The Armenia-Turkey protocols: a year on

The process of dialogue between neighbours locked in an enduring dispute over the events of 1915 is already in trouble. But in assessing what has gone wrong, Vicken Cheterian sees history still on the move.
Vicken Cheterian
20 October 2010

A historic ceremony on 19 September 2010 cast a significant light on the evolution of the process of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, symbolised by the signing of a diplomatic agreement - consisting of two protocols - between these peoples’ modern states on 10 October 2009.

For the first time since the genocide of the Armenians on the territory of the Ottoman empire in 1915 and subsequent years, the Turkish authorities permitted Armenian religious ceremonies to take place on an ancient religious site on the island of Akhtamar in the middle of Lake Van (in present-day southeast Turkey). The monastery of the Church of the Holy Cross - Sourp Khach for Armenians - was built in 915 CE, and for a while was the seat of the Armenian Catholicos.

After the deportation and massacre of the Armenian population of Van province, during the first world war, the once-magnificent monastery was left to fall apart. As part of Turkey’s early revision of its hardline domestic politics of identity and diversity in 2005-06, government funds were allocated to renovate the monastery - though as a museum, not a church. This was opened in 2007. Now, in 2010 - after a ninety-five-year silence - the Armenian church was able to organise a mass in Akhtamar; Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the gesture an “expression of the Turk’s tolerance”.

The event was part of a current pattern in which Ankara has engaged in what the journalist Yusuf Kanli (writing in the newspaper Hürriyet) describes as a “cultural opening”. This has included members and descendants of Turkey’s Christian minorities being allowed to hold religious services; most dramatically, in August 2010, in the case of the Pontic Greeks - whose communities along the Black Sea coast existed for centuries before their exodus to the modern state of Greece in 1922 - in their own sacred site of Sumela monastery, near Trabzon, for the first time in the history of the republic. This is a further sign that a secular Turkish state now dominated by the moderate Islamists of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi / Justice & Development Party) is amending the longstanding policy of discrimination and repression against religious minorities.

Every such effort at “cultural opening” - or, from another perspective, historical reclamation - has a political dimension; none more so than the case of the ceremony at Akhtamar monastery, so infused with sensitive and conflicting associations and so close to the anniversary of the long-awaited but now-troubled Turkish-Armenian protocols.

A degree of disputation seemed inevitable, and in the event several thousand Armenian pilgrims and representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church from Echmiadzin (now the seat of the Catholicos) who were due to take part in the ceremony were told at a late stage that a cross would not be placed (by the Turkish authorities) on top of the church dome - a decision that led to the withdrawal of Armenian church officials and many potential pilgrims. But around 1,000 people did attend the religious ceremony; these were mainly Armenians from major Turkish cities, but also grandchildren of genocide survivors from as far as Boston.

The experience of Akhtamar suggests that Ankara’s “cultural opening” - and its foreign policies more generally since the AKP came to power in November 2002 - are less straightforward and more ambivalent than sometimes portrayed. True, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s declared ambition of a “zero-problem policy” with Turkey’s neighbours reflects the often positive official rhetoric; and in practice too, Ankara has been pro-active both in renewing relations with countries in the region and (latterly) in adopting a more combative stance towards Israel. 

An early stumble

Turkey’s cautious steps towards normalising relations with Armenia can be understood in this context. The dispute over 1915 means that the relations between the two states - such as they are, for Ankara and Yerevan have no diplomatic links - are especially complicated. In 1993, at the height of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey joined Azerbaijan in imposing a blockade on landlocked Armenia.

But this policy produced no clear benefits, and left the Karabakh issue as “frozen” fifteen years on as it had been since the ceasefire. was at the start. As Turkey sought a new foreign-policy direction, and was in addition under a degree of international diplomatic pressure over the genocide, the beginnings of a dialogue with Armenia seemed propitious.

The high point of the process came early, in September 2008, when Turkey’s head of state Abdullah Gül accepted an invitation from his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian to visit Yerevan to attend a qualifying match in the football world cup between the two national teams. The meeting led to intensified diplomatic consultations (some of which had already been held in secret in Berne, facilitated by Swiss diplomats). The sometimes rocky negotiations culminated in the ceremonial signing of two protocols in Zürich on 10 October 2009.

The first protocol concerned the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries; the second related to the opening of their common border. The high-level patronage on show - including Hillary Clinton, Sergei Lavrov, Javier Solana, Bernard Kouchner and Micheline Calmy-Rey - suggested the degree of international investment in the process. But signatures on documents are only the outward form of an intended change; and a little over a year on, it can be argued that the “historic” ceremony in Zürich has failed to fulfil its hopes - and even that it has backfired.

