Armenia and Turkey: From normalization to reconciliation

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 edition of Turkish Policy Quarterly.

For Turkey and Armenia, normalization and reconciliation can be seen as two sides of the same coin. A critical and achievable breakthrough would be the opening of the international border and the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, meaningful progress at the inter-state level does not seem probable in the immediate future given the heighted political sensitivities around the historic commemorations of this year. Nonetheless, the authors argue that informal normalization is occurring. Across Turkish and Armenian societies, the “thaw” is expanding and appears to be sanctioned by both governments. For the deeper process of reconciliation, both countries should support smaller, symbolic efforts that allow for dialogue and understanding.

Exactly one century ago in March 1915, the British and French navies, together with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), attempted to force their way through the Turkish Straits to attack Istanbul and open a new front in World War I. At the same time, the Ottoman government was in the process of moving its Armenian population away from the eastern parts of the empire bordering its archenemy, Russia. Amid the chaos of war, the Ottomans feared Russia would stir the Christian Armenian millet to revolt, fragmenting the Ottoman Empire while its armies clashed with Russia’s allies, the British and the French. The forced displacement of the Armenians was accompanied by unimaginable violence and depredation. Today, Armenians, as well as most historians around the world, claim that 1.5 million of their ancestors were deliberately and systematically killed in the modern world’s first genocide. There are no exact, indisputable figures for the number of lives lost, but the magnitude of the catastrophe is incontestable.

24 April 2015 will be commemorated in Yerevan and globally as the centennial of these atrocities. Traditionally, Turkey has challenged the Armenian depiction of the circumstances surrounding the deportation, the number of deaths, as well as the designation of the events as genocide. The Turkish government contends that the deaths must be understood within the turbulent context of World War I; they were not systematically orchestrated; and they occurred amid other massacres committed against many Ottoman Muslims.

The official Turkish position, however, has softened over the course of the last decade. In the words of Thomas de Waal, author of Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide, a “Turkish thaw” is unfolding; Turkish society is increasingly revisiting “some of the dark pages of its past, including the oppression of the non-Turkish populations of the late Ottoman Empire.” (1) In April 2014, the former Prime Minister and current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made a statement recognizing the significance of April 24th for Armenians around the world. He described the historic events as “inhumane” and offered condolences to the grandchildren of those who lost their lives. Erdoğan’s declaration fell short of issuing an apology or acknowledging genocide as such, but nonetheless marked a fundamental change in the nation’s approach to comprehending and addressing the events of 1915.

Erdoğan’s statement should be regarded as an important step toward reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, not just toward normalizing diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia. However, given the multidimensional nature of the dispute between Turkey and Armenia and their peoples, reconciliation faces immense challenges. It is a process that must occur at the individual, societal, and state levels. Reconciliation requires time and a reconsideration of identity as well as of history.

In contrast, the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations is more limited in scope. In theory, it could proceed more quickly. However, progress has been erratic in recent years. Both Turkey and Armenia have made positive steps forward toward normalizing their relations, only to have the apparent progress met by new setbacks and competing priorities. As former Armenian Ambassador David Shahnazaryan noted in this journal, “The evolution of the relationship between Turkey and Armenia has gone through various, and often contradicting phases.” (2)

At the state level, as important a step as Erdoğan’s April 2014 statement was, it was in many respects motivated by political expediency. While the statement marked a long-awaited official departure from previous categorical Turkish disavowals and adherence to an uncompromising historical narrative, it was clearly intended to help defuse international condemnation ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Political calculations also factored into Turkey’s commemoration of the World War I Battle of Gallipoli (Çanakkale), which is typically observed on March 18th, to mark the end of the Allies’ 1915 naval campaign to break through the Dardanelles. This year, however, the Turkish government resolved to push the observance back to April 24-25, coinciding with the Armenian commemorations and the centennial of the ANZAC landings on 25 April 1915. Both President Erdoğan and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan have issued competing invitations for their respective events, although Erdoğan’s letter to his Armenian counterpart came months later, and has been denounced by many as a crude distraction. (3) Regardless of Erdoğan’s manipulation of the Armenian issue for political purposes, there are other manifestations of a new openness within Turkey. Some Armenian churches that survived outright destruction and decades of neglect are being restored and a few have reopened for services. (4) There are plans to construct a new Christian church in Istanbul, which would be the first built since 1923. (5) Of the hundreds of Armenian properties confiscated by the Turkish state, some are now being returned to their rightful owners, or alternative compensation is being provided.

More than a decade ago the government liberalized visa requirements for Armenian nationals wishing to travel to Turkey. This opened the way for Armenian citizens to enter the informal labor market in Turkey, especially in domestic work. The Turkish government has generally tolerated this arrangement and recently adopted legislation allowing the possibility for undocumented workers to regularize their status. Informal developments at the societal level are in some ways more conspicuous, but more difficult to document. Turks across all segments of society are facing the history of World War I in a new light. They are questioning official narratives, and struggling to come to terms with this troubled period in Turkey’s Ottoman past. As de Waal notes, after a long period of collective amnesia during which Armenians were essentially absent from Turkish historical accounts, a flood of books have appeared focusing on the legacy of Armenians in Turkey. Within the social history of Turkey, there is growing recognition of the thousands of Islamized Armenians – those Armenians, many of them young women, who were captured during the deportations by Kurds and Turks and taken into their families, and who adopted Islam to avoid persecution.

There are also growing interactions among academics, businesspeople, journalists, and representatives of civil societies from both countries. Prosecutions under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which made “denigrating Turkishness” a crime, have diminished significantly in recent years, facilitating the breaking down of taboos. A noteworthy example is the 2008 “I apologize” campaign, an online initiative led by a group of Turkish intellectuals to reject the official denial of the massacres and offer an apology. (6) The petition initially provoked strong outcries from Erdoğan and Turkish nationalists, but has now been signed by over 32,000 Turks. (7) Growing numbers of Turks also annually recognize the significance of April 24th through both informal and public commemorations.

Efforts to Normalize Relations Between Armenia and Turkey

Based on interviews held in October and November 2014, with officials and civil society representatives in Ankara, Yerevan, and Tbilisi, the authors of this article believe that current efforts to normalize diplomatic relations could also help push along the process of Turkish-Armenian societal reconciliation. The idea of promoting
reconciliation through official normalization would be in line with the ideas and legacy of Hrant Dink, a Turkish- Armenian journalist from Istanbul, who was assassinated in January 2007 by a young Turkish nationalist. Dink long objected to the idea of using outside pressure – through international governmental, parliamentary, and other institutional resolutions – to force the Turkish state and society to recognize the Armenian genocide. He believed history could not be legislated. Support for reconciliation and recognition would have to come from within Turkey. In his articles, Dink advocated for an open democratic dialogue about the events of 1915 to provide the Turkish public with a more informed understanding of the events. He encouraged closer societal contacts between Armenia and Turkey, which he considered crucial to a deeper comprehension of the complexities of the past by both sides. (8)

In the years since his death, Hrant Dink’s work has become a key factor in bringing Armenia and Turkey together. Regional events have also played a role in shaping attitudes towards the stalemate in bilateral diplomatic relations. The August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, for example, ruptured Armenia’s sole trading route through Georgia to Russia. It starkly underscored the strategic risks posed by Armenia’s position, framed by closed borders with both Turkey and Azerbaijan since the 1990s. Given the ongoing stalemate with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories, Armenia’s chances of opening the border with Azerbaijan were slim. These considerations subsequently led Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to invite his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gül, to a soccer game between the two national teams in Yerevan later in 2008. The “soccer diplomacy” and subsequent interactions eventually culminated in the negotiation and signing of two sets of bilateral protocols in Zurich in October of 2009. (9) The Protocols offered a basis for further negotiations aimed at re-establishing formal diplomatic relations, opening the international border, and setting up a joint history commission to address the issue of the Armenian genocide.

