Can Armenia break the ice with Turkey?
A day after he won the snap parliamentary elections last Sunday, Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that Yerevan was ready to establish direct relations with Ankara without any preconditions. “We hope Turkey will take the same stance,” he said.
Referring to the matter of Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinyan said that “the problem is that unfortunately the relationship with Turkey has been connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is a very strange situation when the relations between two countries can be so strongly connected with a third country…I mean Azerbaijan.”
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region of Azerbaijan, is run by ethnic Armenians who declared independence from Baku during a conflict that broke out when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan after Yerevan and Baku clashed over the region, and the Turks still side with Baku in the lingering territorial conflict.
In addition to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Turkish-Armenian relations continue to be soured by the events that led to the deaths of Armenians living in Anatolia during the First World War. Needless to say, the events of 1915 are viewed differently by Turkey and Armenia. Armenians say that they amounted to “genocide,” while Turkey denies that there was any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population and says that both Turks and Armenians were killed during that time. For many years, the “G-word” has remained a major obstacle to the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, and all efforts by civil society organizations, intellectuals and officials to overcome it have failed.
The two neighbors, who have been locked in mutual enmity since 1993, for the first time moved toward a more constructive relationship when former Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Yerevan in 2008 to watch a football match between the two countries’ national teams. The move was later described as “football diplomacy,” as his Armenian counterpart paid a visit to Turkey for the return match the following year.
The opening of the border with Turkey is vital to Armenia. The economic benefits of this would start to appear quickly and result in speedy improvements for Armenia.
A historic reconciliation process was launched in 2009 when the two sides signed twin protocols to normalize diplomatic relations, but this move was not well received by Azerbaijan and the protocols, signed in Zurich, shook Turkish-Azerbaijani relations.
Although it turned out to be a failed attempt to normalize relations between the two countries, the Zurich process was a crucial development in the history of Turkish-Armenian relations and now, a decade later, there is much sincerity and goodwill on both sides regarding the prospect of normalization.
There have been mutual efforts to display this goodwill. In 2014, for instance, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the first time in Turkey’s history, offered condolences to the descendants of Ottoman Armenians. It was a momentous message, one that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.
In this context, Pashinyan’s call to normalize relations is also significant. However, what he can achieve as prime minister is a matter of debate because Turkish-Armenian reconciliation is linked to more than one issue.
Pashinyan, a former journalist, led mass protests against the ruling Republican Party that brought daily life in Yerevan to a halt this year and forced former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign in April. During his election campaign, Pashinyan harshly criticized Armenian elites for having been corrupted, and vowed to rebuild the economy, create new jobs and encourage Armenians living abroad to return home.
As a journalist who has visited Armenia on several occasions, I can safely say that Armenians are facing serious economic problems that force many families to rely on money from relatives living abroad. A country with a population of 3 million, Armenia borders Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and Iran, but the first two have closed their borders, Iran is under sanctions and Georgia is not the country to help the Armenian economy.
Therefore, the opening of the border with Turkey is vital to Armenia. The economic benefits of this would start to appear quickly and result in speedy improvements for Armenia. A reconciliation between the two countries could lead to this opening of the border even if diplomatic relations are not established straight away, because Armenian-Turkish economic relations would not necessarily require full normalization of bilateral political relations.
However, the issue of Turkish-Armenian normalization is not only affected by Nagorno-Karabakh and the events of 1915. Though there are some hardliners who insist that Turkey must accept the 1915 killings as genocide before normalization efforts can begin, in the political field such views are marginal, as was clear from Pashinyan’s call for reconciliation. The normalization of relations between these two significant neighbors would fundamentally alter the balance of the relationships between all the countries in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea region, and also the policies of the great powers that consider the region vital to their interests.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is visiting Azerbaijan for a meeting of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) member states, which includes Armenia. Turkey recognizes the importance of BSEC, which has its headquarters in Istanbul and was established in 1992 with the aim of promoting stability in the region and enhancing economic cooperation. Such meetings serve as a significant platform in bringing together Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani officials. They also remind everyone that while the door between the two countries is still closed for now, it is not locked.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz