Why hopes of a Turkish-Armenian deal are on the rise
Turkey and Armenia in 2009 made an attempt to initiate negotiations aimed at normalizing relations. They signed two agreements, one for the establishment of diplomatic relations and another for the promotion of their bilateral relations. A much-publicized signing ceremony was organized in Zurich, Switzerland, and attended by representatives of the US, EU, Russia and Switzerland.
The initiative covered a variety of areas, such as cooperation in the fields of science, education, culture, the exchange of students and experts, trade, tourism, the economy, and the environment. However, the subject that was not spelled out was the so-called Armenian genocide.
In 1915 the Ottoman authorities began forcibly relocating citizens of Armenian origin, and estimates of the number who died range from 600,000 to 1.5 million. Governments and parliaments of 33 countries, including the US and most of Europe, have formally recognized these events as genocide, but Turkey insists it was the result of Armenian terrorist activities at a time when the country was at war with several other nations.
The initiative launched in 2009 did not result in a positive outcome for a variety of reasons.
First, Turkey’s close friend Azerbaijan strongly objected to this move, as the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan was still under Armenian occupation.
Second, Armenia demonstrated its reluctance even when the signing ceremony was under way. Then-Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian objected to one sentence in the speech to be delivered by his Turkish counterpart. The US and Russian foreign ministers tried hard to persuade Nalbandian to drop his objection. The dispute was only overcome when it was agreed that none of the foreign ministers should make a statement.
Third, after the protocols were signed, the Armenian parliament attached conditions to the ratification procedures. It said that Yerevan should not ratify before Turkey does so.
Fourth, when this initiative was underway, an Armenian government coalition partner — the Dashnaktsutyun party — left the government to protest the signing of the protocols.
Because of these and other unessential reasons the protocols were not ratified in the parliament of either country, so the normalization attempt failed.
Despite this tumultuous background, the prospects for a rapprochement look slightly better today, as the targets are less ambitious. A first round of talks was held in Moscow on Friday and normalization will begin with the launch of commercial flights between Istanbul and Yerevan. The first flight is scheduled for Feb. 2. This is a less controversial area because there is a strong Armenian community in Istanbul. Furthermore, about 100,000 Armenian citizens are believed to be illegally working in Turkey, so they will likely use these flights.
The November 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia ended with a ceasefire brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. About a quarter of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh remains under Armenian occupation and no concrete steps have been taken to initiate negotiations over the final status of the region. So there is a good reason to solve the remaining problems.
Both sides have assigned representatives to conduct the negotiations. Turkey’s Armenia representative is Serdar Kilic, a seasoned diplomat and former ambassador to Washington. Armenia has appointed Ruben Rubinyan, deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament and former deputy foreign minister. The chances of success will increase if silent diplomacy is given more space to act.
The fact the first round of negotiations was held in Russia is significant because Putin has become the main game-maker in the South Caucasus and this region plays a key role in the thaw between Turkey and Armenia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had revealed — after trilateral talks were held in Sochi in November — that the gap between Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s approaches was smaller than he initially thought. This observation is important as he may also find that the difference between the Turkish and the Armenian approaches to their bilateral conflict may be even more manageable.
The prospects for a rapprochement look slightly better than in 2009, as the targets are less ambitious.
Armenia suffered a major defeat in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan should support Yerevan as it aims to overcome this trauma.
However, Turkish-Armenian tensions are being held hostage by two categories of Armenians. One is the dedicated terrorists who have killed dozens of Turkish diplomatic and consular employees abroad. The other is the Armenian diaspora, especially in the US and France. They are influential in both of these countries. But they are alien to the hardships the motherland Armenians suffer in their daily lives and continue to encourage them to adopt a tougher attitude toward Turkey.
The Armenian National Council of America last week launched a fierce attack on Turkey. In a letter sent to US President Joe Biden and several congressmen, it asked that Ankara’s circumvention of American sanctions should not be ignored by the US government.
Both sides will hopefully draw lessons from the failure of the 2009 initiative. The process may again get bogged down if the issue is turned into material used for domestic political consumption.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar