Can Armenia and Turkey be reconciled?

Could historical enemies Armenia and Turkey be moving towards reconciliation? Despite the potential pitfalls, Turkey's acknowledgement of the 1915 "genocide" being the most serious, compromise could be achieved, says Sergei Markedonov

On 10 October 2009 in the city of Zürich representatives of Armenia and Turkey signed two crucial protocols: one on the development of bilateral relations and another on the establishment of diplomatic relations.  The long confrontation between the two has involved a closed land frontier and ideological warfare over the political dimension of history and the historical dimension of politics. The question is whether this marks the beginning of a new stage of bilateral relations?

The significance of these two documents should not be exaggerated.  There have been many examples, including recently, of situations when even the award of the Nobel prize to advocates of compromise has not guaranteed that the peace process did not stagnate or, even break down.  The best example of this is the situation in the Middle East, where the spirit of Oslo has been replaced by new local conflicts with new elements.

A less well-known example is Cyprus, where the so-called "Annan plan" (the April 2004 unification referendum to be held in both parts of the divided island) increased expectations, but the negotiations then ran into the sand for the next 4 years.  ((There were not many improvements, even when they re-opened.  Moreover at the parliamentary elections in the unrecognised Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (19 April 2009) the victors were the nationalists from the rightwing National Unity Party, who garnered slightly more than 44% of the vote.  Unlike the situation in the Middle East, the Cyprus conflict is a "frozen" confrontation inside the European Union (the Republic of Cyprus, which is recognised worldwide, acceded to the EU in 2004).))

Not all the documents for action have yet been admitted.  The parliaments of both countries will then have to ratify them.  The Armenian parliament is controlled by the party of power (the republicans) and its allies in the government coalition (Prosperous Armenia and Rule of Law {Orinats Yerkir}).  Parliament could well support the efforts of President Serzh Sarkisyan and his team, though the Turkish deputies might start talking very tough.  

The Azeri factor

They have their reasons: the protocols make no mention of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, or of the need to move to a solution of the Armenia-Azerbaidjan conflict.  There is another, shadowy, player in the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement: Azerbaidjan stands to lose considerably if its main strategic ally, Turkey, establishes a new relationship with Yerevan, one that does not depend on the dynamics of the Karabakh conflict and the whole complex relationship between the two former republics of Soviet Transcaucasia.  In Turkey itself the defenders of the "Azeri cause" play an important part, attempting to influence the course of the peace process.  Just before the signing in Zürich Cemil Çiçek, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, emphasised the strategic importance of the Azeri-Turkish relationship thus: "This is not just a relationship based on mutual interest.  There is nothing more important for Turkey than friendship with Azerbaidjan".

Armenian opposition

But the situation inside Armenia should not be idealised either.  Sarkisyan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are up against stiff opposition in parliament from the Heritage party and the oldest political party in Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), the ruling party during Armenia's first independence in 1918-20. 

The main challenge facing today's government is not the parliamentary opposition, but a conglomeration of opposition groups outside parliament.  These are united under the umbrella of the Armenian National Congress (ANC), led by the charismatic Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the first president of Armenia.  He is a brilliant orator and polemicist with experience of confronting the government in the streets.  This was acquired during perestroika, when he was fighting for Armenian self-determination in Nagorny Karabakh.  The Dashnaki lay claim to the "historical brand" and the role of a singular kind of defender of the Armenian tradition. The leader of the ANC tries to portray himself as the founding father and protector of the values of the third Republic, which arose out of the ashes of Soviet Armenia.  This is why Ter-Petrosyan's team reacted very negatively to Sarkisyan's October tour of the Armenian diaspora ("we have first and foremost to consider the citizens of the Republic of Armenia").  Were these various protest groups to unite in support of Turkey, the peace progress could be very considerably complicated. 

The achievement thus far

For all this, the signing of the two protocols is not just a significant step forward in the Armenia-Turkey reconciliation process.  It is an event of crucial importance, if only because the two countries have taken on political and legal obligations.  This is not football diplomacy, nor an exchange of declarations and articles of policy, nor even a road map, which would sketch only the outline of a peace process.  There is a definite time frame for implementing the proposals enshrined in the protocols.  In the protocol on the development of bilateral relations Ankara and Yerevan "agree to open their common border within a period of two months from the time the Protocol comes into force".   In the protocol on diplomatic relations, the parties "have agreed to establish diplomatic relations as of the date of the entry into force of this Protocol in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and to exchange diplomatic missions". 

