EU enlargement commissioner uses Armenia against Turkey

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule on Tuesday urged Turkey to press on with stalled reconciliation efforts with Armenia and linked the issue with Ankara’s EU membership bid.

“Good relations with neighbors are very important in the framework of any country’s entry to the European Union,” Fule told journalists during a visit to the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

“The EU must also make efforts to help both sides end this deadlock,” he added.

Armenia and Turkey signed a deal in October to establish diplomatic ties and open their border after decades of hostility stemming from World War I-era killings of Armenians under Ottoman Turks.

The ratification of the deal by the two countries’ parliaments has stalled, however, with both sides accusing the other of trying to alter the terms of the agreement.

Tensions between Ankara and Washington, which strongly backed the deal, have added to uncertainty over the agreement. Ankara reacted with fury last month after a U.S. House committee voted a bill branding the World War I killings as “genocide.”

Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Namık Tan, headed back to his post on Tuesday after being recalled during the spat.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin died in deportations and orchestrated killings under the Ottoman Empire during World War I and have pressed for international recognition of the massacres as “genocide.”

 Turkey strongly rejects the genocide label and counters that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with Russian forces invading the crumbling empire.

Israeli minister compares Erdoğan to Libya’s Gaddafi

Already-strained ties between Turkey and Israel hit a fresh snag Tuesday with harsh comments from Israel’s firebrand foreign minister, who compared the Turkish prime minister to the leaders of Libya and Venezuela.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is slowly turning into Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“It’s his choice. The problem is not Turkey, the problem is Erdoğan,” Lieberman said.

The Israeli foreign minister’s remarks came as Erdoğan told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Israel does not want peace in the Middle East. The Turkish prime minister also said one country in the region already possesses nuclear weapons, referring to Israel.

Lieberman, who heads an ultranationalist party, has become known for his belligerent tone, which has earned him critics both abroad and inside Israel. He told Yedioth Ahronoth that Erdoğan should deal with Turkey’s “problems with the Kurds” rather than “preach” to Israel and accused the Turkish leader of damaging decades of “excellent” ties.

The hard-line foreign minister also warned Palestinians against plans to unilaterally declare independence next year, saying that such a move could prompt Israel to annex parts of the West Bank and annul past peace agreements. His remarks Tuesday took aim at a Palestinian policy that has emerged as U.S. attempts to restart peace talks have stalled.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose Western-backed administration has a limited governing role in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, has announced plans to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, possibly as early as the summer of 2011 – even without a peace deal.

If Palestinians declare independence, Lieberman said, Israel could revoke the 1990s peace agreements known as the Oslo accords or even annex parts of the West Bank.

Israeli Chief of Staff: ‘Relations with Turkey warming’

Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has signaled that relations between his country and its once-close regional ally Turkey are warming again after a period of tension.

“Our military relations are excellent and I believe that political problems will soon be overcome,” Ashkenazi told the Turkish press Monday.

Ashkenazi, the first Israeli army chief to visit Turkey since 2005, joined a NATO conference on terrorism and international cooperation and held talks with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. İlker Başbuğ, and Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül.

“This was an important meeting and there is no need to emphasize Turkey’s strategic significance and centrality, for many and diverse reasons,” Ashkenazi said in a statement released early Tuesday by the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF.

Ashkenazi discussed bilateral military cooperation and shared his vision about regional issues related to Iran, Syria and Lebanon, as well as their ties with Hamas and Hezbollah. He also informed Başbuğ about the IDF’s “Operation Cast Lead” and the Second Lebanon War.

His one-day trip aimed to mend deteriorating ties with Ankara, according to a report by Tel Aviv-based daily Haaretz.

“We have an interest in strengthening ties with Turkey and I have noticed a similar Turkish desire. The cooperation between us will continue,” the IDF chief said.

Ashkenazi also placed a bouquet of flowers in the mausoleum honoring Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. He signed the memorial book by writing in Hebrew: “On behalf of the Israeli Defense Forces, it is honor to commemorate great leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He was a special leader and [is] still a role model with his unique profile, vision, military capability and extreme devotion.”

A diplomatic row broke out in January that led Israel to apologize for Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s actions when summoning Turkish Ambassador Oğuz Çelikkol over the anti-Israeli content of a TV series. Ayalon deliberately humiliated the envoy by seating him on a lower chair, saying to the press in Hebrew, “You see, their place is lower than ours.”

Israel has since made overtures to repair ties with its closest ally in the Muslim world.

Greece to send official to improve bilateral relations

Greece’s deputy foreign minister is set to pay a formal visit to Turkey on April 8 for talks designed to improve bilateral ties and prepare the ground for a summit of the two neighbors’ prime ministers, he told an Athens radio station Wednesday.

“The Turkish foreign minister invited me to Turkey and I have accepted his invitation,” Dimitris Droutsas said during an interview with Athens Radio. “We have expressed the political motivation that we want to move forward with our relations with Turkey. The Turkish government has showed the same motivation.”

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also confirmed the visit, saying Wednesday that the prime ministers of Turkey and Greece would work to boost relations.

The Turkish and Greek parties would have the opportunity to exchange views on several matters during Droutsas’ visit to Turkey, the ministry said.

The ministry also said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had earlier meetings with Droutsas within the scope of international conferences in London, Britain and Cordoba, Spain.

During the interview with Athens Radio, Droutsas rebuffed criticism, which has mainly come from ultranationalists, that the Greek government has been “passive” toward Turkey.

Droutsas also said the meeting between George Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would take place at the end of May or during the first days of June.

By: Chris Loutradis

Davutoğlu and Barzani discuss polls, terrorism

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met with the former prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq during a dinner late Tuesday for talks on the Iraqi elections and the fight against terrorism.