A Baku twist

The worrying indicators were there early. Even as Ahmet Davutoglu was signing the protocols, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was saying that Turkey will not open the border before steps are made towards resolution of the Karabakh conflict. This was equivalent to a veto, since the protocols ratification by a Turkish parliament that Erdogan’s AKP controlled. Moreover, the contents of the documents carefully avoided specific allusions to the respective countries or to Nagorno-Karabakh; the reductive references to particular points of tension could only create problems when the protocols needed room to breathe.

More broadly, a retrospect of this disappointing year suggests that Turkey’s Caucasus policy has suffered from two flaws which together have worked against its aim of normalising relations and achieving a peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The first mistake was to believe that Azerbaijan would reverse its own blockade policy towards Armenia, or agree to Turkey showing flexibility on this issue. Azerbaijan always saw Turkey’s diplomatic initiative towards Armenia as a self-interested attempt to strengthen its international influence at the expense of Azerbaijani political interests. Baku was impervious to the argument that the blockade policy had failed, and that a revised Turkish relationship with Armenia could have a positive impact on the Karabakh issue.

Indeed, Ankara neither expected the vehement Azerbaijani criticism nor was prepared to resist it. Baku used the levers it had available - threatening a halt to strategic cooperation, to gas deliveries, to cooperation on future hydrocarbon projects - to press fraternal Turkey over the protocols. The hard line worked, insofar as the protocols remain unratified and the border closed; but Ankara has also lost the trust it previously enjoyed in Baku, to the extent that Azerbaijan now seems to prefer closer collaboration with Russia.

The visit of Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s president, to Baku in early September 2010 was marked by agreement over important gas deals that will see Azeri gas flowing to European markets via Russian instead of Turkey, and possibly even the end of the Nabucco (Turkey-Austria pipeline) project.

An Ankara misstep

The second mistake of Turkish diplomacy was to wager that Armenia’s president Serge Sarkissian was ready to make concessions on the Karabakh conflict in order to have open borders with Turkey. Sarkissian was already under heavy pressure (especially from the Armenian diaspora) for agreeing in the protocols to “implement a dialogue on the historic dimension” -  a clear reference to the events of 1915.

Armenian diplomats had already hailed the protocols as a “victory” on the grounds that they had dissociated the Karabakh conflict from Armenia-Turkey relations, thus allowing the former to be addressed on its own merits; so by making a further concession on Karabakh question would entail even further opposition - both among the diaspora and within Armenia itself.

Now, Yerevan too feels that Turkey deceived it, and that the whole negotiations were a Turkish manoeuvre to avoid international pressure from Washington and the European Union on the question of recognition of the genocide of 1915.

Indeed, Turkey’s effort once more to link Turkish-Armenian relations with the Karabakh conflict can be seen as a third strategic mistake in its own right. The result was that after all the work invested in the beginnings of a reconciliation process, Turkey retreated to first base: no normalisation of relations with Armenia, and no opening of borders without a solution of the Karabakh conflict (on terms reflecting Azerbaijani diplomatic preferences). This stance represents a vote for the status quo in the Caucasus - including a continuation of “frozen conflicts” and the double-blockade on Armenia.

The Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 is evidence that frozen conflicts can suddenly turn very hot. The frontlines of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute have been increasingly tense since mid-2010, with several military clashes involving the death of personnel on both sides. A further escalation is a serious possibility. The dangerous and unpredictable effects of such an outcome would both confirm the failure of recent diplomacy and threaten to destroy what limited progress has been made.

A mixed signal

The ceremony at Akhtamar - disputatious in some respects as it was - is one example of this progress. Hürriyet reports that following the event there, more people in Turkey are openly reclaiming their long-buried Armenian identity; that there are plans to restore more decayed Armenian churches;  and that a mass is planned for the church of Arakelots in Kars, on the Turkey-Armenia border.

These are elements of a deeper shift in historical perceptions and identities in Turkey, which will surely continue even amid a wider geopolitical deadlock. All the more reason to restore momentum to diplomacy in the region, to ensure that the changes that are happening will be and remain peaceful.

Yet this is not the whole story. Days after the ceremony, Armenian visitors to the Holy Cross / Sourp Khach church were forbidden from praying by police guarding the place. At the same time, the Turkish administration authorised the opposition (nationalist) parliamentarian Devlet Bahceli to pray in the ruins of the Holy Virgin Cathedral in Ani, the old Armenian capital on the Armenia-Turkey border. How to read the messages coming out of Ankara, less than five years before the centenary of the Armenian genocide? History might be on the move, but at what speed?

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