Both the protocols come into force on the first day of the month following the exchange of the instruments of ratification.  The creation of a working group headed by the two ministers of foreign affairs, charged with preparing the ground for an intergovernmental commission (and its sub-commissions) is planned two months after the protocol on the development of bilateral relations comes into force. It is not just the tone, but the language of the conversation between Yerevan and Ankara that has changed.  The parties have moved on from words to implementing what has been planned and signed.

Meanwhile, the Turks are now arguing among themselves about Armenia.  The same can be said of Armenia.  This gives some hope that the implementation of points laid down in the protocols will start soon.  Possibly not exactly at the stipulated time, but a start will be made.

Pragmatic motivation

This brings us to what is probably the most important theme of the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement.  The signing of the protocols in Zurich is yet another confirmation of what has already become a truism (though no less meaningful for that) - "never say never".  Armenian and Turkish diplomats have shown yet again that even former enemies can, with enough good will, find common interests and points of contact.  This is not the first reconciliation of two historical enemies.  It has been done by Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria and Turkey, Poland and Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, Germany and Russia and Hungary and Rumania - not to mention the reconciliation between Israel and Germany and the transformation into EU allies of such historical opponents as Germany and France.  We are of course not talking of reconciliation in the spirit of that intelligent cartoon pacifist, Leopold the Cat.  A historical reconciliation has first and foremost to meet the national needs of both parties, as well as being politically viable.  Reconciliation for its own sake is unlikely to be of any interest to pragmatic politicians.  In the light of this, it is extremely important to analyse Yerevan and Ankara's motivation and to understand the logic behind the change of landmarks which has taken place in the diplomatic approaches of the two neighbouring states.

Before this "détente" President Serzh Sarkisyan of Armenia was regarded by many as continuing the tough stance of his predecessor Robert Kocharyan.  We should not forget that Sarkisyan has occupied key positions in Armenia's security agencies, according to the more conservative part of the republican establishment, which is always professionally suspicious of a neighbouring state.  In 1989-93 he was head of the Committee of Self Defence of Nagorny Karabakh, in 1993-5 he was head of the Department of National Security and in 1996-9 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Security.  This impressive list makes it quite clear that we are not dealing with a liberal or a dove.  But this is exactly why he has a much clearer understanding of Armenia's complex geopolitical situation.  Turkey's land blockade, the closed border with Azerbaidjan, the unresolved conflict with Nagorny Karabakh, the two "windows on the world" - Georgia and Iran - which the longstanding conflicts between Russia and Georgia and America and Iran had made so unreliable. In these circumstances improving relations with Turkey (by establishing diplomatic relations and re-opening 350km of land frontier) could have hived off the whole complex of Ankara-Yerevan relations from the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, into which it had been locked since 1993.  As both Washington and Moscow had signalled their interest in this, the Armenian diplomats tried to realise the project of opening a third window on to the world via Turkey.  Although the question of relations between Armenia and Turkey has not been completely separated from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaidjan, it is indicative that the situation in Nagorny Karabakh does not figure in the texts of the two protocols.  This makes it clear that Turkish diplomacy too has its reasons for improving relations with its neighbour. 

These reasons are pragmatism.  Firstly, Turkey has outgrown its position as elder brother to Azerbaidjan and is attempting to reposition itself in the Caucasus by "resetting the problem button" with its neighbours.    This strategy has already borne fruit for Turkish policies in the Middle East.  "Turkey is rediscovering the Middle East".  This very successful metaphor was used by Steve Larrabee, the Rand Corporation analyst, in his attempt to describe the efforts which Ankara has made over the last few years in this region which is such a problem on the global agenda.

During the last 5 years Ankara has achieved a considerable breakthrough in its bilateral relations with Syria, which were still on the minus side of the balance sheet at the beginning of the 2000s, when experts were even considering possible military scenarios.  The Syrian president paid a visit to Turkey for the first time ever in 2004. Today diplomats from the two countries are having constructive discussions on such matters as sharing the water resources from the Euphrates and dealing with the Kurdish movement.  This, among other things, has made the Syrians much more cautious in their approach to recognising the Armenian genocide.

