Ankara Hails Progress in Talks While Concerns in Yerevan Heighten

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan on Tuesday hailed what he called progress in the ongoing talks to normalize his country’s strained relations with Armenia. His remarks come amid growing concern in Yerevan that Ankara’s increasingly uncompromising preconditions on Armenia may be guiding the negotiations in an untenable direction.

Babacan made his comments during a press conference following the Alliance of Civilizations Summit in Istanbul Tuesday. A day earlier, he and Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandian met with U.S. President Barack Obama at a dinner reception for the summit. Obama urged them to complete talks aimed at restoring ties between the two neighbors.

“We are working on a comprehensive solution and our talks are going well, Babacan said. “We have made significant progress so far and both parties have declared satisfaction over the process several times.”

But Nalbandian did not share his counterpart’s optimism. In a written statement issued on Sunday, the Armenian Foreign Minister accused Turkey of jeopardizing the negotiations process by hinging the opening of the border on a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an unrelated issue according to Yerevan.

Turkish and Western media say the two countries are close to reaching an agreement on a gradual establishment of diplomatic relations and a reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border.

But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that this cannot happen before a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. “As long as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is not resolved, it is not possible for us to reach a healthy solution concerning Armenia,” he told a news conference in London, according to Reuters.

Nalbandian, who was due to arrive in Istanbul on Sunday night, canceled his flight minutes before departure over the statements. He later flew to Istanbul Monday.

The Armenian Foreign Minister explained that the unresolved Karabakh conflict has not been on the agenda of negotiations. “I believe that the statements, which put forth preconditions for the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations, may be regarded as an attempt to impede the progress reached in the negotiations,” he said in reference to the remarks made by Erdogan.

The remarks followed Azerbaijan’s stark warnings to Turkey not to normalize ties with Armenia before a Karabakh settlement acceptable to Baku was reached. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reportedly canceled his scheduled participation in the Istanbul forum in protest of the Armenian-Turkish talks. Aliyev on Tuesday threatened to take retaliatory measures if the Armenian-Turkish border was opened, hinting once again that Azerbaijan would cut off Turkey’s gas supplies.

Besides worries over Azerbaijan’s posturing or the possibility that Turkey and Azerbaijan may be cornering Armenia into an untenable scenario with karabakh, Nalbandian also expressed serious concern over Ankara’s efforts to use the rapprochement as an excuse to prevent international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. “It has been said many times, and I want to stress it again, that the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations can never question the reality of Armenian Genocide,” he said.

Official Ankara sees the warming of relations with Armenia as an opportunity to be leveraged in its ongoing campaign to prevent US recognition of the Armenian Genocide. On numerous occasions over the course of the negotiations process, top Turkish officials, including the Prime Minister, President, and Foreign Minister, have all warned the US that any recognition of the Armenian Genocide would torpedo chances for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.

“I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915,” President Obama said Monday in his address to the Turkish Parliament. “The best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open, and constructive.”

Obama stopped short of using the word “genocide” in his address. But on several occasions, both in his press conference with Gul and in the Turkish Parliament, he stressed that his views had not changed on the matter.

“My views are on the record and I have not changed views,” he said standing alongside Gul.

“The President’s willingness to raise his commitment to recognizing the Armenian Genocide, even indirectly, in his remarks before the Turkish Parliament represents a step in the right direction, but far short of the clear promise he made as a candidate that he would, as President, fully and unequivocally recognize this crime against humanity,” Aram Hamparian, the executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said on Monday in response to Obama’s remarks in Turkey. “We expect that the President will, during Genocide Prevention Month this April, stand by his word, signaling to the world that America’s commitment to the cause of genocide prevention will never again be held hostage to pressures from a foreign government.”

During his 2008 campaign for the White House, Obama referred to the killings of Armenians in World War One as genocide. In a January 19, 2008 statement on the importance of relations between the U.S. and Armenia, Obama said, “as a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”

US legislators introduced on March 17 a resolution (H.Res.252) calling on the U.S. president to properly recognize the Armenian Genocide. The resolution, submitted by representatives Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), George Radanovich (R-Calif.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Its introduction was praised shortly after by the Chairman of the Armenian National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Armen Rustamian. In a March 19 letter to the chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Howard Berman, Rustamian expressed his strong support for US affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, stressing that US recognition would be the greatest contributor to the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations.

“I am confident that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United States not only would not hamper, but on the contrary will contribute to the prospects of a thorough dialogue between Turkey and Armenia,” the letter read. “Any durable improvement of Armenia-Turkey relations must rest upon a foundation of shared respect for truth and justice.”

Erdogan, however, maintains that his nation will never admit to the “so-called genocide.” Speaking to reporters in London Friday he said that for Turkey, it is impossible to accept a thing that does not exist,” referring to the Armenian Genocide.

A letter from 340 European civil society organizations, sent to the White House while Obama was in London Friday, stressed, however, that a US recognition of the genocide would “provide unprecedented momentum to the process of dialogue between Turkey and Armenia” and move the entire region toward a “durable peace,” based on stability, justice and democracy.

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