Geopolitical prospects for the South Caucasus depend in many ways on the progress in Armenian-Turkish relations. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the persisting confrontational relations between these two countries impede considerably the transformation of the Caucasian region – which abounds in other unresolved ethnic and political conflicts – into a territory of peace and steady development. Indeed, the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations will create additional prerequisites for settling the dragged-out conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (Turkey’s strategic ally) over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Also, the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border will enable the Armenians to break out of regional isolation (two of Armenia’s four state borders are closed today), to turn into a transit country, and to get access to the European markets.
As for Turkey, improvement of relations with its neighbor will bring it much closer to its three strategic goals – rapprochement and closer integration with the European Union; broad penetration into the Caucasus (in addition to its cooperation with Azerbaijan); and Turkey’s becoming an independent center of Eurasia, which would be less dependent on the U.S. and NATO. However, for almost two decades since the Soviet Union’s breakup and Armenia’s emergence as an independent state, the two neighboring countries have failed to move from confrontation to good-neighborly relations.
Armenian-Turkish normalization is also required due to external factors. The revolutionary upheavals in Middle East countries can follow unpredictable scenarios (growth of political Islamism, more active involvement of Iran in the Middle East geopolitics, an escalation of tensions between Tehran and Washington, or the deterioration of Iranian-Israeli and Turkish-Israeli relations). All of these “background factors” may affect the South Caucasus. In the face of possible threats, the settlement of old conflicts (or, at least, substantial progress in it) would allow both Ankara and Yerevan to focus on resolving crises and risks and preventing new ones.
THE 1990s: FIRST STEPS TOWARDS EACH OTHER
The recent history of relations between Turkey and Armenia began after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of independence by the former Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Turkish researcher Mustafa Aydin rightly wrote that “Turkey’s relations with Armenia have been an especially delicate issue because of the legacy of distrust between the two nations and the historical baggage that they brought into the relations.” However, both Ankara and Yerevan showed strong interest towards establishing good-neighborly relations with each other. The Republic of Turkey recognized Armenia’s independence as early as December 16, 1991, eight days after the signing of the Belavezha Accords and five days before the signing of the Alma-Ata Declaration that would stipulate the basic principles of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Armenian elite, in its turn, likewise began to rebuild relations with Turkey “from scratch.” Back in late 1989, the would-be Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian mentioned pan-Turkism as “the page of history that Turkey has turned over for ever.”
The idea of reconciliation with the Turks was center stage in the program of the first post-Soviet Armenian government formed of members of the Pan-Armenian National Movement. When it came to power, it promulgated the policy of “historic reconciliation” with the neighboring country. In June 1992, Ter-Petrosian met with the then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel at a conference of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) – a project aimed at the economic integration of the countries located in the Caucasus and in the Black Sea region. Later the two leaders had a bilateral meeting. Turkish ambassador to Russia Volkan Vural visited Yerevan in April 1992, and a visit by a delegation of the Turkish Foreign Ministry followed suit – in August 1992. The improvement of relations between the two countries was writ large when Armenia (blocked by Azerbaijan) received 100,000 tons of wheat transported via the Turkish territory and started receiving electric power.
Yet the problem of the state border started looming in the Armenian-Turkish relations right after the Soviet Union’s breakup. Yerevan was critical about the borders established under the 1921 Peace Treaty between Turkey and the short-lived Democratic Republic of Armenia (1918 to 1920). These borders were recognized later by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the Soviet Union. When the country gained independence for the second time, the Armenian parliament denounced the borders that had been established by Moscow, not by Yerevan. As a result, in the spring of 1992, Turkey declared that it would not proceed to formalize diplomatic relations with Armenia until it provided formal written recognition of the existing borders.
In addition to the border problem, tensions between the two countries were fueled by the difference of interpretations of the events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. Paragraph 11 of Armenia’s Declaration of Independence (adopted on August 23, 1990) said that “the Republic of Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.” Thus, apart from the humanitarian aspect (the significance of recognizing the Armenian people’s sacrifices), this document defined part of the territory of the contemporary Republic of Turkey as “Western Armenia.”
An escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict involving Armenia and the de facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (proclaimed in September 1991), on the one hand, and Azerbaijan, on the other, nullified the first attempt to normalize relations. After Azerbaijan’s attempts to suppress the armed resistance of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh were repelled (the summer of 1992 marked the peak of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces’ military successes), the Karabakh armed units undertook a range of successful combat operations in 1993 with the support of Armenia’s regular army. More than that, the Armenian forces crossed the boundaries of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region of Azerbaijan and seized, one after another, the Kalbajar (April 1993), Fizuli (August 1993), Jabrayil (in the same month), Qubadli (August and September 1993), and Zangilan (November 1993) districts. All these operations went hand-in-glove with harassment of the ethnic Azerbaijani population there.
The intensification of hostilities triggered Turkey’s overt siding with Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, as Ankara viewed relations with it among its priorities. Turkey fully closed its land border with Armenia (slightly over 300 kilometers) in April 1993. Yet the parties avoided the worst possible scenario. Although public opinion in Turkey demanded tougher measures against Armenia and more resolute support for Azerbaijan, the government quarters avoided direct involvement in the armed conflict.
Turkish diplomacy mostly used soft power tactics as it sought to mobilize international public opinion against Yerevan’s actions. It was then that the phrases like “Armenian invasion,” “Armenian aggression” and “occupation” were issued into mass circulation.
At home, too, the Turkish government waged an information war castigating Armenia and accusing it of assistance to the Kurdistan Workers Party (banned in Turkey as a terrorist organization).
An agreement on an indefinite ceasefire in the zone of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict took effect on May 12, 1994, and Turkey proposed deploying an international peacekeeping force in the region. The idea has never materialized. Nagorno-Karabakh is a unique hotbed of tensions in the post-Soviet space where there are no peacekeepers to disengage the opposing sides and where the truce relies on the power of just one legally binding document, albeit occasionally violated by sporadic local clashes and exchanges of fire. As Armenian political analysts Alexander Iskandarian and Sergei Minassian wrote, “the Armenian-Turkish relations have entered a static phase.”
FIFTEEN YEARS OF STAGNANCY
A long pause began in the process of Armenian-Turkish normalization in 1993 and it lasted until 2008. Armenia remained the only state in the South Caucasus, with which Turkey did not have diplomatic relations. By closing the land border, Ankara sought to increase Armenia’s geopolitical isolation (as Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan had been closed by then). This isolation grew as Turkey strengthened communications with the other Caucasian countries – Georgia and Azerbaijan – by commissioning the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (on stream as of July 13, 2006; total length 1,773 kilometers) and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline (on stream as of March 25, 2007; total length 970 kilometers). The construction of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Kars railway, launched in 2007 and largely funded by Turkey, was also intended to consolidate Armenia’s regional isolation. At the same time, Ankara began to put forward preconditions for the very possibility of normalizing relations with Armenia. The Turkish Foreign Ministry came out with a statement in 1996 that the decision to keep the state border locked would remain in effect until Armenia took steps towards reaching agreement with Azerbaijan.
This position was reiterated practically throughout all the years of stagnancy. As for Armenia, its stance on Turkey toughened after Robert Kocharian was elected president (in office from 1998 through to 2008). Political analysts in Yerevan claim it was during that period that the problem of international recognition of the Ottoman Genocide of Armenians began to be regarded as an unconventional weapon against Turkey. As Kocharian addressed the 53rd Session of the UN General Assembly, he tried to return the “Armenian issue” to the international politics agenda. The second Armenian president took a generally much tougher position on all aspects of the Armenian-Turkish relations. He stayed away from the BSEC summit in Istanbul in June 2007, citing the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries as the main reason for his refusal to go there.
In the meantime, even the sharp deterioration of bilateral relations did not lead to their full freezing. Opinions suggesting that the land blockade of Armenia did not reach its objectives could be heard inside Turkey. The idea was voiced by officials from regions bordering Armenia. The governor of Kars, for instance, said that life in the region was dying due to the closed border with Armenia. The situation improved somewhat in 1996 when an air route between Yerevan and Istanbul opened (later, an air route between Yerevan and Antalya was opened as well). Armenian parliament speaker Babken Ararktsyan made a visit to Istanbul in 1995, the year when Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora marked the 80th anniversary since the Armenian Genocide. Despite the closed border, the two countries maintained trade – mainly, via third countries. Kaan Soyak, Co-Chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, said in April 2009 that bilateral trade in the current conditions (the absence of diplomatic relations and the closed border) stood at around $150 million and that it could grow to $300 million if the border between the two countries was opened. In 2001, a Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission was established with a view to normalizing bilateral relations and, in the longer term, to achieving their historical reconciliation. (The Commission functioned until 2004.) All these factors created prerequisites for eliminating the stagnancy and making a new attempt to overcome the confrontational scenario.
2008-2009: THE WIND OF CHANGE
On July 9, 2008, The Wall Street Journal Europe published an article by Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s third president, with an unambiguous title saying “We Are Ready to Talk to Turkey.” He wrote that many Armenians and Turks “found ways to get around the closed border.” “They take advantage of regular charter flights from Yerevan to Istanbul and Antalya,” Sargsyan wrote. “There are numerous bus and taxi routes through Georgia, and container trucks even make the long detour, enabling some trade between our two countries.”
The article attracted attention not only because the president of Armenia (a nation that does not have diplomatic relations with Turkey but has a long list of historical grievances against it) was calling on the neighbor country to revise its foreign policy priorities. The author had never belonged to the “liberal camp” inside Armenia and had never shown any desire to improve relations with Turkey. Prior to moving to the presidential office, Sargsyan had occupied key posts in Armenia’s agencies of law and order (that is, a more conservative part of the establishment, which was suspicious about Turkey simply by virtue of profession). In truth, though, the impromptu had been well prepared, since two weeks earlier Sargsyan had invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Armenia to watch a qualifying football match between the two countries for the 2010 World Cup finals. However, the invitation, too, was the result of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Yerevan and Ankara. So what made the third Armenian president say: “There is no real alternative to the establishment of normal relations between our countries. It is my hope that both of our governments can pass through the threshold of this new open door”?
There could be several reasons for Armenia’s U-turn in its attitude towards Turkey. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resulted in Armenia’s economic and geopolitical isolation. The country now has only two outlets to the outside world – Iran and Georgia – and both are not very reliable. The first of them, Iran, depends too heavily on the implementation of the U.S.-sponsored Greater Middle East project. The project’s success or failure will inevitably influence the situation in Iran. The second outlet, Georgia, turns Armenia into a hostage of Russian-Georgian relations. The Five-Day War in Georgia in August 2008 showed this dependence (and the vulnerability of Armenia’s positions) in bold relief. In this sense, a certain warming of the Armenian-Turkish relations could make them less dependent on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both Washington and Moscow expressed their interest in such developments in 2007 and 2008.
As for Turkey, the efforts to normalize relations with Armenia have become part and parcel of Ankara’s strategy in the Caucasus. Unlike the U.S. or the EU member states, Turkey is not at all a novice in the Caucasian Big Game. The historical predecessor of the Republic of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire struggled for domination in the Caucasus against Persia from the 16th through to the 18th century and against the Russian Empire from the 18th through to the early 20th century. A significant part of the territory occupied by today’s South Caucasian states belonged to Turkey in various periods in the past.
The founders of the Republic of Turkey and the leaders of Soviet Russia at the beginning of the 1920s reached agreement on a status quo in the region. Turkey took on the role of a de facto guarantor of the autonomous status of the Nakhichevan region in Azerbaijan and the Adjarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Georgia. However, during the Cold War years, Turkey was sidelined from efforts to solve ethnic/political problems of the Caucasus. Turkey acted then as the main partner of the U.S. and as NATO’s springboard in the South. However, geopolitical considerations were not the only factor explaining for Ankara’s relative passivity. The founders of the Turkish republican system, the Kemalists, sought to break with legacy of the Ottoman Empire, including the historical narrative and the notions of the “Ottoman geopolitical space” which embraced the Balkans and the Caucasus. Hence the emphasis on national principles as opposed to regional ones (which, according to the beliefs of the founding fathers of the republic and the guardians of its ideals, might water down the national “selfness” of the Turks).
Turkey returned to the Caucasian geopolitics after the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, and there were several factors that assisted its comeback. Number one was the emergence of an independent Turkic-speaking country, the Republic of Azerbaijan (Turkey recognized its independence on December 9, 1991) and the ethnic/national self-identification of Turkic-speaking peoples of the North Caucasus. Secondly, Turkey itself had a populous resident community of descendants from the Caucasus. For a variety for reasons, the territory of Turkey is home to 2.5 million to 7 million people hailing from the Caucasus. A more precise figure is not available for objective reasons. In the 19th century (during the mass influx of immigrants to the Ottoman Empire from the Caucasus), all the newcomers from there would be called Circassians, although, apart from the Circassians proper (or the Adyghe), the immigrants also included Chechens, members of Dagestani ethnic groups, and Ossetians. Thirdly, Turkey came to face with many new challenges after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bi-polar world. The conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Chechnya flared in the immediate vicinity of Turkey’s borders. Fourthly, the political and philosophical appraisal by Turkey of its role and place in the global world caused it to step up its foreign policy towards the Caucasus.
