Change of Heart is the Kay to Unlock Turkey-Armenian Door

While taking a walk through the Armenian Bazaar (or Vernisaj) in Yerevan, I easily distinguished the colorful bookstall owned by an Armenian retired English teacher Frunzik Tadevosiam, who hailed from Nagorno-Karabakh. He quickly started a friendly conversation when he realised I was coming from Turkey. “I am happy to see Turkish journalists here. The Turkish and Armenian people have no problem. To persist on error is stupidity. We don’t live forever,” said the bookseller, meaning that the two nations should understand each other, become closer and finally reconcile.

In my two separate visits to Armenia, I crossed to the country via the border of a third country, Georgia, despite the fact that Armenia is one of Turkey’s immediate neighbours but the border between the two states is closed since 1993. While crossing the Georgian border, my Armenian colleague emphasised the importance of the relations between the two nations and said that even though there are borders between countries, hearts have no borders, adding “two nations can still be close, but before opening the closed borders we have to open our mental borders.”

In 1993, Ankara closed the border and cut relations with Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh war out of support for Azerbaijan, Turkey’s main ally in the Caucasus. Since then, the Turkish-Armenian border remained closed as Ankara insisted on Yerevan to de-occupy the territories surrounding the region. Now that those lands are back to Azerbaijan, as a result of the last year’s war with Armenia, one of the main obstacles in front of Turkish-Armenian normalisation has been effectively met. So, what’s next for the longtime foes?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told foreign ambassadors in Turkey on 25 Aug that a window of opportunity has opened for progress after the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, referring to the prospects of restoring relations with Armenia. Touching upon the Turkish leader’s statement, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said two days later that his country was getting “some clear positive signals” from Turkey, adding that his government will evaluate these signals and reciprocate them positively. In response Erdoğan underlined that “even if there are differences in views and expectations, it will be a responsible move to show sincere efforts for developing good neighbourly relations based on trust”, adding that instead of unilateral accusations, realistic approaches are needed.

What happened? 

It is not the first time that Turkey and Armenia came close to normalising bilateral relations. In 2008, then Turkish President Abdullah Gül visited Yerevan to watch a football match between the two countries’ national teams – a move which was later described as “football diplomacy.” This followed a historic reconciliation process that was launched in 2009, when the two sides inked protocols in Zurich, not only to normalise diplomatic relations but also to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border. However, this attempt, launched by Turkey as part of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, did not bear fruits because territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno-Karabakh wasn’t solved at that time. The ratification of the protocols was never realised, but it was considered as a turning point in the history of Turkish-Armenian relations.

A possible normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia would fundamentally change the balance in the South Caucasus region, affecting the policies of the great powers that consider the region vital to their interests.

In 2013, former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Yerevan to attend the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) meeting, making him the highest-level Turkish official to visit Armenia since 2009. The following years, Turkish and Armenian presidents exchanged letters on several occasions. Then, in 2014, came Erdoğan’s statement about the 1915 killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia, extending Turkey’s condolences to Armenians for the first time in the history of the republic. Such a message would have been unthinkable decades ago. It was a very momentous indication of how the taboos regarding the Armenian question were breaking in Turkey, although the official stance regarding the issue remained unchanged. The same year, Yerevan positively responded to the Turkish invitation to take part in Erdogan’s presidential inauguration ceremony by sending the Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandyan.

Why now? 

The recent reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Armenia seem to be part of Ankara’s broader reconciliation process towards regional countries. The end of the last year’s conflict in favour of Turkish interests changed the calculus in the region.

Baku has not reacted to Turkish statements towards normalization with Armenia, while Russia, which was frustrated by the tension caused by the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, threw its full support behind the recent efforts. Ankara considers the Caucasus region as a new area of cooperation with Moscow. The two states have also built a joint center to monitor cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A possible normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia would fundamentally change the balance in the South Caucasus region, affecting the policies of the great powers that consider the region vital to their interests. Ankara is determined to maintain the influence it gained as a result of the war and seeks to further enhance its role in the South Caucasus. In this context, it even proposed the formation of a six-state platform that would include Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan Georgia, Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, Iran, which has been supportive of Armenia for years, seems to have revised its policy considering the altered geopolitical landscape following the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Turkish-Armenian relations are considered as the “history of missed opportunities.” Now that a positive climate has been created between the two countries in the past few weeks, both Ankara and Yerevan should benefit from this opportunity.

A sincere dialogue based on mutual trust and the necessary confidence building measures would pave the way first for the normalisation of relations, that is building diplomatic relations and opening borders, and then the reconciliation in relations. Therefore, it is vital to continue efforts to promote civil society and media initiatives. In 2014, during my talk with an Armenian diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yerevan, he underlined that the protocols, which have failed to be ratified, were not dead and lost in the dusty pages of the history, adding: “However, one point is very significant, that even if one day Turkey and Armenia agree to ratify the protocols, establish diplomatic relations and open the borders, the tough task is the reconciliation of the two nations. That is what we have to think over.”

The long-awaited opening of the border between the two neighbours would not only serve significantly in opening the mental borders between the two societies, but economically benefit both the sides as well. Armenia is facing serious economic problems that force many Armenian families to rely on money from relatives living abroad. With a population of 3 million, Armenia borders Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and Iran. The first two have closed their borders, Iran is under sanctions and Georgia is not the country to help the Armenian economy. Given the moral and financial loss due to the last year’s war and adverse effects of Covid-19, the opening of the border with Turkey is vital to Armenia. The economic benefits of this would start to appear quickly and result in speedy improvements.

Lastly, for many years, argument over the term “genocide” remained a strong obstacle for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. The tragic events of 1915 are described differently by Turkey and Armenia. While Armenians say that the events amount to “genocide,” Turkey refuses that there was any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population and says that both Turks and Armenians were killed during the war. This has not only caused two sides to fail mending fences but has also led to the missing of several chances of reconciliation, hampering of the efforts of civil society organisations, intellectuals and media.

To conclude, for both Ankara and Yerevan, there may be hard limitations in moving toward normalisation; however, dragging out the process is not in the interest of either side. While the door between the two countries is still closed for now, it is not locked and the change of heart on the two sides is the key to unlock the closed borders, both land and mental.

Sinem Cengiz

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish researcher with a focus on Gulf affairs and Turkey’s relations with the broader Middle East. She is a regular columnist for Arab News and the author of the book "Turkish-Saudi relations." She tweets at @SinemCngz_

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