|Yerevan-Van flight: a new route to controversy?
This year seems to be an “annus mirabilis,” a year of wonders and surprises for the Caucasus and its neighborhood in terms of political change. What we are seeing is that many issues that were put on the back burner have come back into play.
One of them, undoubtedly, is Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, which, despite the Zurich Protocols signed in 2009, has been suspended since 2010. Over the past year, however, Turkish and Armenian businesses have been trying to thaw relations, and last year’s discussions about direct flights between Yerevan and Van were part of that. Van is attractive to Armenian tourists because of the church on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island (“Surp Khach” in Armenian), which was restored in 2007 and re-opened as a museum. Thus it comes as no surprise that the Armenian media has hailed the first Yerevan-Van flight, scheduled for April 3, as a “pilgrimage,” managed jointly by Armenian travel agency Narekavan and Turkish Borajet.
For now, particularly over the past few days, Azerbaijani politicians and political commentators have been commenting on and criticizing this initiative, arguing that it is against both Turkish and Azerbaijani interests. The obvious counterargument is that there are already direct flights between Turkey and Armenia, so why is the Van-Yerevan route perceived as a threat by Azerbaijan?
However, there are several reasons behind Baku’s anxiety.
First of all, Azerbaijanis feel that Turkey should have a plan for the centenary of the 1915 tragedy in 2015, but nothing has been said about such a plan, let alone any details. Azerbaijanis feel that there is a lack of transparency surrounding this issue, which has spawned fears about the reopening of the rapprochement process. After the re-election of President Serzh Sarksyan on Feb. 18, Turkish President Abdullah G├╝l sent his congratulations just a few days later — and before the victory had been officially announced. This was considered a rash move by Azerbaijani politicians for two reasons. First, President G├╝l is still considered by some Azerbaijanis as the “true initiator” of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process, and secondly, the 2008 “football diplomacy” process started in a similar way, using similar tactics. Even after the failure of the Zurich Protocols, President G├╝l declared that Turkey will continue “silent diplomacy” with Armenia — meaning behind closed doors. In this regard, while Turks respect G├╝l as a skilled politician, Azerbaijanis are less certain.
Second, recent months have seen a number of small steps. For example, Turkish Airlines (THY) announced that it will distribute the Turkish-Armenian Agos newspaper on all international flights. In the same vein, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) recently demanded a parliamentary investigation to identify and address the problems of Armenian migrants living in Turkey. Also recently, Turkey’s former ambassador to Russia, Volkan Vural, a supporter of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, said in his interview with Agos that Turkey should offer the Armenian diaspora the chance to return to Turkey — with Turkish citizenship as an option.
Third, the Armenian and Turkish business circles that facilitated the Van-Yerevan flight argue that this will stimulate the flow of tourism from Armenia to Turkey, creating economic benefits for both countries. Neither the suggested tourism increase nor the economic benefit stands up to scrutiny. At present, Armenian national air carrier Armavia Air Company risks being declared bankrupt due to a lack of passengers (notably when returning to Yerevan), high ticket prices and debt to the airport. In this case, the $250 Van-Yerevan ticket seems unlikely to help Armenia, as argued by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov at a news briefing on March 19 in Baku, where he also said that it is not clear whether these flights will be profitable.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan supports any move by Turkey that could help with the progression of the negotiations towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. One of the proposals made to Yerevan on Armenian participation in the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project, which is expected to be concluded by the end of this year, was that the Turkey-Armenia railway could be reopened with a few minor refurbishments. One can argue that Armenian participation in this project will help boost the economy, its integration into regional processes, and at the same time build a connection to Europe. Also, Armenian participation not excluded, one article of the BTK railway agreement states that the “project is open to all countries in the region that wish to contribute to good, neighborly relations, peace and prosperity.” So both Azerbaijan and Turkey have from the beginning calculated for possible Armenian participation — if Yerevan ends its occupation of Azerbaijani territory. In this regard, arguing that minor activities (flights, etc.) could boost the Armenian economy is potentially misleading.
Fourth, anyone monitoring the Azerbaijani media on this issue might see statements by local politicians as harsh and premature, and in some sense, it is true that if one side officially or unofficially wants to raise its concerns, there must be certain high-level officials who articulate these thoughts. But there is a great deal in the media on the Van-Yerevan flights. For example, on Iran’s Azerbaijani broadcast, the March 17 news stated that the ÔÇťfundamentals of Turkish foreign policy are not guided by values of supporting the Turkic world, and the values of strategic partnership in which Azerbaijanis believe.ÔÇŁ Similar patterns can be found in news sources from other foreign countries — for instance, Russia. This kind of news reporting can easily swing public debate in the wrong direction — namely, an anti-Turkish one.
Ultimately, public perceptions are crucial to bilateral relations. If political action gives rise to questions, and the Turkish government does not answer those questions in a timely and comprehensive fashion, others will fill the information vacuum in a way that does not suit Turkish interests.