Today's Zaman, Turkey
Sept 1 2008

Turkish delegation to visit Armenia for Caucasus talks


A Turkish Foreign Ministry delegation will visit Yerevan this week to
discuss a proposed platform for the troubled Caucasus, Foreign
Minister Ali Babacan announced yesterday.

Babacan, speaking at a joint press conference with his Georgian
counterpart, Eka Tkeshelashvili in Ä°stanbul, said the
delegation will present Turkish ideas concerning the Caucasus
Stability and Cooperation Platform, proposed by Turkey as a mechanism
to develop conflict resolution methods among the Caucasus
countries. The proposed platform is planned to be made up of Turkey,
Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

"Next week, a delegation from the ministry will go to Yerevan. They
will discuss this issue ahead of a possible visit by our president to
Armenia," Babacan said, referring to a visit President Abdullah
Gül is expected to make to Yerevan at the invitation of his
Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarksyan, to watch a World Cup qualifying
game between the national teams of the two countries on Saturday.

"We will present our views concerning the Caucasus platform to our
counterparts in Yerevan." The visit of the Turkish diplomats to
Yerevan marks a turning point in Turkey-Armenia relations, frozen
since 1993 following Armenian occupation of a chunk of Azerbaijani
territory over a dispute in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkey was
one of the first countries to recognize Armenia as an independent
state following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they have no
formal ties. The Foreign Ministry recently confirmed that there have
been contacts between diplomats of the two countries in a third
country.

The question of how to establish contact between the estranged
neighbors Turkey and Armenia is just one of the obstacles that the
proposed Caucasus platform faces. Azerbaijan is unlikely to warm to
any sort of cooperation or contact with Armenia due to the continued
occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgia, for its part, refuses any
contact with Russia unless Russian forces withdraw from Georgia.

Tkeshelashvili reiterated in Ä°stanbul that what Russia must do
now is to withdraw from Georgian territory and fully implement a
cease-fire agreement. After that Georgia can begin assessing proposals
for contacts with Russia in a multilateral setting, she said. Russia,
she said, should see that it cannot act the way it used to in the
past.

She said Russia declared part of Georgian territory as independent
states, referring to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia
recognized last month, and called for joint effort to reverse Russia's
"expansionist" policies.

Babacan admitted there were problems in implementing the Caucasus
platform, which calls for regional conflict resolution mechanisms and
broader economic cooperation among the five countries
involved. "People are wondering when we can officially start
this. This will happen when the conditions are ripe," he said. "Every
country has their stances and concerns. We will talk about
these. There will be intense diplomacy traffic. When the guns are
silenced, it's time for diplomacy."

Analysts say with so many issues of dispute among the five countries,
the idea to bring them around the same table to discuss disputes could
be mere wishful thinking. But contacts have been intense since Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an announced the
proposal. ErdoÄ?an has visited Moscow, Tbilisi and Baku to
discuss the proposal. The Azerbaijani foreign minister had talks in
Ankara on Friday and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is
expected to arrive in Ä°stanbul today for talks on Tuesday.

"We need to shape the future of the Caucasus together," Babacan
said. "It is a time when we need to take brave steps to prevent the
regional tension from turning into global turmoil. Channels of
dialogue must be kept open," he added.

Azerbaijan worries

Analysts warn that contacts with Armenia could offend Azerbaijan,
Turkey's regional ally which also shares close ethnic and linguistic
ties. Babacan assured his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov,
on Friday that Turkey was a strategic partner of Azerbaijan in all
areas but signs of tension were visible during the one-day visit. The
two ministers gave a very brief press statement after their talks and
Mammadyarov said before meeting Babacan that his country would
consider "profitability" concerning a Russian proposal to buy
Azerbaijani oil, a move that would undermine a US-backed pipeline to
transfer Caspian oil to Europe via Turkey.


The government's apparent plans to initiate dialogue with Armenia are
receiving criticism at home as well. Main opposition Republican
People's Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal told reporters yesterday that
the government was trying to reverse the official policy without
Armenia meeting any of the conditions requested by Turkey for
normalization of ties.

He warned against alienating Azerbaijan, saying this country is of
vital importance for Turkey in many respects. "I want the government
to refrain from taking any step that would harm Azerbaijan," he said
and added that he would rather go to Baku than to Yerevan to watch the
World Cup game.