Turkey-Armenia relations
Normalisation after 31 years of tension?

Turkish-Armenian rapprochement kicked off in Moscow in January, after a break of 13 years. This time, focusing on relatively easy fixes such as trade and transportation, both countries are emphasising a lack of pre-conditions. Turkey is nevertheless reluctant to let third countries, such as Russia, to play a role in the process. By Leyla Egeli

On 14 January representatives from Turkey and Armenia met in Moscow with the aim of building diplomatic relations, the first such talks to take place since 2009. Even though no press conference was held following the meeting, lasting 90 minutes, sources confirmed the mood was upbeat. Considering the weight of the issues under discussion, however, it is likely too soon for unbridled optimism.

The representatives in question – Serdar Kilic of Turkey and Ruben Rubenyan of Armenia – have agreed to continue the meetings. Their goal: to ease existing problems, while helping defuse reactions from within both countries and the Armenian diaspora.

Ultimately, the hope is that the Turkish and Armenian leadership will meet round the table, shake hands and resume diplomatic relations – following a caesura of more than 30 years.

 

What are the problems, and what steps have been taken?

When Armenia declared independence in September 1991, the Turkish government sent a team of diplomats in an effort to start diplomatic relations. Still bearing the collective scars of the mass deportation of Armenians from Ottoman territory in 1915, the reaction of the Armenian administration was cautious. Some in the administration even argued there should be a re-drawing of borders before establishing relations with Turkey.

Despite Armenia's hesitant response, Turkey recognised the country's independence in December 1991. But before ambassadors could be assigned, Armenia occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey supported Azerbaijan, a nation the Turks refer to as their "brothers and sisters".

In 1993, Turkey closed the borders, cancelled its air and train connections and cut all transit trade routes; it requested Armenia withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian populated region internationally recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan. Since then, the events of 1915, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and the border claims have been in the deep freeze, waiting to be solved. 

This time, Yerevan and Ankara have decided to focus on issues that are easier to tackle, those that would be beneficial to both sides, such as trade and transportation. For its part, Armenia ended the ban on Turkish goods in January.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Planet Pix via Zuma Wire)
Russia’s role is particularly important to Armenia. Turkey, for its part, is taking every precaution not to rile Moscow, owing to the very close economic and strategic ties linking the two countries. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on 30 December, "We understand that both Russia and Armenia want this meeting to be held in Moscow. To us, it really doesn't matter which third country is involved. Nevertheless, we are grateful to Russia for helping realise the current initiative"

Before the meeting was held in Moscow, another confidence-building measure was declared; flights between Yerevan and Istanbul resumed on 2 February. That was a ground-breaking and concrete step to improve relations.

According to a Turkish diplomatic source, both sides are now trying to set a timeline for the start of trade. Since no systems are currently installed, the opening of the land borders represents a long-term project. Once this has been achieved and both peoples begin to realise the benefits, ambassadors will be assigned.

Domestic and international factors

The decision to proceed by increments stems from fresh memories of the process breaking down in 2009. Back then, the two countries attempted to bury the hatchet with the help of the United States, with numerous high-level meetings held over the course of a year. They signed protocols to begin diplomatic relations and open the borders.

But resistance on the part of several Armenian politicians, backed by some Armenian voters, ended up in the Armenian Constitutional Court. Those involved requested various amendments be made to the protocols – amendments that Turkey rejected.

Azerbaijan also reacted harshly, angered by Turkey's push to normalise relations with Armenia while Armenian troops remained in Nagorno-Karabakh. President Aliyev refused to attend the summits in Turkey and negative statements were issued to the press. Ultimately Azerbaijan threatened to hike the price of its gas exports to Turkey, arguably one of the main reasons the process stalled.

With Nagorno-Karabakh once again under Azerbaijani control following the conflict in autumn 2020, the administration in Azerbaijan is likely to present less of an obstacle to rapprochement than it did in 2009. Indeed, according to a Turkish diplomatic source, Ankara started the process of resuming talks with Yerevan immediately after the region was regained by Azerbaijan.

Graves of Armenian soldiers killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan in autumn 2020 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Despite the death toll exacted by the flare-up in hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabkh in autumn 2020, the outcome of the conflict may well play into the negotiators' hands. With Nagorno-Karabakh once again under Azerbaijani control, the administration in Azerbaijan is likely to present less of an obstacle to rapprochement than it did in 2009. According to a Turkish diplomatic source, Ankara started the process of resuming talks with Yerevan immediately after the region was regained by Azerbaijan. "Normalisation will improve the stability in the region and everybody needs it. If Armenia maintains a positive approach, the borders will open and relations will be established," the source argued

The source argued that "normalisation will improve the stability in the region and everybody needs it. If Armenia maintains a positive approach, the borders will open and relations will be established."

Nevertheless, the forced migration and killing en route of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 – considered by Armenia and a number of European countries as genocide – still stands as a potential obstacle. There are some in Armenia, politicians among them, who believe Turkey behaved similarly to the Ottomans in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, by supporting Azerbaijan with armed drones.

The Armenian government now has the task of convincing its people that Turkey could be a trusted trade partner, presenting huge market potential with its population of 80 million. Despite losing Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan has managed to consolidate his power with a second victory at the polls. 

All indications were positive following the first meeting on 14 January. Both sides decided to continue the talks without any preconditions. 

Turkey pushing for "direct dialogue" 

Another target for the first meeting was to create a roadmap for direct dialogue, without the need for third-party intervention, allowing Armenia and Turkey to write new protocols setting out the legal and political infrastructure for normalisation based only on their interests.

Since the "special representatives" idea came from Moscow, however, Ankara was duty-bound to welcome Russia's positive impact on the negotiations and therefore agreed to hold the meeting in Moscow.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on 30 December, "We understand that both Russia and Armenia want this meeting to be held in Moscow. To us, it really doesn't matter which third country is involved. Nevertheless, we are grateful to Russia for helping realise the current initiative."

Russia’s role is particularly important to Armenia. Turkey, for its part, is taking every precaution not to rile Moscow, owing to the very close economic and strategic ties linking the two countries, especially bearing in mind the rocky nature of Turkey’s relations with the West.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said repeatedly that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin approves of the process. What's more, the United States and the majority of European countries are also backing the latest initiative, as they did in 2009. This may be seen as a good sign for Turkey: it no doubt boosted the confidence of the Turkish delegation when negotiating the terms of Russian involvement during the first meeting. 

A consensus regarding the venue for the second meeting was not reached in January. So the question remains: will Russia continue to hold its hand over the negotiations, or not?

Leyla Egeli

© Qantara.de 2022

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