Armenia has been trying to establish functional relations with Turkey since it became independent in 1991; every administration since then has been involved in some form of negotiations. At times, it seemed that a breakthrough would be achieved, yet the Araks and Akhuryan rivers are still impassable, and there are still no established diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his administration had made it a priority to establish friendly relations with Armenia’s immediate neighbors, including Turkey, as they saw Armenia’s development and security in the context of close cooperation with its neighbors. Although Armenia’s second President Robert Kocharyan made the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide a foreign policy priority for Armenia, which was a major shift from the approach adopted by his predecessor, nonetheless he too pursued the normalization of relations with Turkey. During the first years of Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency, the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process yet again entered an active phase with the signing of the Zurich Protocols, which, however, were never ratified by either side.
The Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process was revived again after the 2020 Artsakh War. The process is still ongoing, and it remains to be seen what the outcome of this phase of Turkish-Armenian talks will be. This time, one key factor impacting Turkish-Armenian relations has changed; Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev uses every opportunity to announce that Azerbaijan has solved the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with the 2020 war when Azerbaijan not only took control of the seven regions around Nagorno-Karabakh, but also occupied a significant portion of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO).
The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has cast a shadow over the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations since 1993, when the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army started to turn the tide in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Now, the balance has changed: Azerbaijan is the victor and Armenia is the losing party. While Azerbaijan expressed its displeasure with the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement during Serzh Sargsyan’s tenure, thus negatively impacting the outcome of the process, Baku now declares that it welcomes the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey. At the same time, Azerbaijan still has leverage to impact the outcome of the Armenian-Turkish dialogue, as there are still major issues and unsettled disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Turkish side has declared repeatedly that it consults with Azerbaijan at every step.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not the only obstacle to the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations. Although the Republic of Armenia has never set any preconditions for the discussions, the Armenian diaspora continues to advocate for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which Turkey continues to deny.
Under this light and the renewed negotiation process taking place between Armenia and Turkey, it is important to look at the diplomatic history between Armenia and Turkey since 1991, and identify the main causes of past failures.
Levon Ter-Petrosyan and the Liberal Approach: 1991 – 1998
Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; however, it was in no rush to establish diplomatic relations. The first attempts made in the early 1990s to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia failed because Turkey was not able to detach itself from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Although certain advances were made in bilateral relations after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, no significant progress was achieved. Turkey increasingly tied the normalization of its relations with Armenia to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Azerbaijan’s interests․ To some extent, this was due to ethnic proximity; the Turks saw the Azerbaijanis as their kin, who had been defeated by Armenians. But Turkey also had economic considerations in mind; Azerbaijan, with its oil and gas resources, created new economic opportunities for Turkey.
The young Armenian government under Levon Ter-Petrosyan had adopted what could be called a “zero problems with neighbors” policy, two decades before Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would coin the term to describe Turkey’s foreign policy approach of the late 2000s. Ter-Petrosyan believed that one of the main guarantees for Armenia’s security and economic development was good relations with its immediate neighbors, the most problematic of which besides Azerbaijan was Turkey. In the beginning of the 1990s, it was important for Armenia to establish relations with Turkey without any political concessions that would jeopardize the security of the state. The objective was to normalize relations without preconditions from either side. Armenia also demanded that Turkey not tie the opening of the border and establishment of relations to the attitude of third countries, namely Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Another important approach was that Armenia must not put the issue of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide on its foreign policy agenda; which would jeopardize the normalization process. And finally, Armenian authorities contended that the parties must implement the “agree to disagree” formula, so that their fundamentally different approaches regarding the Armenian Genocide and other issues don’t hinder the reconciliation process.
In the initial phase of the rapprochement process, Turkey was headed by President Turgut Ozal, who had a moderate approach toward Turkey’s minorities and relations with Armenia. Thus, while the First Nagorno-Karabakh War was in full swing and the outcome was not predictable, the Armenian and Turkish presidents were working to normalize relations.
