March 5, 2010 / 9:11 AM / 10 years ago

Turkey says U.S. genocide vote endangers Caucasus peace

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey said on Friday chances of its parliament ratifying peace protocols with Armenia were jeopardized by a U.S. congressional panel vote that labeled as “genocide” the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses the media in Ankara March 5, 2010. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey and its fellow Muslim ally, Azerbaijan, saw the U.S. vote undermining efforts to stabilize the South Caucasus, a volatile region with pipelines taking oil and gas to the West.

“This decision will not bring peace to the Caucasus,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference hours after Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington.

Turkish leaders reacted with fury after the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee narrowly passed a non-binding resolution that tarred their grandfathers with the same crime as Nazi Germany.

President Barack Obama had made a last ditch attempt to get the House panel to drop a resolution that would anger a valuable NATO ally, whose support was important for U.S. interests in Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Some European leaders have discouraged Turkey’s bid for EU membership.

Analysts said this new slap from the United States ran a risk of further alienating Turkey, at a time when there were concerns that its warmer ties with neighbors Iran and Syria, and Russia too, marked a shift away from the West.

A U.S. envoy in Ankara distanced the administration from the panel’s vote after being invited for talks by Turkish officials.

“We believe that Congress should not make a decision on the issue. We are against new action,” U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey told reporters.

It was unclear whether the bill would be considered by the full House or become enshrined in official U.S. policy.

Davutoglu said Turkey’s efforts to resolve disputes with Christian Armenia, rooted in ethnic and religious enmity, would go on. But, he went on to warn that ratification by parliament of peace protocols signed last year to open the border was now in greater doubt due to the U.S. lawmakers action.

“Yesterday’s decision has brought the risk of not delaying but halting the process for the ratification of protocols,” Davutoglu said.

FLASHPOINT

“This resolution pours petrol on the fire,” said Hugh Pope, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. “It hands the discussion back to the nationalists on both sides.”

For its part Armenia applauded the U.S. vote and indicated desire to move forward in relations with Turkey.

“At the current time, there is no single political reason for official Yerevan to change its position with regards the normalization of relations with Turkey,” said Galust Sahakyan, parliamentary leader of the Republican Party of President Serzh Sarksyan.

But fallout from the vote reverberated around the fractious nations of the South Causcasus.

The parliament in Azerbaijan, a friend of Turkey and foe of Armenia, said the vote could destroy efforts to resolve the conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“The adoption of the resolution ... could reduce to zero all previous efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem,” the Azeri parliament said in a statement.

The vote, it added, “damages efforts to restore peace and stability in the region.”

Late last month Azerbaijan warned that a “great war” in the South Caucasus was inevitable if Armenian forces did not withdraw.

Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Armenia, threw off Azeri rule in fighting that broke out as the Soviet Union headed toward collapse in 1991. An estimated 30,000 people perished before a ceasefire was agreed in 1994.

Turkey had also sought an Armenian withdrawal as one of the conditions for ratifying the protocols.

DISTRACTION

Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks but denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounted to genocide — a term employed by many Western historians and some foreign parliaments.

The outcry could prove a distraction from political crises brewing at home following the detention of dozens of military officers suspected of planning a coup in 2003.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning government is also at odds with the judiciary, which alongside the military is a stronghold of Turkey’s old guard of conservative, nationalist secularists.

Additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Afet Mehtiyeva in Baku; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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