Armenia and Turkey — not so fast

KIEV, Ukraine — Turkey and Armenia have engaged in “soccer diplomacy” days after the two countries signed a monumental peace deal — a landmark step that could lead to the end of nearly a century of hostile relations between them and transform their region.

President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia plans to attend a World Cup qualifying match with Turkey in Bursa, near Istanbul, on Wednesday, in a reciprocal gesture after his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, traveled to the Armenian capital Yerevan for a World Cup game last year.

Gul’s visit — not quite on the level of Anwar Sadat’s journey to Israel but nevertheless a groundbreaking gesture — culminated in a signing ceremony Oct. 10 in Zurich, Switzerland. There, Armenia and Turkey’s foreign ministers (under the eyes of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy representative) signed protocols that could ultimately normalize relations and open their shared border, which has been closed since 1993.

For both countries, full relations would deliver significant benefits. Armenia is a tiny, land-locked nation, suffering heavily from the world economic downturn. Its two international borders, with Georgia and Iran, provide some trade, but the country is for the most part economically isolated. With an open border, the 77 million-strong Turkish market would open up.

Turkey for its part would take another step toward its goal of becoming a dominant regional power, and a major oil and gas corridor. Ankara also wants to become a member of the EU, and Brussels has indicated that the lack of ties with Yerevan is a key stumbling block.

But a number of factors remain that could still unravel the entire peace process between these historic and bitter adversaries — for one, their shared history.

A century ago, Armenians were concentrated in the portion of the Ottoman Empire that is now northeastern Turkey. When World War I broke out, large numbers sided with Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Turks’ adversary. Masses of Armenians were killed in the fighting, and the entire region was emptied of its Armenian population, which had lived there since antiquity.

Armenians, supported by numerous international historians, say what happened was genocide and ethnic-cleansing, and possibly up to 1.5 million perished. Turkey says that regular fighting accounts for the deaths, and that the numbers are grossly inflated and likewise play down Turkish fatalities. Discussing the “Armenian genocide” is a punishable crime in Turkey (though recently it seems application of that law has softened somewhat).

The difficulties became bluntly evident at the signing ceremony itself. Clinton arrived in the Swiss commercial center expecting to give her blessing to a done deal. Instead, she was forced to scramble to save the event itself, as the two sides refused to sign since they could not agree on the wording of their final statements. In the end, the signing took place without any additional remarks.

Probably the most controversial element of the agreement is a clause establishing a joint commission to investigate what is simply called the “historical dimension” of the two countries’ relationship.

For Armenians the committee is a potential means to water down the historical truth. For Turkish nationalists, it provides ammunition to Armenia’s historical claims.

And then there is a third party whose reactions to the Zurich peace deal could ultimately spell its success or failure: Azerbaijan, an oil-rich ex-Soviet state bordering Armenia.

The two countries went to war in the 1990s over Nagorno Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijan that declared independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Though a cease-fire was agreed upon in 1994 — after hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes and tens of thousands perished on both sides — no final peace deal has been signed. The Karabakh Armenians are de facto independent and control large swathes of additional Azerbaijani territory, but they are diplomatically unrecognized and sustained militarily and financially by Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora.

Turkey’s decision to sever relations with Armenia in 1993 was a show of solidarity with the Azeris, ethnic cousins of the Turks and Ankara’s closest ally in the region. Turkish leaders have promised the Azeris that they would not open the border until a final peace agreement was reached. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated this pledge.

“We want all conflicts to be resolved and we want all borders to be opened at the same time,” Erdogan said. “As long as Armenia does not withdraw from occupied territories in Azerbaijan, Turkey cannot take up a positive position.”

Baku has already voiced bitter objections to the Zurich deal, saying that it “clouds the spirit of brotherly relations” between Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Azerbaijan’s border with Armenia is also closed. Since Armenia’s ongoing economic isolation has been one of Azerbaijan’s strongest negotiating points, Baku fears that once the Turkish side is opened, Yerevan will be less likely to compromise.

“There is an awful lot of pressure on the Turks from Azerbaijan to extract some concessions on the Karabakh issue out of the agreement,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the region and author of a history of the Karabakh war, "Black Garden." “The Azerbaijanis are worried that if the Turkish border opens it will reduce the incentives for the Armenians to give up occupied Azerbaijani territories.”

Observers throughout the region hoped that the prospect of a separate agreement between Armenia and Turkey would help jump start the Armenia and Azerbaijani talks. But their expectations were deflated significantly after a highly anticipated meeting last week between Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, his Azerbaijani counterpart, in the Moldovan capital Chisinau ended in stalemate.

The two peace processes are “not linked, but they are obviously complementary,” said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based consultancy on conflict resolution. ICG recently issued a report warning that tensions are rising around Karabakh and the cease-fire arrangement is “increasingly fragile.”

Now the peace deal must be ratified by Armenia and Turkey’s respective parliaments, which may prove to be the biggest hurdle of all. On the Turkish side, Erdogan’s remarks on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict may indicate that his ruling Justice and Development Party is cooling to the agreement. The reaction among many Armenians has been even stronger: Tens of thousand protesters gathered in Yerevan and in Armenian diaspora throughout the world.

Like the “soccer diplomacy” which gave it its initial boost, the peace deal looks like it will be kicked around a great deal more before it eventually comes to vote.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a word in Sheets' quote.