Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Now We're Getting Somewhere, Aren't We?

I'm sorry for being away from the blog so much, but the constant state of flux Armenian international relations has been in this past year is at least partly to blame (and the fact Google Blogs is now blocked at work, where I do most of my analysis!) You see, in the run up to football diplomacy, it was easy and fun to speculate the various potential outcomes and meanings of what that truly unprecedented event was all about. News was always braking and the story took numerous twists and turns. Not long after though, the entire thing went dormant, appearing to the outside as if this diplomacy was like a shooting star which had burned too bright too soon. In actuality though, the business of bringing two age old enemies into agreement on issues is not an easy one or something you want to do out in the light of day with all sorts of radicals waiting to cut you down at every step, so the negotiations certainly continued but completely behind the scenes. In fact we saw nothing at all until suddenly, two days before April 24, a "roadmap" of an ambiguous nature was announced. We all know what happened next with Obama not keeping his pledge to say the g-word (though what we don't know if what went on, once again, behind the scenes, which I believe was deep and in the direction of solving this issue one day). After the roadmap was announced, everything went silent again with most Armenians (diasporans at least) bewildered and confused at what they were seeing from Armenia. The major complaint was that Armenia handed Turkey the ability to knock the genocide off the agenda for another year in exchange for... well for nothing apparent. Meanwhile Azerbaijan ratcheted up the heat calling on Turkey to cancel all contact with Armenia until Karabakh was solved, going to the extent of threatening it. Turkish officials indeed went to Azerbaijan to smooth things over, reassuring Azerbaijan nothing would come between them and that Armenia would be made to pay numerous concessions before anything moved forward.
Where are we today? Well everything is not as it seems because suddenly talks between Turkey and Armenia are being talked about again as if that never happened. The blow-up now appears to have been a face-saver for Azerbaijan to look like it was going to make gains as well from what otherwise would be a blow to it, as it is easy to see how rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia could be interpreted as a lose-lose situation for Azerbaijan vis-a-vis Karabakh. What has kept me from writing about any of this is the fact that the true nature of all these discussions are still hidden and it is almost impossible to know at any time how much we see is just a carefully choreographed dance between the countries (in my opinion most of it!) and what is not artificial. Most Armenians don't seem to know what to think about this, because it seems every major political party in Armenia supports the talks in theory- though of course the Dashnaks have pulled out of the government in protest of the April 22nd statement and Heritage Party found and MP Raffi Hovannisian resigned his seat in Parliament just yesterday as a response to the negotiations. As I said though, despite these moves these parties still seem to support the talks in principle, just not aspects of them as they exist today. For me, it is almost impossible to analyze what is going on because it is impossible to know what the final agreement will look like. On August 31st Turkey and Armenia formally committed to the process and said negotiations will last 6 weeks. This clearly looks extremely artificial because coincidentally football diplomacy part II is scheduled for exactly 6 weeks from now when Sargsyan is scheduled to go to a match in Turkey. To get some heat off from an angry public in the wake of football diplomacy I with little to show for it, Sargsyan said he would not go to Turkey unless the border was open or close to being opened. For most of 2009 however it looked like chances of the border being opened had become even more remote since Football Diplomacy I, not close, meaning Sargsyan would either have to break his word and go or would not be going. The President of Turkey does not make a landmark visit to Armenia for no reason though, so clearly there must have been something more to this whole thing all along. And here it is, 6 weeks to go until the match and suddenly it is announced major issues will be worked over in 6 weeks. At that point it will be up to the countries respective parliaments to pass the agreement and things should pick up from there.
Or will they? Sargsyan certainly has the power in parliament to get the agreement passed if he wants, but the question is whether Gul and Erdogan can. This fall they also will be working to make Kurdish reforms passed through parliament, which will certainly take a lot of political capital to get through. Some are of the opinion that the Armenian issue might need to be sacrificed for the sake of the Kurdish issue at the moment, but that remains to be seen. Just to prove that the wonders never cease, Today's Zaman is just reporting that Azerbaijan may also open borders with Armenia. What?! Wasn't that the country making a huge anti-Armenian fuss just a few months ago? Well of course it was, but if one attributes the real reason for Turkish-Armenian relations to it being used as an alternative transit route instead of unstable Georgia, it doesn't really do much good if travel isn't open between Azerbaijan and Armenia as well, as proposed pipelines begin there. What's interesting about this article is that it says open borders are possible if Armenia surrenders 5 regions it captured in the Karabakh war. The article implies, via an Azeri Foreign Ministry statement, that Azerbaijan is agreeable to moving forward with relations without the immediate release of Lachin and Kelbajar regions as well, leaving them until future negotiations. These two regions are the major bone of contention as if they were given up Azerbaijan would have easy access to cutting Karabakh from Armenia in the future. If true, this would be a huge leap forward towards thawing this conflict in the region.
When it comes to peace negotiations, it also bears mentioning that the whipping boy of my previous entry, Minsk Group co-chair in charge of Karabakh negotiations Matthew Bryza, will be replaced by Ambassador Robert Bradtke. Bryza might not be going far though as the long-running rumor is that he will become the US's new ambassador to Azerbaijan, meaning he will still very much be involved with this situation. In short, it is very hard to know where everything is going. After a mostly frozen years suddenly negotiations are appearing to race ahead publicly, though in fact it seems most of this was likely agreed upon at least as early as April in private. It took until shortly before the game to be the right time to start talking about it in public though as clearly this is not a popular move with many in Turkey or Armenia or the diaspora. Armenia is certainly taking a big risk and it must be extremely careful. Personally, I am trying to feel confident that we won't look back on all this as some major blunder which resulted in Armenia being taken advantage of, and I feel like in the end it won't and cannot be so, though anything is possible. Much is still left to be said and worked out publicly, so perhaps I will have a lot more to write about in the coming weeks. Until then let us all pray for a safe and peaceful process to sound agreements which are beneficial to all.

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