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A NEW RAILWAY LINE AND SOME REGIONAL REALITIES

Semih İDİZ
25 July 2008 - Milliyet
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="justify">The ground breaking ceremony yesterday for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, attended by the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia,  is yet another bitter reminder for Armenia of its growing regional isolation, and the economic consequences this is having for the country and its people.

Ýir supporters in the U.S. Congress, have been unable to prevent this project going ahead, just as they were unable to prevent the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline project, which is currently up and working. Attempts at preventing such projects demonstrate a lack of understanding, of course, of how things work in this part of the world, and who is exactly in a position to stop such major initiatives.  

  Washington's role: Washington, on the other hand, is the last capital that would do this, given the growing stake it has in Azerbaijan and Georgia, apart from its large vested interest in Turkey, and the delicate regional balances it cannot afford to overlook. Ironically Washington's hand in Armenia was even further weakened after the diaspora in the United States, with support from within Congress, prevented for a long time the appointment of an ambassador to Yerevan, because ambassadorial candidates refused to pronounce the “G-word,” in line with the government's policy. This was a classic example of the diaspora harming the interests of Armenia and the United States since the lack of an American ambassador in Yerevan was hardly of any consequence to Turkey, but had diplomatic consequences for those two countries. The same diaspora is relying now on presidential candidate Barack Obama in the belief that he will be the one to browbeat Turkey into a position that changes all of this to the advantage of Armenia. Some say Obama will go that way, regardless of the cost to Washington. Others argue that this is unlikely to happen given the same regional realities that will prevail if Mr. Obama is elected president, and the fact that he will not be in a position to alter these, but only manage them as best he can in order to serve the interest of his country, and not that of the Armenian diaspora in his country. This we will have to wait and see. All that can be said under normal circumstances is that the only option open to Washington is to try and bring about a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and this is what its policy is based on at the present time.  

  The French example: Then there is the French example, after the parliament in that country tried to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide. That case showed that such efforts come at a cost, not just to relations with Turkey, but also to relations between Armenia and Turkey. Many sober-minded analysts believe that Washington under any president will maintain its current policy and shy away from steps that will make a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey harder, and not easier. There are indications that Armenia's new president Sergh Sarkissian, although a hardliner himself until recently, is coming around to this realization also, and is therefore seeking means of opening channels of dialogue with Turkey. His namesake Prime Minister Tigran Sarkissian is said to be pursuing a similar line, and was reported by the Arminfo news agency as telling a young group of diaspora Armenians recently that they as Armenians cannot go on indefinitely with a policy of enmity toward neighbors. But this new approach in Yerevan has angered not just diaspora Armenians in the United States, but also hard-line ultra-nationalists within Armenia, including former president, Robert Kocharian. Needless to say both Sarkissian's are accused of toying with treason, and of preparing to sell out on the Armenian cause. This negativity in Armenia and among members of the diaspora is also said to be prompting second thoughts in the Presidency in Ankara on the question of whether President Gül should attend the Turkey-Armenia football match in Yerevan in early September after being invited by President Sarkissian. But Ankara has also been giving concrete signs that every positive step by Armenia will be reciprocated. This is why many believe Gül should go to Yerevan regardless of what kind of a rude welcoming the ultranationalists there, led by the Dashnaks, may have planned for him.  

  Serious obstacles: There are many serious obstacles to overcome in relations between Armenia and Turkey before ties are fully normalized. No one can afford to be naïve on this score. But the simple fact is that nothing will happen unless the leaders of the two countries decide to take bold steps that may not please all of their citizens, and particularly the ultra-nationalists. Then there is of course the Karabakh problem between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has to be solved if true cooperation in the southern Caucasus to everyone's advantage is to start. This will also require brave steps on the part of the two countries. Given these obstacles it is sometimes hard to be optimistic about the prospects of improved ties between Turkey and Armenia. But life becomes much more difficult if one does not retain some optimism at all times, even in the face of difficult odds.

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