By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL, May 29 (Reuters) - Turkey is making a mistake by linking an improvement in ties with Armenia, including reopening their shared border, to a settlement of Armenia’s long-running conflict with Azerbaijan, a think tank report said on Friday.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said this month that the border would remain shut until Armenia withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave it has controlled since it fought a war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.
His comments highlighted the seriousness of the Karabakh problem for Turkey, despite the announcement last month of a joint Turkish-Armenian "road map" towards re-establishing diplomatic ties and opening the border.
"Tying the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement to the Karabakh issue, which won’t be resolved for a long time, is a great mistake, because Turkey’s policy of punishing Armenia has yet to yield the results it wants," said Aybars Gorgulu, co-author of the report for the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.
"Normalisation appears indexed to resolving the Karabakh issue, making it the most serious obstacle, even if the issue is not part of the bilateral talks."
Turkey shut the border in 1993 in a show of support for Azerbaijan, its traditional Muslim ally. Its continued closure has hampered Armenia’s economy and is one of many factors complicating Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
Gorgulu said Erdogan’s latest comments — made after a meeting with Azerbaijan’s president — "negatively impact the rapprochement" with Armenia.
Turkey’s lack of diplomatic relations with Armenia has so far failed to help Azerbaijan reclaim its territory, although normalisation is also unlikely to bring about a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Gorgulu said.
Alexander Iskandaryan, his co-author, said it would be Russia that played the decisive role in settling the dispute, as it still wielded influence over Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet republics. The United States and France are also involved in diplomacy on the issue.
Armenia and Turkey trace their dispute to massacres of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One. Armenia says these amounted to genocide, which Turkey denies.