Karabakh can’t cede any territories to the detriment of national and physical security of its residents.”

All political parties in Nagorny Karabakh have released a common statement, urging the international community to acknowledge the genocide of 1915 and recognise the independence of the entity.

According to Vahram Atanesian, head of the Democracy faction in parliament, “recent processes show Russia and Turkey are trying to solve the problems in the South Caucasus in accordance with their own interests”.

He urged politicians from Nagorny Karabakh to “remind the international community and the mediators that a resolution of the Karabakh conflict in line with the concept of dividing the South Caucasus into spheres of influence is unacceptable.

“Any solution that doesn’t envisage our independence within fixed borders is inadmissible for us.”

But Masis Mailian, chair of Nagorny Karabakh’s Foreign Policy and Security Council, sounds a more cautious note.

He describes the joint statement of the foreign ministries of Armenia, Turkey and Switzerland on the road map as convenient for Turkey but not as necessarily detrimental to Armenians.

“If Turkey really claims a regional leadership role, it must no longer remain captive to the senseless ambitions of Azerbaijan,” he said.

Mailian said he hoped Ankara’s more “pragmatic attitude” towards Armenia might lead to the restoration of diplomatic ties and reopening of the borders.

“These moves might [then] prompt Azerbaijan to soften its position, leading to more constructive view of the resolution of the Karabakh conflict,” he added.

Ashot Gulian, speaker of the Nagorny Karabakh parliament, also supports Yerevan’s drive to heal relations with Turkey.

“The Armenian side is apparently more interested in reopening of the borders [than is Turkey],” he noted.

But the speaker still describes the thaw in relations as mutually beneficial, adding that it need not undermine moves to gain world recognition of the 1915 genocide.

“The opening of the Armenian-Turkish border is necessary for both sides,” he said.

“But since it was stated before that the reconciliation process must lack any preconditions, the efforts to achieve recognition of the Armenian genocide can’t have any influence on the normalisation of Armenia-Turkey relations.”

Meanwhile, the numerous traders who have been enjoying the more open border regime between Armenia and Turkey for some time – and who sell products brought from Turkey in Nagorny Karabakh – follow events with interest.

“I have been traveling to Turkey to buy goods for seven years, and frankly, I have never had any problems there,” Marta Arzumanian, a shopkeeper, told IWPR.

An acknowledged fan of the road map , Arzumanian added, “Personally, I think reopening the border will make our work much easier and will reduce taxes.”

Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert.

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