Secondly, Turkish regional officials and businessmen have an interest in developing economic contacts with Armenia.  They have spoken publicly about this on more than one occasion.  Some years ago the official NATO site published a paper by a Turkish researcher, Burcu Gültekin, called "Prospects for Regional Cooperation on NATO's South-Eastern Border, Developing Turkish-Russian Cooperation in South Caucasus".  In it she asserts that Turkish policies are hostage to the relationship with Azerbaidjan.  In her opinion "the opening of the borders will improve Turkey's image in Armenian society and take the relationship out of its present crisis".  The opinion that the present economic blockade of Armenia does nothing for regional stability has been developing in the Turkish expert community (traditionally pro-Azeri) for some years.

On 9 July 2008 the influential publication Wall Street Journal Europe published an article by President Serzh Sarkisyan called "We Are Ready to Talk to Turkey", in which he rightly observes that both the Turks and the Armenians have been trying in various ways to overcome the problem of the closed land frontier.  "There are regular flights between Yerevan and Istanbul or Antalya.  There are many bus and taxi routes across Georgia and even the lorry drivers make long detours, in the interests of trade between our countries." 

According to Kaan Soyak, the director of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council the volume of trade between the countries (taking into consideration the special features already described) is 100-120 million US dollars.  So over the years support for the Armenia-Turkish reconciliation has grown, not only in the upper echelons of society, but among ordinary citizens of both states.  Without this support (or at least a position of neutrality) the Road Map and the two protocols would not have been possible.  Relations between Armenia and Azerbaidjan and Russia and Georgia lack such support, which is why there have been no "peace breakthroughs" so far.

Last, but not least: Turkey's interest in Europe is only strengthened by "resetting" relations with its neighbour.

The genocide issue

But what about the genocide question?  Turkey's acknowledgement of this is vitally important for Armenia at home and abroad.  The two protocols give a definite, though not very clear, answer to this question.  This is "a dialogue over history whose purpose is to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations."

This dialogue is to be developed in the "sub-commission (of the intergovernmental commission), which will deal with the historical dimension".  It is hard to see how the opinion of this commission will be able to solve an argument which has been going on for years among historians, politicians and ordinary people.  Will even the most authoritative group of qualified, politically neutral and objective researchers be able to break the mould and change the Turkish and Armenian views of what happened in 1915?  And in fact, how important is it actually to change these views? 

I am prepared to stick my neck out and say that the task facing the "sub-commission of historians" is more modest.  What is most likely is that the Armenians will continue to insist that the genocide be acknowledged and the Turks will not continue not to acknowledge it.  It is not impossible, though, that formulas could be found which would allow everyone to save face and agree to disagree.

The process of reconciliation is not complete.  Many challenges and points of disagreement lie ahead. Nationalists are not the only ones who may not like the peace progress.  Sincere patriots may have problems with it too. There may be setbacks and backsliding on the path to peace.  But the preliminary results are already having a positive effect and not just on the dynamics of the bilateral relations.  They suggest that there are alternatives to historical reconciliation - though they cannot outweigh the political dividends of reaching a compromise.

About the author

Sergei Markedonov heads the Department of International Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, Moscow. He is now is a visiting fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, USA. 

Read On

Sabine Freizer, "Armenia's emptying democracy" (30 November 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart,"Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey" (7 February 2006)

Sabine Freizer, "Nagorno-Karabakh: between vote and reality" (14 December 2006)

Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)

Hratch Tchilingirian, "Hrant Dink and Armenians in Turkey" (23 February 2007)

Taner Akçam, "Turkey and history: shoot the messenger" (16 August 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Armenia's election: the waiting game" (19 February 2008)

Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections" (4 March 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Armenia's mixed messages" (25 September 2008)

Fatma Müge Göçek,  "Hrant Dink: memory and hope" (17 January 2008)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Armenia: silence over genocide" (12 October 2009)

Vicken Cheterian, "Armenia-Turkey: genocide, blockade, diplomacy" (13 October 2009)