Historian and journalist Igor Torbakov believes the new exploration of the Caucasus by Ankara is based on the ideology of Neo-Ottomanism. “Its roots go to the early 1990s, the time of Turkish President Turgut Ozal, but the blossoming of this school of thought coincides with the coming to power of the moderately Islamist JDP (Justice and Development Party – S.M.). Dr Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign policy adviser to Abdullah Gul and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a major ideologist of Neo-Ottomanism. […] Unlike the followers of Kemal, the Neo-Ottomanists readily include the Ottoman past and the Ottoman geopolitical space in the Turkish legacy. […] Davutoglu and his followers believe that Turkey is not located on the outskirts of NATO, the EU or Asia. The Neo-Ottomanists claim that Turkey is located in the very heart of Eurasia and has direct – historical and geographic – links to the strategically important regions of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus. It is not surprising therefore that the Neo-Ottomanists advocate a far more active foreign policy, especially on the territories that belonged to the Ottoman geopolitical space.”
This strategy has already borne fruit in the Middle East. “Turkey rediscovers the Middle East” – this is how Stephen Larrabee, an analyst from the RAND Corporation, describes the efforts that Ankara has been making in the past few years in the region which is especially problematic for the global agenda. Turkey has made a real breakthrough in the past five years in its relations with Syria, although the relationship between Ankara and Damascus was somewhere below the freezing point back at the beginning of the past decade, and experts even began to discuss possible military scenarios. But today the two countries’ diplomats maintain a constructive dialogue on many issues, such as sharing of water resources of the Euphrates or counteraction to the Kurdish movement. This has made Damascus take a more cautious stance on recognition of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians. And the last but not least, Turkey’s interest towards Europe only gets stronger through a “reset” of relations with the neighbor.
Armenia and Turkey worked hard in 2008 and 2009 to make up for the opportunities lost in the past 15 years. Turkish President Abdullah Gul made the first ever visit to Yerevan (labeled as “football diplomacy”) on September 6, 2009, and the two countries signed a road map to normalize the bilateral relations on April 22, 2009. Swiss diplomats acted as mediators. But the biggest progress towards normalization was made in Zurich on October 10, 2009, when Armenia and Turkey signed protocols to develop bilateral relations and establish diplomatic ties between themselves.
The protocols were more than just a significant step towards reconciliation of the two sides, even for the mere fact that they undersigned political and legal obligations likewise. The protocols specified the deadlines for the implementation of the initiatives proclaimed therein. The Protocol on Development of Bilateral Relations said the parties had agreed to open the border between them within two months after the document took legal effect. The Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations said the signatory parties had agreed “to establish diplomatic relations as of the date of the entry into force of this protocol in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and to exchange Diplomatic Missions.” Both protocols could “enter into force on the same day, i.e. on the first day of the first month following the exchanges of instruments of ratification.” The establishment of a working group, headed by the two ministers of foreign affairs to “prepare the working modalities of the intergovernmental commission and its sub-committees” was planned two months after the day following entry into force of the Protocol on Development of Relations between Armenia and Turkey.
Thus the dialogue between Ankara and Yerevan saw changes not only in the overtones but also the very language in which they spoke. The parties moved from words to action. The two protocols provided a new interpretation of the critical issue for bilateral contacts – the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The parties agreed to maintain a “dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” This dialogue was to be developed in the format of “the sub-commission on the historical dimension” (it was supposed to work within the format of an intergovernmental commission).
FROM PROGRESS TO NEW STAGNANCY?
Yet the two legally binding protocols have never been ratified by the Armenian and Turkish parliaments. Turkey’s parliament started considering both protocols shortly after they were signed, on October 21, 2009. The opposition walked out of the house in protest, while many representatives of the ruling Justice and Development Party were not enthusiastic about seeking the protocols’ ratification. This produced the impression that an immediate ratification of the documents was not on the list of their priorities. The Turkish elite would cite exactly these facts later on as it offered justification for a new lull in the normalization process. Naturally enough, the Nagorno-Karabakh factor sprang up immediately in Ankara’s positions. The problem, which Turkey had ignored while negotiating the two protocols, got a second birth after the Zurich ceremony. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called for combining the two peace processes as he met with U.S. President Barack Obama on December 7, 2009, and with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on January 13, 2010. Turkish expert Mitat Celikpala wisely observed that “Erdogan has tied himself too tightly to the (Nagorno-Karabakh) problem, and the people taking decisions in Ankara put the blame on Armenia.”
