oDR: Opinion

Post-war distrust complicates new Armenia-Turkey talks

The two states are entering rapprochement discussions following decades of closed borders

Hrag Papazian
Hrag Papazian
12 January 2022, 12.01am
Yerevan, Armenia
(c) dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

After decades of closed borders and no diplomatic ties, Turkey and Armenia recently unveiled a new dialogue process. Special envoys appointed by the two sides are expected to hold their first meeting in Moscow on 14 January.

For around 30 years, borders between the two countries have been closed. Turkey sealed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Now, having assisted Azerbaijan in militarily defeating Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 2020 war, Turkey appears confident and eager to propel the talks, driven by its broader regional aspirations and the need for a positive agenda item.

But Armenia’s stance is rather ambivalent. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan during the war has left Armenian society with an increased sense of vulnerability and mistrust towards its eastern neighbour — a fact that could impact the current talks.

A previous attempt at a rapprochement process in 2008-09 came to nothing, and Turkey largely returned to its ‘absent’ or, at best, ‘distant’ status in the minds and geopolitical imaginations of average Armenians. As my research conversations suggest, until 2020, Turkey held the position of a historical enemy in Armenia – and was rarely perceived as an actual contemporary threat.

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I asked Armenian historian Hrant Ter-Abrahamyan, who often comments on Armenian-Turkish relations, to think back to the time before the 2020 war. Did he expect Turkey to intervene to the extent it did? Had he considered Turkey a real threat to Armenia?

“To be honest, I did not,” he said. “I was in a state of inertia in that regard, as was most of our society. Turkey remained a mythical figure for us, with no real relations at all. It wasn’t a ‘living’ thing.”

The ‘mythical figure’ mentioned by Ter-Abrahamyan is a reference to Turkey's role in the 1915-1923 Armenian Genocide, which was carried out by the Young Turks’ Ottoman government and is still denied by the Turkish state today.

But the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh brought Turkey closer to contemporary Armenians, who encountered the ‘historical enemy’ in a more direct and real way than ever.

Turkish military advisers helped coordinate and consult Azerbaijani military during the latter’s offensive in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish drones were used to deadly effect against Armenian forces, and Syrian mercenaries traveled via Turkey to Azerbaijan to fight on the latter’s side. As Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu put it, the country supported Azerbaijan both “on the battlefield, and at the negotiation table”.

Turkey’s active participation in the war even revived memories of the genocide in Armenian society. Politicians, media commentators and people on social media made explicit links with it. “Turkey has returned to the South Caucasus to continue the Armenian Genocide,” Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said a few days after the start of the war. Speaking at a victory parade in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in December 2020, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised one of the Genocide’s main organisers, Enver Pasha, further inflaming this discourse on the Armenian side.

Erdogan and Aliyev in Shusha (Shushi), Nagorno-Karabakh, June 2021
(c) Azerbaijan President Press Office/TASS/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

One of the two sides in this new process of rapprochement is thus a post-defeat society that has only recently rediscovered its neighbour through a novel episode of hostility and aggression. It should come as no surprise, then, that a considerable part of Armenian society would mistrust and oppose attempts at rapprochement with Turkey. Some people I spoke with believed that Turkey’s military and diplomatic support to Azerbaijan during the 44-day war in 2020, framed within the ‘One nation two states’ concept, signal a pan-Turkic vision of the region, in which Armenia is granted no place.

Foreign minister Çavuşoğlu’s recent announcement that normalisation steps with Armenia will be coordinated with Azerbaijan has deepened existing concerns. Even after the end of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan has continued to make territorial claims against Armenia, including threatening further military intervention. Hence some Armenian scholars describe the dialogue talks as “Armeno-Turkic” rather than merely Armenia-Turkey, by ‘Turkic’ referring to the Turkish-Azerbaijani ‘one nation’ tandem — all the more threatening to their eyes. In such conditions of increased feelings of vulnerability, opposition in Armenia to this new round of rapprochement efforts is not unexpected, especially in light of similar mobilisation during the 2008-09 talks.

Yet even ardent supporters of rapprochement are not exempt from that sense of vulnerability. On the contrary, many of them are driven by it. In addition to earlier arguments citing the need to end the economic blockade or the importance of lessening dependence on Russia, dialogue with Turkey is now seen as a matter of security by some.

I asked Tatul Hakobyan, journalist and author of a book on Turkish-Armenian relations, whether Turkey’s involvement in the war changed his approach to the neighboring country. “Yes, it did. I got convinced that we have to talk with the Turk[s],” he told me. Maria Karapetyan, MP from the ruling Civil Contract party in the Armenian parliament, told me that “dialogue is necessary at least to mitigate threats, even if we are inclined to realistically exclude the possibility of completely neutralising or eliminating them.”

At what point, one would ask, would this sense of threat turn from being a stimulating factor to an inhibiting one? In a November 2021 interview, Pashinyan made telling remarks in this regard: “We do want to normalise relations. But I would like Turkey and Azerbaijan to answer clearly: Are they willing to exterminate the Armenian people? Are they willing to destroy the Armenian statehood? Are they willing to carry on with the politics of the genocide? If yes, what else can we do but resist?”

This increased sense of vulnerability in post-war Armenian society should be treated as a key variable in the equation of current Turkish-Armenian talks. Alongside possible geopolitical constraints already leading to skepticism about the outcome of these novel rapprochement efforts, this social psychological state acts as a factor further complicating them.

As for genuine reconciliation, alas, it now appears more distant than it was before the Turkey-backed Azerbaijani offensive began in late 2020.

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