Turkey's goodwill gestures towards Armenia continue

ANKARA - Although Turkey has made several gestures of goodwill towards Armenia in recent years, Armenia's reluctance in re-establishing diplomatic relations has hampered attempts in making full reconciliation a possibility. 

In the past four years, Turkey has re-opened two Armenian churches for service in the eastern province of Van and in the southern eastern Diyarbakir province. Turkey's foreign minister has made his first official visit to Armenia in December 2013 -- the first in four years, and the country has accommodated Syrian Armenians fleeing from the civil war.

Being one of the first countries to recognize Armenian independence on December 16, 1991, Turkey provided humanitarian assistance to Armenia which was facing economic difficulties after independence and actively supported the country’s integration with regional and Euro-Atlantic organizations. However, favorable conditions to establish diplomatic relations with this country have not materialized.

Turkey, wishing to normalize its bilateral relations with Armenia in order to contribute to an atmosphere of comprehensive peace and cooperation in the South Caucasus, started to unilaterally implement certain confidence-building measures. 

The first step taken with this objective in mind was the signing of the "Protocol on Establishment of Diplomatic Relations" and "Protocol on Development of Relations" on October 10, 2009. Both protocols were signed in Zurich as a result of a negotiation process facilitated by Switzerland.

This was a promising first step providing a framework for the normalization of bilateral relations. However, it was soon revealed that there would not be a second one, at least one taken mutually.

The Armenian government, in accordance with its relevant regulations, first sent the protocols to establish diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia to its Constitutional Court in order to have their constitutionality approved. Although the Armenian court found the protocols to be commensurate with the Armenian Constitution, its reasoned statement contained contradictory elements to the letter and the spirit of the Protocols. Afterwards, the protocols were submitted to the Armenian National Parliament and on April 22, 2010 the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan suspended both protocol ratifications -- a move that stalled the historic reconciliation process.

Turkey remained committed to taking things forward nonetheless, and decided to re-open two Armenian churches for service. 

In 2010, the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akdamar was re-opened in the eastern province of Van, followed a year later by Diyarbakir's Surb Giragos, the biggest Armenian church in the Middle East. 

In 2013, the first baptism ceremony in 100 years was held at the Akdamar Church. The ceremony was presided by Archbishop Aram Atesyan, deputy patriarch of the Armenian Patriarchate based in Istanbul, and was attended by a large number of the Armenian diaspora.

These steps seemed to be taken as a response to occasional EU criticism that minorities in Turkey were not allowed to perform their religious services freely, and that Turkey was prejudiced towards the Armenians living in the country.  

A further criticism was refuted when 11 plots of land and properties belonging to Armenian foundations were returned to their owners over the past three years.

- 'Psychological threshold' crossed

A so-called "psychological threshold" was crossed in the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, when he visited Armenia on December 12 to attend a meeting of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC).

At the meeting with his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandyan, Davutoglu underlined once again the importance of improving relations with Armenia, and stressed that problems could only be solved through dialogue. The first visit in four years to capital Yerevan by a Turkish foreign minister was considered an important step towards the possible revival of a dialogue process between Turkey and Armenia. 

The latest and most recent gesture of goodwill was made in early April when 18 Syrian Armenians caught in the middle of clashes in the Syrian town of Kasab were brought over to Turkey. The Armenians were accommodated in a village in Hatay province along the Syrian-Turkish border, and all necessary measures were taken to provide their basic needs.

Armenia's reluctance to normalize relations despite all Turkey's attempts, has stalled a resolution between Turkey and Armenia and development of their cooperation, and it is yet to be seen if Yerevan will heed Turkey's call to first resolve the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Armenia's withdrawal from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent territories is important to Turkey, which has often suggested that a step in this direction would pave the way for the re-opening the border with Armenia, which Turkey closed in 1993 after Armenian troops occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territories, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in 1992.

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