Multiple relationships affect push for Turkey-Armenia normalization
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held an unprecedented meeting in Prague on Thursday on the sidelines of the inaugural European Political Community summit. This was the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since the resumption of the normalization process between Ankara and Yerevan.
Since 2021, the two neighbors have been engaged in direct talks in an attempt to reestablish diplomatic relations, which have been strained for nearly three decades. Unlike previous efforts, in which multitrack diplomacy was pursued by civil society and third countries, this time Ankara and Yerevan have engaged in direct talks through official channels.
In this regard, both sides appointed special envoys to discuss steps toward normalization. Turkish envoy Serdar Kilic and his Armenian counterpart Ruben Rubinyan have held four meetings so far, three in Vienna and one in Moscow. Ten days after the fourth meeting on July 1, the Turkish and Armenian leaders held a very rare telephone call. This was the first direct contact between Pashinyan and Erdogan, during which they expressed hope that the deals reached at the last meeting between the special envoys in Vienna “will soon be implemented.” So far, the only practical result of the talks has been the restoration of direct flights between the two countries.
After this phone call, Erdogan and Pashinyan could have met in New York during the UN General Assembly, but this did not happen due to their busy schedules. Therefore, the meeting in Prague is considered important and should not be underestimated. There were several topics for discussion between the two leaders, but speeding up the normalization process is likely to have dominated their agenda, taking into account the interests that both leaders have at stake.
Erdogan, who faces critical elections next June, aims to take concrete steps toward normalization with Armenia to give a constructive image to his Western partners. And if it can play a mediation role in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations — which is mostly played by Russia or the US — this would be a cherry on the cake and would increase Ankara’s leverage in the region.
Meanwhile, due to the previous failed normalization attempts, Pashinyan’s government this time aims to see the process bear fruit as soon as possible. Although he faces domestic opposition toward normalization with Turkey, at the current conjuncture the best option for Yerevan seems to be establishing relations with Ankara, which is a key regional power and neighbor.
Both Ankara and Yerevan want to press ahead with normalization as fast as possible, amid high geopolitical tensions
Both Ankara and Yerevan want to press ahead with normalization as fast as possible, amid high geopolitical tensions. Given that Turkish-Armenian relations are described as having a history of missed opportunities, the two leaders are concerned that history may repeat itself. However, one of the advantages of the current process is that there is no third actor that could act as a spoiler, as Russia, the US and even Azerbaijan are supportive of Turkish-Armenian normalization.
Armenia also seems to be open to a dialogue with Azerbaijan. In this regard, the meeting between Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Prague is noteworthy. They held a quadrilateral meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel, who also brought Pashinyan and Aliyev together in Brussels on Aug. 31.
The nerves are still raw as a result of the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Thus, any military tension could easily derail the progress in their talks, such as the latest escalation that took place last month. The September war on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border has again complicated the solution of any issues through negotiations. Although Russia was the one that brokered the deal to end the 2020 conflict, it was the US that played a key role in the ceasefire deal reached between the two neighbors in late September.
Moscow has thousands of troops in Armenia and political influence over the Armenian leadership, but it seems like the US and the EU have taken a leading role in mediating both the Armenia-Azerbaijan and Turkey-Armenia normalization processes. Moscow’s growing isolation in the international community following its invasion of Ukraine in February is regarded as the main reason behind this shift. In addition, this could be one of the driving forces behind Armenia’s policy of seeking normalization with its neighbors. Some observers argue that being dependent on Russia both militarily and economically may harm Armenian interests in the long term, as the world might be facing a second disintegration of the Russian Empire.
Although the Russia-Ukraine war could be mentioned as a triggering factor in Armenia's normalization with Turkey, it would be wrong to underestimate Vladimir Putin’s role in this process. According to reports, the Erdogan-Pashinyan phone call was followed by a telephone conversation between Erdogan and Putin. A few days before that, the Russian president also reportedly had a discussion with Pashinyan over Turkish-Armenian normalization. Also, Pashinyan was expected to depart for St. Petersburg to meet Putin after the talks in Prague. So, Putin is still in the game.
Moreover, the Turkish-Armenian normalization process is based on multiple relationships: Turkish-American, Turkish-Russian and Azerbaijani-Armenian. A delicate balancing act among these actors is essential to achieve further steps in normalization between Yerevan and Ankara.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz