Deal between Turkey and Armenia halted over 'unacceptable conditions'

Efforts to ratify ground-breaking agreements between Turkey and Armenia have been dealt a serious blow.

ISTANBUL // Efforts to ratify ground-breaking agreements between Turkey and Armenia have been dealt a serious blow as Turkey says a recent Armenian court decision establishes new and unacceptable conditions for a rapprochement between the two neighbours. Observers say Ankara, faced with strong domestic resistance, seems to be looking for excuses to delay the implementation of the agreements.

"Armenia has started an operation on the text" of the agreements, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, told journalists during a visit to Saudi Arabia this week. The Armenian move was "totally unacceptable", he said. Mr Erdogan was referring to a recent decision by Armenia's constitutional court that cleared the way for a parliamentary ratification of the agreements signed with Turkey last year.

Ankara says the court decision, while confirming that the agreements did not violate Armenia's constitution, contained several unacceptable points. The foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu voiced Turkish concerns in a telephone conversation with Edward Nalbandian, his Armenian counterpart. But some observers in Turkey say Ankara's stated discomfort is really an effort to blame the Armenian side for a lack of progress in the reconciliation efforts between the neighbouring states. "The government is either fooling itself or trying to fool the world," Erdal Guven, a columnist, wrote in yesterday's Radikal newspaper. "I do not know which is worse."

After months of secret negotiations under Swiss moderation, Mr Davutoglu and Mr Nalbandian last October signed two protocols designed to put Turkish-Armenian relations on a new footing. The agreements say the two countries are ready to establish diplomatic relations, open the closed border between them and create a joint commission of historians that will look at the causes that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during massacres in the final days of the Ottoman Empire 1915.

Armenia and much of the international community say the massacres constituted genocide, a description that Turkey rejects. The signing of the protocols in Zurich was seen as a historic step of reconciliation. Turkey's government sent the agreements to parliament soon after the ceremony in Switzerland. But so far, neither country has ratified the agreements. Now Turkey says the Armenian constitutional court has complicated matters further.

The court ruled on January 12 that the protocols were covered by the constitution, but could not be interpreted in a way that contradicted Paragraph 11 of Armenia's declaration of independence, according to an unofficial translation of the decision posted on the court's website. The paragraph of the declaration of independence says that "Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia".

Turkey also objects to another point in the ruling that says the protocols do not concern "any third party". Ankara sees that as a reference to the conflict between Armenia and the Turkish ally Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorny-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave on Azeri territory. Although the Karabakh conflict is not mentioned in the protocols, the Turkish government has said repeatedly that its parliament would ratify the agreements only if Armenian forces start to withdraw from the region.

Following the court ruling, the Turkish foreign ministry said the Armenian side had hurt the process of rapprochement between the two countries. "This decision contains preconditions and restrictive provisions which impair the letter and spirit of the Protocols," the ministry said in a statement. Mr Erdogan's government has been facing strong opposition from nationalists who accuse him of turning his back on Azerbaijan by signing the agreements with Armenia.

The opposition leader Deniz Baykal said the Armenian court decision had dealt a deadly blow to the protocols. The government's initiative to mend ties with Armenia had ended with a "fiasco". Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, called on Mr Erdogan to withdraw the protocols from parliament. Observers say the very fact that Mr Erdogan linked the ratification of the protocols to the Karabakh question was a consequence of nationalist pressure at home and of complaints from Azerbaijan.

"This is the weakest rung in the government's Armenian initiative," wrote Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Milliyet daily. He noted the government had started to work for reconciliation with Armenia "without taking into account the opposition coming from Azerbaijan and nationalist groups in Turkey". Only after coming under pressure from those two camps did Mr Erdogan introduce the "Karabakh precondition", Idiz wrote.

By saying that Turkey will only ratify the protocols if Armenia withdraws from Karabakh, the government in Ankara has in effect tied its own stated interest of improving relations with Yerevan to the resolution of a conflict beyond its borders that Turkey has very limited influence on, Guven wrote in Radikal. Now the government was trying to use the Armenian court decision to blame the lack of progress on Yerevan. "I have my doubts whether there are many people outside Turkey who will believe that," he wrote.