Davutoğlu and Nechirvan Barzani, deputy leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, met in Istanbul. Diplomatic sources told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that the two discussed the post-election period in Iraq.

Turkey, which played a key role in the pre-election period for the participation of all ethnic groups in the political process, says the coalition government to be established following the March 7 parliamentary elections should be broad-based and all ethnic groups should reach reconciliation on a government program.

Another issue discussed was the economy, according to sources who underlined that the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, where Turkey recently opened a consulate, would be like Amman 20 years later in terms of business.

The fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, was also one of the major issues at the dinner. Diplomats said there was an understanding between the two countries that the PKK is an element that poisons bilateral ties. Compared to a problem with confidence a few years ago with the Iraqi Kurds, Turkish diplomatic sources said there was harmony in their words and deeds today.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also met with Barzani on Wednesday.

Israel’s Top Commander on Rare Visit to Turkey

Amid the worst-ever political tensions between Israel and Turkey, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of Israel’s General Staff, arrived here for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Ilker Basbug, commander of the Turkish armed forces.

Ashkenazi came to the Turkish capital to take part in an international NATO conference concerning terrorism and international cooperation. But Turkish military sources said the visiting commander would mainly hold talks with the Turkish chief of staff.

Ashkenazi also is scheduled to meet with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul. The last visit by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief took place in December 2005, with a visit by Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.

Turkey and Israel boosted their relationship to a strategic partnership level in the mid-1990s, but their ties substantially deteriorated last year because of Israel’s military offensive against Palestinians in Gaza and Turkey’s repeated and harsh condemnation of the move.

The most contentious moment came last October, when Turkey expelled the IDF from planned international air maneuvers in Turkish airspace.

Ashkenazi is the second top Israeli official to visit Turkey in recent months in an effort to reduce tensions. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak briefly visited here in January.

Greek PM: Turkey Must Pull Troops Out of Cyprus

Turkey should withdraw its troops from Turkish Cyprus if the Ankara government really wants to join the European Union, a Greek member of the European Parliament has said.

“Turkey needs to obey some specific rules to integrate into the European Union,” Niki Tzavella, the first vice chairman of the political group Europe of Freedom of Democracy, or EFD, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review last week. “Otherwise, it would either experience problems with other EU member states or face membership difficulties.”

According to Tzavella, Turkey also threatens the security of Greek territories.

“We, as Greek politicians, cannot see how Turkey can keep a threat of war against Greece in the 21st century. This threat has caused my country a lot of defense expenditures,” she said. “If Turkey wants to improve its relationship with Greece, the Parliament should withdraw casus belli against Greece. We all consider it one of the hottest issues between the two countries. We take it very seriously.” Casus belli is a Latin term referring to justification for acts of war and refers to offenses or threats directly against a country.

Turkey still tops the list of countries perceived as a threat by Greece, whose government’s defense expenditures have pushed the limits of its state budget. A Turkish-Greek dogfight over the Aegean Sea cost 10,000 euros for each fighter jet. Because of this security dilemma, Greece has increased its defense expenditures to $76 billion over the past decade.

Queen city

Tzavella also said Greeks see Istanbul as the queen of all cities around the globe. “I do not think there is someone who would not fall in love with Istanbul after seeing the Bosphorus.”

The Greek parliamentarian believes the title of European Capital of Culture is a good opportunity that can contribute to Turkey’s EU membership efforts. “For Turkey, it is a good chance that should be used properly,” she said. “Most Europeans still consider Istanbul as an Oriental city more than a Western one. It is a good chance that will present the modern face of Turkey.”

An economist who has worked in various European countries, Tzavella also worked for Howard University at the United States and as an advisor to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Greek deputy also contributed to bringing the Olympic Games back to Athens.

Army Ebbs, and Power Realigns in Turkey

Ankara increases pressure on Washington

In two days time, the U.S. House of Representatives will be voting on a resolution claiming the Armenians were subject to genocide in 1915. Turkish officials are conducting lobbying efforts prior to the voting on the motion, however President Obama is expected to step in at the last minute to ensure the resolution is not adopted.

Ankara has increased pressure on Washington prior to the March 4th voting by the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution for the 1915 incidents to be declared genocide. While it appears the pro and con votes are currently at 50 to 50 percent, Ankara’s goal is to try to influence those that are currently undecided. At this time, support is being sought out by the Jewish lobby, businessmen, former congress members and other lobbyists. Washington Ambassador Namik Tan has spoken with the chairmen of a variety of Jewish establishments, such as ADL, AJC and AIPAC.

All eyes are on the President

Ankara is expecting that US President Obama will intervene should the resolution be brought to the US Congress. Ankara is expecting that even should the resolution be passed by Congress, President Obama will use his Presidential authority to prevent the resolution from being adopted. Turkey is delivering the message that for the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia to not be obstructed and if importance is placed on collaboration with Turkey, especially regarding Afghanistan, then the USA must “offer help, for us to reciprocate.”

Chief EU Negotiator Calls for Cyprus Settlement by April

Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union talks, Egemen Bağış, has urged Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders to reach a settlement by April this year.

“There are leaders on both sides who are eager for a solution, which has yet to come,” Egemen Bağış told a seminar in Tallinn. “I am hoping that they will come up with a settlement by April because that is when Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat’s term ends. And it seems unlikely that he can get re-elected.”

Bağış rejected the Cyprus issue as “a pre-condition” for Turkey’s membership in the EU, saying that the EU should not have allowed the Greek Cypriot administration into the union before it had solved its border disputes.

Bağış also criticized the Greek Cypriot administration for blocking the opening of further policy chapters in Turkey’s accession talks. The Turkish negotiator said the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, had been extending full support to the settlement of the Cyprus issue since it came to power in 2002.