ANKARA (Today’s Zaman)–Matthew Bryza, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, met with columnists from the Turkish Today’s Zaman newspaper this week where he spoke about Turkey’s role in the region, its drive to enter the EU, the ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
Asked about the ongoing case against Ergenekon, an underground group associated with the Army that plotted to overthrow the government, Bryza said “democracy requires that a country’s political future is determined by voters at the ballot box through elections and through political processes, that’s the constitution.”
“We all know that the fundamental tenets of the constitution are democracy, secularism and rule of law,” he said.
According to Bryza, Turkey has proven repeatedly that it can move through tough issues, like the Ergenekon investigation, constitutional challenges, challenges to the electoral system and memoranda that generate much tension in society. “There are very serious allegations that need to be worked through. And the truth needs to come out,” he said.
Asked if a military coup would threaten US-Turkish relations, he said: “You can imagine, were there a military coup in Turkey that would be quite disruptive for many people and for many relationships that Turkey’s officials have of course with the US. Why Turkey matters so much strategically, one of the reasons, is because of its democratic system.”
In regard to Turkey’s relations with the European Union, he said there are a few important months ahead and referred to the support given to Turkey’s EU accession by US President Barack Obama on his visit to Europe and Turkey.
“A lot of the future prospect of Turkey’s EU accession depends on the Cyprus question,” he said, apparently commenting on the upcoming European Council report due in December evaluating Turkey’s progress in fulfilling its obligations.
“Turkey has to make an obligation to open its ports, its airports to Greek Cypriot vessels. We also understand that Turkey wants to make sure that all of these issues are dealt with in the context of a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue. And we have some reason to hope that Cyprus settlement discussions brokered by the UN are making progress,” he said.
Bryza said they hope breakthroughs will begin to come in late September, adding that the Cyprus question is continuing on a positive track with help from all: the international community, the US and the EU, but essentially the parties themselves.
“Forcing them to do it simply is not going to be workable because there will be referenda again. And eventually the parties will either vote for or against, depending on how comfortable they are with the settlement,” he said. “If you talk to the UN secretary-general’s special representative, Michael Moller, you’ll hear cautious optimism.”
In response to a question on the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia as well as the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Bryza said the processes are separate.
“They are moving in parallel but at different speeds. One process will make progress one day or one week faster than the other one. And the other one catches up and moves ahead of it. We know that as one process makes progress, the mood generally improves in the region, and it’s easier to make progress on the other one,” he said, adding that Azerbaijanis sometimes don’t necessarily agree that the normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations and the opening of the border is a positive element.
“I have a different view. I tend to believe that as the Armenian side senses the possibility that it could have a normal relationship with Turkey and its border could open, it actually does become more flexible or has become more flexible,” he said.
He also said that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was constructive during the last two meetings he has had with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on May 7 in Prague and on June 4 in St. Petersburg.
“Opening the border is one stage in the normalization process. It’s not an immediate step. It happens as other things fall into place and as the Turkey-Armenia normalization process moves forward, which gives us time to get the breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh that we need. And hopefully if we are successful in forging that breakthrough in Nagorno-Karabakh, then we don’t have to deal with this very difficult question,” he explained.
In addition, Bryza referred to the Russian role in the process as “constructive.”
“As difficult as our relationship has been with Russia and Georgia, they have been equally positive on Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said, adding that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has twice been involved in a helpful way.
“He helped last Nov. 2 by getting the declaration of Presidents Aliyev and Sarkisian outside of Moscow at his residence,” he said. “And then again at St. Petersburg, he played a constructive role when he brought the presidents together for a dinner. And after that the mood has much improved.”
In response to the question about Russian motives in the Karabakh peace process, he said he is not at all “suspicious” because the Russians have their own reasons for favoring normalization between Turkey and Armenia.
“Maybe they calculate that their strategic position in the South Caucasus will improve over time,” he said.
The Zaman columnists asked Bryza as to why no major statement had emerged from the St. Petersburg meeting between Aliyev and Sarkisian. Bryza said it is “not a bad sign.”
“They chose not to make any big statement because the process is continuing. President Aliyev was worried that maybe the process wasn’t going to continue after the Prague meeting. And we saw in St. Petersburg that it was.”
He also touched on the issue of alleged provocations by Ergenekon supporters to influence the Azeri public against the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.
“I haven’t looked into that. I would say that the Azerbaijani people don’t need much provocation. They are very much against the Turkey-Armenia border opening and normalization.”
Bryza also commented on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), saying that it had been “seriously damaged” as a result of US-Turkey cooperation in intelligence sharing decided upon on Nov. 27, 2007.
“We have also seen at the same time a significant increase in the government of Iraq and specifically the Kurdish regional government’s operations to eliminate this terrorist threat.”
When it comes to the issue of energy, he said the US and Turkey have a strong legacy of strategic cooperation based on energy.
After the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline, there is also the second phase of cooperation to try and help Europe diversify its supplies of natural gas through a southern corridor which consists of the Nabucco pipeline and the Turkey-Greece-Italy pipeline as well as interconnections of the gas networks of Turkey and other European countries, he said.
“And it’s going well. Turkey has a chance to elevate its strategic importance for all of Europe by being a reliable transit state. That means it needs to treat Azerbaijan as a partner and finish its gas transit negotiations, reach an agreement with Azerbaijan and also be a reliable state for transit gas, especially from Iraq and from Turkmenistan into Europe.”