Over the period of 1992-1993, a concise text to be signed as a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation protocol on establishing relations was formulated, which focused on establishing diplomatic relations and recognizing mutual borders without naming any specific previous treaties (such as the Treaty of Kars). Yerevan was also negotiating over wheat transfers to Armenia through Turkey, as well as the transfer of electricity from third countries which would help Armenia with its energy crisis. The progress achieved until 1993 went south after Armenian forces advanced into Kelbajar, beyond the borders of the NKAO. Turkey immediately put the withdrawal of ethnic Armenian forces from these territories as a precondition for its normalization of relations with Armenia. Turkey unilaterally shut its border with Armenia on April 4, 1993, to pressure the Republic of Armenia into leveraging concessions in Artsakh. Since then, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been one of the main determinants casting a shadow on Armenian-Turkish relations.
Although the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the reason that the signing of the protocol was halted in 1993, the Armenian Genocide was also an important issue, which for Turkey was linked to possible future territorial and restitution claims by Armenia. Armenia’s declaration of independence states that “The Republic of Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.” However, pursuing the recognition of the Genocide was left out of the 1995 constitution. One of the key features of Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s negotiation approach to improving relations with Turkey and establishing diplomatic relations was for the Armenian government to set aside active pursuit of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a foreign policy priority. Despite Armenia’s attempts, several countries recognized the Armenian Genocide in the 1990s, which impacted relations to some extent.
Robert Kocharyan and the Quiet Phase: 1998 – 2008
In contrast, Robert Kocharyan’s Administration did view the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a foreign policy priority. Nevertheless, it also pursued normalization of relations with Turkey. By pushing for the recognition of the Genocide by the international community and Turkey, they thought that they could persuade Turkey to soften its stance toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, thus steering Azerbaijan toward concessions.
The nature of talks between Armenia and Turkey changed after the AKP (Justice and Development) party came to power in 2002. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the leader of the AKP, and fellow party member Abdullah Gul had built up a reputation as moderate reformists; the EU also had high hopes for this new government to be a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Turkey’s foreign policy changes regarding the South Caucasus, however, began undergoing important policy and doctrinal changes. In light of the changes taking place in Turkey, the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations also seemed plausible. During this period, Turkey’s main demand was that Armenia drop its stance on the Armenian Genocide.
In 2005, Robert Kocharyan agreed to the establishment of a Turkish-Armenian joint commission to discuss outstanding issues, announcing that Armenia and Turkey should normalize their relations. This was in contrast with his initial announcement that Turkey must recognize the Armenian Genocide before relations could be established. Robert Kocharyan also announced that Armenia does not have territorial claims against Turkey. In this context, the Kocharyan Administration conceded to Turkey’s preconditions, thus removing Genocide recognition and territorial claims as prerequisites for normalization However, regardless of Kocharyan’s concession, Turkey once again brought up the Nagorno Karabakh issue, and with pressure from Baku, the Turkish-Armenian talks again hit a dead end.
After assuming office, Kocharyan twice met his Turkish counterpart President Suleyman Demirel. A number of Turkish-Armenian initiatives came about during his presidency, such as the establishment of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) and the opening of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) in Istanbul. However, on the diplomatic level, no substantive negotiations were held until 2007, when the ground was laid for what would later be called “football diplomacy”.
Serzh Sargsyan and Football Diplomacy: 2008 – 2018
The most significant progress in Turkish-Armenian talks was made under Serzh Sargsyan’s tenure, with the signing of the Zurich protocols in 2009. At the beginning of the renewed process, Erdogan, then the Prime Minister of Turkey, held a more liberal approach to the normalization of relations with Armenia. However, the breakthrough protocols that were signed were never ratified by either parliament.
The symbolic start of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process under Serzh Sargsyan was marked with the qualification games of the 2010 World Cup, when Armenia and Turkey were drawn to compete in the same group. Serzh Sargsyan extended an invitation to his Turkish counterpart to watch the match in Yerevan together, which Turkish President Abdullah Gul accepted. On the sidelines of the match, relations between the two countries were also discussed. Gul was the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia. Hence the term “football diplomacy” was coined.
The culmination of “football diplomacy” was the signing of the Zurich Protocols on October 10, 2009, by the foreign affairs ministers of Armenia and Turkey. By signing the Zurich protocols, Armenia and Turkey were agreeing to open the border two months after the protocols would be ratified. The sides also agreed to create a working group, chaired by the two countries, which would work toward creating an intergovernmental commission. The protocols also included a clause on creating a joint commission which would address historical issues between the two countries by examining historical documents and archives. In fact, Turkey’s purpose was to try and cast doubt on the genocide.