Armenia’s entering the new phase of stagnation was accompanied by harsh disputes and mass showings of public indignation. Yet, the Constitution Court (the country’s highest judicial body) on January 12, 2010 recognized the compliance of both Turkish-Armenian protocols with the country’s Fundamental Law. It would seem that Yerevan had made the long-awaited step towards reconciliation with Turkey. The U.S. Department of State welcomed the move. However, the decision produced a strong reaction in Turkey. The reason was that the Declaration on Armenia’s Independence, which is considered to be part of Armenia’s Fundamental Law, calls for international recognition of the Armenian Genocide and mentions “Western Armenia.” Thus it appeared that the protocols signed by Ankara and Yerevan demanded recognition of the genocide and, on top of that, required recognition of “Western Armenia,” which meant a territorial problem.
Far from everyone inside Turkey and Armenia proved to be ready for a brisk revision of the existing myths, stereotypes and approaches. Both sides failed to attain the objectives they themselves had set forth at the start of the “resetting process.” It would be naÕve to think that Turkish and Armenian diplomats had launched reconciliation for the sake of abstract ideas. Each side pursued its own unambiguously pragmatic goals. Armenia sought to drive a wedge between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey hoped for a deterioration of Yerevan’s relations with the Armenian Diaspora, which both Ankara and Baku tend to demonize. Turkish diplomats also hoped for Yerevan’s isolation that could make it more tractable. As the parties drifted apart from their initial objectives, they lost interest in the peace process. As a result, the ratification of the protocols stalled, and the parties started a new round of the same old claims and mutual reproaches.
The problem is that Armenian-Turkish reconciliation has never been an exclusive internal political problem of the two neighboring countries. This process cannot be confined to the format of reciprocal relations between Ankara and Yerevan. It is part of a bigger “Caucasian game” and the major parties involved in it have their own considerations. Both the U.S. and Russia have their own reasons for partaking in the Armenian-Turkish “resetting.” Unlike in Georgia’s case, Moscow and Washington do not have any dramatic differences as regards this situation, as both of them have interest in cooperating with Turkey – each in its own way. While the U.S. has a very high level of cooperation with Turkey in the field of security (the one that would be rather difficult to give up), Russia has important interests in the development of joint energy projects (the South Stream gas pipeline offers a good example of that). At the same time, Armenia is also an important partner for the U.S. and Russia likewise. They cannot ignore the positions of the pro-Armenian lobbies in either case. So what do we have in the final analysis? An intensive search for possible swap solutions. As a result, the more the American and Russian politicians spoke about the impossibility of linking Armenian-Turkish reconciliation to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement, the closer these two processes moved to and influenced each another. To be more precise, they multiplied the complexities already inherent in each of them.
As a result, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, in his address to the nation on April 22, 2010, on the eve of the 95th anniversary since the Ottoman genocide of ethnic Armenians, suspended ratification of the protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and on development of bilateral relations, which his country and Turkey signed in Zurich in October 2009. According to Armenian Turkologist Ruben Melkonian, the Armenian president simply formalized the actual decline in the normalization process.
Still, even though one can state a decline in the complicated dynamics of Armenian-Turkish normalization, it would be wrong to speak of a total standstill in this process. The Armenian leader has suspended the ratification of the protocols but has not withdrawn from the peace process. Neither of the Zurich documents has been declared null and void, and Sargsyan is ready to continue the dialogue. After all, peace processes practically always have a non-linear development. The ideas of the charismatic Turkish President Turgut Ozal on the improvement of relations with Turkey’s neighbors took much more than a year to be implemented (for instance, in relations with Syria or, to a smaller degree, with Iran and Greece). As for the conflict in Cyprus, no breakthroughs have been achieved there, in spite of the definite positive dynamics of the early 2000s. A proof of this can be seen in the victory of Dervis Eroglu, a persistent opponent of Cyprus’s reunification, in the 2010 presidential election in the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
The Armenian-Turkish normalization process is progressing along much the same lines. The ideas of normalization and reconciliation with the neighbor have become part of the internal discourse in both Armenia and Turkey. Now disputes about what should be done to achieve reconciliation continue not between Turks and Armenians but inside the Turkish and Armenian societies – with reduced costs for one’s own nation, of course. But anyway, the relations have moved over to a new level. The applause, flashlights and laudations for the signatories have given way to intricate coordination and bargaining – both within Armenia and Turkey and between the “big powers” beyond their borders. But reconciliations of two longtime adversaries have taken place in history more than once, and the case of Armenia and Turkey is nothing new in this sense. Suffice it to recall the reconciliations between Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria and Turkey, Poland and Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, Germany and Russia, and Hungary and Romania, to say nothing of the reconciliation between Germany and Israel and the transformation of the historically diehard foes like France and Germany into close allies within the European Union. Naturally, historic reconciliations should meet the national interests of the parties involved and be politically profitable. Otherwise, it will take a very long time for a new “wind of change” to come.