Is this the dawn of a new era for relations between Turkey and Armenia?
This week, Turkish and Armenian diplomats met in Moscow to discuss reestablishing diplomatic relations and reopening the borders between the two countries. As expected, nothing concrete came out of this first meeting but both sides pledged to continue the dialogue.
Turkey and Armenia have had a difficult relationship over the past few decades. Even though Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenian independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between the states quickly soured after Armenia’s invasion of Turkish ally Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.
Things came to a head in 1993 when Turkey cosponsored a UN Security Council resolution calling on Armenian forces to withdraw from the Azerbaijani region of Kelbajar, which it had occupied during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Later that year, diplomatic relations between the two states ended and the border was closed.
In 2009, at the insistence of the US, Turkey and Armenia came close to normalizing relations and reopening their land border. However, no agreement was finalized because Armenia would not commit to any meaningful progress toward peace with Azerbaijan.
During the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, Azerbaijan was able to liberate much of the land captured by Armenia in the early 1990s. This included the Kelbajar region, which served as the main catalyst for Turkey to close its border with Armenia in 1993. When Kelbajar returned to Azerbaijani control in November 2020, observers of events in the South Caucasus wondered whether this might mean that Turkey and Armenia would resume diplomatic negotiations.
Leading up to this week’s talks in Moscow there had been some positive signals from Armenia and Turkey in recent weeks: Both sides have appointed special envoys to negotiate during discussions about normalizing relations; Turkish and Armenian airlines have announced that direct flights between the two countries will resume in the coming weeks; and Armenia has recently ended its embargo of imports from Turkey.
There are many benefits to be had if Turkey and Armenia find a way to normalize relations. Armenia is a poor, landlocked country in the South Caucasus that has missed out on many of the region's big infrastructure and pipeline projects in recent decades. Reopening its border with Turkey could create new economic and investment opportunities that might not only benefit Armenia but also the region.
There is no telling how many billions of dollars in foreign direct investment have been denied to the region because of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh or the breakdown in relations between Armenia and Turkey.
Turkey will want to see commitments from Armenia to work to resolve these outstanding issues with Azerbaijan.
However, finding a resolution that is acceptable to Turkey and Armenia will not be easy. For each side, there are major issues to overcome.
The first challenge, and arguably the biggest for Armenia, will be the events of 1915. During the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the First World War, about 1.5 million Armenians were killed in Anatolia, in part during a process of forced eviction. The Armenians describe this act as a “genocide” and expect Turkey to acknowledge the events as such. However, while recognizing the tragic events that took place in 1915, Turkey refuses to acknowledge them as genocide.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry has said it will enter into talks with Turkey without any preconditions. This could mean the issue of 1915 might be set aside to be discussed after a diplomatic normalization takes place, as part of a separate and much-needed reconciliation process between the two countries.
Another significant challenge will be Turkey’s insistence that Armenia normalizes relations with Azerbaijan and opens up key trade corridors across the region. The agreement that brought the second Nagorno-Karabakh war to an end in 2020 called on Armenia to open a transit and trade corridor to link Azerbaijan with its enclave, Nakhchivan, through Armenian territory. More than a year later, this has not become a reality.
Also, the demarcation process along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border has been met with slow progress.
Turkey will want to see commitments from Armenia to work to resolve these outstanding issues with Azerbaijan. However, there will be strong resistance to any support for these initiatives among many sections of Armenian society, and in the very influential diaspora community around the globe.
Since the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, a new geopolitical reality has emerged in the South Caucasus. With the liberation of its territory, Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan is more interested in reconstruction and resettlement efforts than in conflict with neighboring Armenia.
Turkey’s influence is also on the rise in the region. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s success in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war makes improved relations with Armenia more palatable to the Turkish people. For its part, Armenia desperately needs peace and cordial relations with all of its neighbors.
Now is the time for all sides to take bold and courageous steps to improve their relations with one another. In the long term this will bring much needed stability and economic prosperity to the region.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey