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Turkey-Armenia rapprochement far from guaranteed

14.10.2009.Armenia_Turkish_Border_Guard/Ruters.com/ TBILISI/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's demands for progress in a volatile stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan could see a deal to end a century of hostility between Turkey and Armenia stalled for months to come.

The neighbors signed accords on Saturday in Zurich to establish diplomatic relations and reopen their border after last-minute mediation by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton salvaged the ceremony, underscoring pitfalls that remain.

The deal needs parliamentary approval in both countries, and Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan in particular faces vehement opposition from nationalists at home and the powerful Armenian diaspora abroad.

But the greatest threat comes from Turkey's demand for progress in Armenian talks with close Turkish ally Azerbaijan over the rebel enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has resisted mediation efforts for 15 years.



Mainly ethnic Armenian, Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union in a war which cost 30,000 lives. Armenian-backed forces control Karabakh and a swathe of Azeri territory connecting it to Armenia but Azerbaijan wants the land back.

Analysts and diplomats differ over how firm the Turkish demand for progress on Nagorno-Karabakh really is.

Turkey stands to boost its credentials as a modernizer in the West and remove another hurdle in its bid to join the European Union if Ankara and Yerevan can seal the rapprochement and bury hostility stemming from the World War One mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

But for now Turkey says it wants Armenian concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh to satisfy close Muslim ally Azerbaijan, a key supplier of oil and gas through Turkey to the West and a potential source for Europe's planned Nabucco gas pipeline.

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"There has to be some kind of limited progress (on Nagorno-Karabakh) or something that the sides could refer to as progress in order for Turkey to ratify," said Ana Jelenkovic, research associate at Eurasia Group.

"It could be a joint patrol over the corridor that connects Armenia and Karabakh, some very small withdrawal of Armenian troops. They just need something, but without anything I don't think it will get through on the Turkish side."

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan in its war against the Armenian-backed separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

PROGRESS IN CONFLICT MEDIATION

Azerbaijan's foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement on Sunday, saying the normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia without the withdrawal of Armenian forces would contradict its "national interests."

A senior European diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Reuters last week the chances of Turkey -- which submits the accord to parliament next week -- ratifying the accords without progress on Nagorno-Karabakh were "fairly slim."

Fearing a nationalist backlash, Armenia's government angrily rejects any link between the two issues.
But parallel to the Turkish-Armenian thaw, mediators from the United States, Russia and France have reported progress in intensified talks this year between Sarksyan and Azeri leader Ilham Aliyev on ending the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate.

Analysts say the framework of a peace deal is almost in place, and the two sides are edging toward agreement on the specifics. But they question whether Sarksyan and Aliyev have the will to sell such a deal to their people.

The International Crisis Group think-tank said last week agreement on the basis principles "may be within reach."

But Jelenkovic cautioned, "It remains very likely that Armenia will just not be able to make any kind of concession on Karabakh in order to get Turkey to ratify the protocol."

Faruk Logolu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington, told Reuters, "I don't expect any immediate progress on Nagorno-Karabakh, so I don't expect any progress either on the protocols. Turkey will not take that step for fear of a reaction from Azerbaijan and for fear of losing Turkish voters."

Fadi Hakura, associate fellow at London's Chatham House, said Turkey was trying to buy time in the vain hope of a breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh.

But pressure looks set to mount with the next anniversary of the World War One massacres and with that the risk that U.S. President Barack Obama will label them genocide this time round.

"My suspicion is that the next unofficial deadline will be April 24, 2010, when Turkey will be under pressure again from the (chance of a 'genocide' label from) U.S. Congress and Obama to move forward and ratify the protocols," Hakura told Reuters.

"We will see Turkey procrastinating on the protocols for months, rather than for years."

 

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