However, despite the initial success, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Azerbaijan’s dissatisfaction with the normalization became an obstacle yet again. This was made evident when Erdogan announced in October 2009, just weeks after the protocols were signed, that Turkey could not take positive steps toward Armenia unless ethnic Armenian armed forces withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Erdogan, the Turkish public and parliament would take a more positive stance toward the protocols only if the conflict was resolved, essentially retracting the premise of normalization without preconditions. He also announced that the Turkish parliament would review Armenian-Azerbaijani relations before making a decision on the protocols.
As a result of the delaying tactics by the Turkish authorities on the protocols, and their continuous efforts to tie relations with Armenia to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, on April 22, 2010, Serzh Sargsyan signed a decree suspending the ratification process of the protocols. In February 2015, the protocols were recalled from the Armenian parliament and in March 2018, the process of signing the protocols was terminated by Serzh Sargsyan, just as he was preparing to transition from President to Prime Minister.
Nikol Pashinyan: 2018 – 2022
After Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War, in which Turkey’s direct involvement was instrumental in the Armenian side’s defeat, another phase of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation has begun. This time, there are major differences compared to previous attempts: Azerbaijan took back the seven regions surrounding the NKAO, in addition to portions of the NKAO itself, thus altering the dynamics of Nagorno-Karabakh as a precondition for normalization with Turkey. Still, there are major border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including Azerbaijan’s incursions into the Republic of Armenia, and Turkey’s staunch support for these activities. More so, Azerbaijan continues its policy of aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh, with Turkey providing international cover for Baku’s hostilities. In the backdrop of such developments, Turkey has further noted, even since the beginning of the normalization talks, that it will coordinate and consult the negotiation process with Azerbaijan.
Turkey, once again, seems eager to establish relations with Armenia. Turkey is in an economic crisis now and may be looking for new market opportunities in the South Caucasus, particularly in Armenia. Also with Turkey’s involvement in the 2020 Artsakh War and Azerbaijan’s victory, Turkey created a foothold for itself in the region. Turkey also has good relations with Georgia. Given the weakened position of Armenia, Russia’s main ally in the region, Turkey is trying to increase its influence in the South Caucasus.
While Azerbaijan has traditionally been opposed to the improvement of relations between Armenia and Turkey, now official Baku has changed its stance, announcing that it supports the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey, and it does so in the name of regional cooperation and peace and security. Pashinyan’s administration is determined to improve relations with Turkey, the sides have agreed to start talks without any preconditions. For the first time in ten years, a high ranking Armenian official, Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, visited Turkey to participate in the Antalya Diplomacy Forum. Both countries have nominated special envoys who are leading the talks. The envoys have met twice this year already, in January and in February, although nothing has been made public about the nature of the talks. The only public comment is that the talks have thus far been constructive.
What the recent history between Armenia and Turkey comes to show is that, despite Turkey and Armenia agreeing to set differences aside and to move forward with what can be agreed upon, at the last minute, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations halt whatever progress has been achieved between Armenia and Turkey. Although Aliyev continues to announce that he has solved the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and asserts readiness to sign a peace treaty with Armenia, there are still unresolved issues between the two countries. Moreover, when the Armenian side tries to make a move toward settling a dispute with Azerbaijan, the latter responds with new attacks against either Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, thus jeopardizing the peace process, seemingly on purpose. This gives reason to argue that Azerbaijan may disrupt the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation process in the decisive moment once again, despite the fact that Baku has declared support to the Armenian-Turkish talks.
At the end of the day, Turkey will clearly leverage its alliance with Azerbaijan over any serious steps of normalization with Armenia. However, it will present to the international community that it made a good faith effort, thus glorifying the myth of Turkish diplomacy and the benevolence of Ankara towards its neighbors. The most important factor to consider, noting the historical precedent, is that Turkey’s negotiations cannot be qualified as being in good faith if it ever raises the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh in the middle of negotiations. If Turkey shows leniency on this issue, then these talks may be considered to be serious. But if Turkey, at any moment, utilizes the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as an obstacle, it will become obvious that the whole exercise was once again just for show.
1- Hakobyan, T., Armenians and Turks: From War to Cold War to Diplomacy (2013).
2- Libaridian, G., Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State (2004).
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