Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that Armenia must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan to assure his parliament's approval for a peace accord signed between Turkey and Armenia.
"Turkey cannot take a positive step towards Armenia unless Armenia withdraws from Azerbaijani land ... if that issue is solved our people and our parliament will have a more positive attitude towards this protocol and this process," Erdogan told a party congress in Ankara.
Turkey and Armenia signed an accord on Saturday aimed at restoring ties and opening their shared border. Last-minute disagreements delayed the signing for more than three hours, forcing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to engage in intense talks to salvage a deal.
The Turkish and Armenian parliaments must approve the accord in the face of opposition from nationalists on both sides and an Armenian diaspora which insists Turkey acknowledge the killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians during World War One as genocide.
"We will bring the protocol to parliament but parliament has to see the conditions between Azerbaijan and Armenia to decide whether this protocol can be implemented," Erdogan said.
Turkey cut ties and shut its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan which was then fighting a losing battle against Armenian separatists in Karabakh.
In his comments, Erdogan looked to reassure ally Azerbaijan, which reacted angrily to the deal, saying it could threaten security and "cast a shadow" over its relations with Ankara.
"The normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia before the withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied Azeri territory is in direct contradiction to the national interests of Azerbaijan," the Azeri Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
In a strongly worded statement, the ministry said the deal "casts a shadow over the fraternal relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, which have historical roots.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian signed the Swiss-mediated deal in Zurich at a ceremony also attended by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
In a statement Lavrov welcomed the accord, saying Russia was happy and would lend support.
"The essence of the documents is evidence of both countries' firm resolve to do their part ... Not one of the steps can be interpreted as damaging to any third party," he said.
If the agreement comes into effect, it would boost European Union-candidate Turkey's diplomatic clout in the volatile South Caucasus, a transit corridor for oil and gas to the West.
Turkish officials told Reuters the two sides had many disagreements over statements each was due to make in Zurich, including oblique references to the Karabakh conflict. In the end, neither Davutolgu nor Nalbadian made public statements.
Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, said in reaction to Erdogan's speech: "The Turkish side needs to play to its domestic audience. Erdogan and other political figures have made such statements often enough ... It's a fact that neither the word Karabakh nor Azerbaijan appears in the documents that were signed."
Although landlocked Armenia stands to make big gains, opening its impoverished economy to trade and investment, Armenia's leader Serzh Sarksyan faces protests at home and from the huge Armenian diaspora, which views the thaw with suspicion.