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Pope Francis hopes for better ties between Turks, Armenians

Odds appear stacked against Pope Francis’ desire for the Turkish and Armenian nations to overcome their historic differences and achieve reconciliation.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (2L) accompanies Pope Francis as he departs from Istanbul after a three day visit, November 30, 2014. Pope Francis said Islamic militants were carrying out a "profoundly grave sin against God" in Syria and Iraq, calling on Sunday for inter-religious dialogue and action against poverty to help end the conflicts there.   REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov (TURKEY  - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)   - RTR4G4WB

Turkish-Armenian relations were back on the agenda again, if only momentarily, after Pope Francis expressed his “dream” last week of seeing the border between the two countries reopened to contribute to reconciliation between the two estranged nations.

Prospects for the pope’s dream, however, looked dim as Turkish analysts indicated that little progress has been made in resolving the issues that divided the sides. Meanwhile, Ankara is bracing itself against the campaign by the Armenian diaspora in the United States to make 2015 the year when the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 under the Ottoman Turkish government is finally recognized by Washington as genocide.

Remarks by Turkish officials show that there is real concern in Ankara that these efforts may succeed on the centenary of the killings. Armenians, with significant international support, say the events of 1915 amounted to a genocide resulting in the death of 1.5 million Armenians in Anatolia, a claim that Turkey rejects.

Although it acknowledges that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died during World War I, Turkey says millions of Muslims, including Turks, Kurds and Arabs, also lost their lives during the war.

Aboard the papal flight from Istanbul, after completing his three-day trip to Turkey, the pope was asked why he had not brought up the Armenian issue during his visit, the pope responded only by referring to the message of condolence to the Armenian president that Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued in 2013 while he was still prime minister.

Erdogan's message, which was issued on April 24, the date when Armenians commemorate the 1915 killings, was a first for Turkey. In an indication of how sensitive the topic still is in Turkey, though, Erdogan was lambasted by nationalists for allegedly playing into the hands of the country’s enemies, and reinforcing a major calumny against the Turkish nation.

Francis said some found Erdogan’s message, which avoids any reference to genocide, to be insufficient, but added that he considered this to be an "extended hand," and therefore a positive development.

“What lies in my heart, however, concerns the Turkish-Armenian border. If only that border was opened, it would be wonderful. I am aware that there are geopolitical problems that make the opening of the border difficult, but we must pray for reconciliation between these nations,” the pope said.

He went on to declare his hope that 2015 would be the year when steps are taken for this reconciliation. Among the “geopolitical problems” he mentioned is the continuing state of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turks and Azerbaijanis are closely related.

Although it was among the first countries to recognize Armenian independence in 1991 — even though it did not establish diplomatic ties — Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 after Armenian forces overran the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.

The border has been closed since, although it came close to being opened in 2009, following talks mediated by Switzerland that produced a road map for normalizing ties between Ankara and Yerevan. 

The “Zurich Protocols” comprising this road map, however, were stillborn due to intractable differences over the events of 1915 and the status of the Turkish-Armenian border. Yerevan refuses to endorse the 1921 Kars Treaty, signed between Ankara and Moscow, which establishes this border.

Meanwhile, Baku succeeded in agitating Turkish opposition parties and nationalist organizations against the Zurich Protocols by arguing that the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border would mean a strategic defeat for Azerbaijan.

Unable to withstand the pressure, Erdogan traveled to Baku in May 2010 and in an address to the Azeri parliament vowed that the border with Armenia would remain closed until the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is resolved.

International efforts since, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to negotiate a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia have failed to produce results. There are those, however, who argue that the Turkish-Armenian border will remain closed even if there is peace between these two countries.

Kamer Kasim, an analyst from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), who focuses on the Caucasus, believes that the problem relating to the Kars Treaty will ensure that the border remains closed, even though it was open prior to 1993.

“Armenia has not officially recognized the Kars Treaty, which means its position on Turkey’s territorial integrity remains unclear,” Kasim told Al-Monitor. Reminded about Armenian efforts to pressure Turkey in 2015 on the genocide issue, and asked if opening the border could help counter this, Kasim said this would not make much of a difference.

“Armenia’s position on genocide recognition is ambivalent. It appears to push for it at times, and withdraws at other times. But the Armenian diaspora is determined on the genocide issue. It will not give up on its efforts even if Turkey and Armenia were to overcome their differences and become strategic partners,” Kasim said.

He also argued against those who say that the Turkish-Armenian border should be opened in the name of realpolitik. “Realpolitik tells us that relations between Ankara and Baku are far more strategic than trying to please Armenia or the Armenian diaspora, because of the vast investments by Azerbaijan in Turkey, and the massive energy project underway between the two countries,” Kasim said.

He also maintained that Turkish-Armenian relations are not a priority issue for the international community currently given what is taking place in the Middle East and the Black Sea region with regard to Ukraine.

This does not mean, of course, that the powerful Armenian diaspora will be less determined to use the 100th anniversary of the 1915 killings to get the United States to recognize officially that genocide was perpetrated by Turks against Armenians. It tried this for years, but has failed so far due to the strategic importance Washington attaches to Turkey.

Mehmet Yegin, USAK’s expert on Turkish-American relations, nevertheless sees a possibility that the Armenian lobby may succeed this time, based on the state of affairs between Ankara and Washington with regard to Syria and other issues in the Middle East.

“There are tensions between Turkey and the US, especially on Syria, at the present time. Vice President [Joe] Biden’s recent visit to Turkey reduced these a little, but serious differences remain. If these continue, the Republicans, who recently strengthened their position in Congress, may change their traditional stance of opposing Armenian resolutions against Turkey to punish Ankara,” Yegin told Al-Monitor.

There are also officials in Ankara who openly declare that the Armenian lobby might be successful in 2015. Altay Cengizer, who heads the policy planning department at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview with the daily Hurriyet that one of Ankara’s “nightmare scenarios” was that the Armenian lobby may succeed in getting the United States to officially recognize the Armenian genocide in 2015.

“I just returned from Washington. I saw the preparations there. Their intention is to leave Turkey facing a past that it can not live down. This is their aim for 2015,” Cengizer said in his Nov. 10 interview. He went on to declare that if the Armenian lobby is successful in this effort, then Turkey will have no choice but to develop a “post-2015 strategy.”

While it is not clear what this strategy might be, it is clear that any recognition by Washington of the events of 1915 as genocide will make normalized ties between Turkey and Yerevan almost impossible, because most Turks believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is Armenia that is really driving the diaspora today.

None of this augurs well for Pope Francis’ dream.

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