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Border breakthrough impending

By Ernest Petrosyan
Tuesday, April 7
Turkey and Armenia may announce the reopening of the Armenian-Turkish border on April 16. The Turkish and Armenian Governments have agreed on the terms for opening formal talks in three areas: opening the borders, restoring diplomatic relations and setting up commissions to look at disputes, including the one on the tense history between the two nations.

The current Turkish interest in reopening the borders is possibly the consequence of pressure being applied by the European Union to restore and normalize relations with Yerevan. Developments are being followed by U.S. President Barack Obama, who is currently visiting Turkey. At a news conference with his Turkish counterpart Obama said that "I want to be as encouraging as possible about those negotiations, which are moving forward and could bear fruit very quickly, very soon, so as a consequence what I want to do is not focus on my views right now," Obama said. "When our Government came to power there were almost no relations between Turkey and Armenia, and now we are in talks with Armenia to normalize relations. I hope these talks will yield the best possible result,” Abdullah Gul, the President of Turkey, stated at the news conference.

According to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan the issues of the Armenian-Turkish border opening, Nagorno-Karabakh, the events of the early twentieth century and relations between Russia and Georgia will be discussed among other issues at his forthcoming meeting with Obama. “Obama's decision to make Turkey the final, two-day stop on his European tour has been welcomed in Ankara as a sign of the country's strategic importance,” he stated.

However Azerbaijan opposes the reopening of the borders. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to protest against Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in Azerbaijan, following a bloody war. That conflict remains unresolved and the Azerbaijan authorities refuse to have any kind of relations with Armenia unless it is. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani authorities have warned official Ankara that they will cut off natural gas supplies to Turkey if the Turkish-Armenian border is opened without significant progress on Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish press officers confirm that Baku has informed the Turkish Foreign Ministry of this.

Azerbaijan signed a gas supply memorandum with Russian company Gazprom on March 27, which concerned the transportation of natural gas via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline. Russia will purchase the gas at market prices. Turkey receives Azerbaijani gas at a cheaper rate, 120 USD per 1,000 cubic metres, whereas the world market price is 350 USD. Russia is seeking to use all of Azerbaijan’s natural gas, despite existing agreements, and has offered to pay market price or better for it.

The Wall Street Journal states that the US and EU have realized they have limited influence in the South Caucasus region, as was proved during the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 when Russia cut Georgia’s main East-West railway communications by destroying a bridge, thereby indirectly cutting the supply route to Armenia. The vulnerability of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries up to one million barrels per day, was also demonstrated during an admittedly unsuccessful attack during the August Russian-Georgian war.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza, the State Department's envoy in the Caucasus, has said that normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia would "create a new and positive dynamic" in relations across the region, "as well as in developing the economic and transport links we have been pursuing ever since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.”

The head of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce Jemal Inaishvili agrees that the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border is a very positive event in the South Caucasus region but says it will adversely affect the Georgian economy. “Georgia will lose transit income because trade between these two countries was conducted through Georgia. This will inevitably impact on the Batumi and Poti ports,” Inaishvili added.