- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Turkey’s persistent denial of the massacres of Armenians during World War I is threatening the European Union’s common energy policy, relations with France and the operations of a major U.S. base on Turkish territory.

In the latest move to block efforts by the French parliament to brand the 90-year-old massacres as genocide, Turkey has frozen relations with Gaz de France, an energy partner in a consortium planning a major pipeline to bring Caspian Sea natural gas to the heart of Europe, bypassing Russia.

Shortly before announcing the freeze last week, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that approval by the U.S. Congress of a similar bill would cast “a serious shadow” over U.S. relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally.

Diplomats said the Turkish warning might include restriction of U.S. military activities at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, a logistics and transportation hub for much of the Middle East. The Bush administration has urged congressional leaders to consider the strategic implications of the bill.

Turkey’s refusal to accept responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman empire has dogged its relations with U.S. and European partners for many years.

Now it has affected plans to construct a 2,000-mile, $6 billion pipeline project named Nabucco to carry natural gas from Iran and the Caspian Sea area across Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Austria.

The project, slated to start next year, is described as the European Union’s first significant effort to forge a joint energy policy in the face of Russia’s use of gas supplies as a weapon in its diplomacy.

A quarter of natural gas used in Europe comes from Russia, which in early 2005 turned off the taps to Ukraine in a pricing dispute. Ever since, the diversification of energy supplies has been an EU priority.

“Turkey knows its value as a major transit country for this project and is making the most of it,” said one diplomatic source. The Turkish Energy Ministry said the freeze on Gaz de France would be reconsidered after the French presidential elections in May.

Turkey’s latest move against an EU member country comes at a time of increasing nationalism and political fervor before a Turkish presidential vote in May and parliamentary elections that must be held by November.

Mr. Erdogan, a potential presidential candidate, is apparently working at solidifying his own and his governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) power base.

Nationalism is growing as a factor in Turkish politics, partly because of the slow pace of membership negotiations with the European Union. Many Turks think the Europeans don’t want them in their midst.

Strong nationalist feelings are particularly evident when it comes to the Armenian massacres. Turkey says the Armenians — accused of cooperating with Russia when it was at war with Turkey — died during a “resettlement march” to Syria.

Ankara says there were no more than 300,000 victims, as opposed to the 1.5 million cited in most Western documents dealing with the massacres.

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