Ultimately the Protocols could not be ratified on the Turkish side, in large part due to assurances Ankara had previously given to Baku during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan put considerable pressure on the Turkish government, including running a well-financed direct lobbying, PR, and media effort in 2009-10 against the Protocols that highlighted Turkey’s cultural ties with Azerbaijan and its political and security commitments. On the Armenian side, nationalists and hard-liners, especially within the global diaspora, denounced the Protocols and declared that any future deal with Turkey that lacked genocide recognition would be a capitulation. The Armenia-Turkey diplomatic track has been bogged down in issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh ever since, and the Protocols have remained frozen.

The idea of establishing diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey and opening the border as a step toward reconciliation is not new. In fact, this proposal originally emerged in Armenia itself, immediately after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 under the government of Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Diplomatic relations with Turkey and the establishment of a new international border, on what had previously been the USSR’s frontier, were seen in Yerevan as a means of mitigating the dire economic consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the ongoing humanitarian crisis resulting from the devastating earthquake of 1988. Opening Armenia’s border with Turkey, a NATO member, was also seen as a signal of independence from Russia, and of an eventual Western vocation. After the Armenian earthquake, Turkey periodically opened the land border for shipments of EU grain to Armenia; and, in 1991, Turkey was the first nation after the United States to recognize the newly-independent Republic of Armenia. Turkey reopened the historical czarist-era railway between Kars and Gyumri. This was followed by informal contacts between both governments to explore the establishment of diplomatic relations and formal border agreements. At the time, Ter-Petrosyan is reported to have told Turkey’s Ambassador to Moscow Volkan Vural: “I cannot forget the past, but I don’t want to live with this past. I want to build a future for our children and grandchildren.” (10) This pragmatic approach brought both sides very close to adopting an agreement, until the Armenian occupation of the Kelbajar region of Azerbaijan in 1993.

Against the backdrop of war and Turkey’s decision to break off relations, Ter-Petrosyan’s pragmatism – including his support for a negotiated settlement with Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh and his willingness to put the issue of genocide recognition to the side – was denounced by Armenian hardliners. He was forced out of power in 1998, and succeeded by Robert Kocharian, the former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharian put the embryonic rapprochement with Turkey on the back burner of Armenian policy and focused on broadening and deepening Armenia’s relations with Russia, which became the guarantor not only of the ceasefire with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, but also the formal guarantor of Armenia’s security. Domestic developments in Armenia in 2008, even before Russia’s war with Georgia, shifted the political calculus again. The election of Kocharian’s hand-picked successor, Serzh Sargsyan, was marred by allegations of electoral fraud and high-level corruption, and met with street demonstrations. Heavy-handed attempts to quash the protests resulted in clashes with the police, scores of arrests, and 10 deaths. In the aftermath, Sargsyan’s administration was eager to burnish its international credentials and gradually pursued closer relations with the European Union. These developments also contributed to expanding civil society (11) and trade ties with Turkey that paved the way for Sargsyan’s invitation to President Gül to attend the soccer game between the two national teams. (12)

Armenia’s Balancing Act

After the historic 2008 soccer match, Serzh Sargsyan attempted a delicate political balancing act between the West (including Turkey) and Russia: a strategy termed
“complementarity.” The risks of this tight-rope policy were underscored after the Protocols failed in spring 2010. In July 2010, Yerevan began the first round of its negotiations with Brussels to conclude an EU Association Agreement, an initial and crucial step toward closer political association and eventual economic integration with Europe. A month later, however, Yerevan also signed an agreement extending Russia’s military presence and basing rights in Armenia. In 2013, the policy of complementarity hit a dead end, when Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Armenia should sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) along with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Moscow exerted similar pressure on Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, which were also negotiating EU Association Agreements. The machinations around the competing EU and Eurasian associations were a key factor in generating the political crisis in Ukraine that ultimately led to the ouster of President Victor Yanukovych in February 2014, and, from there, Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea, and the subsequent civil war in Ukraine.

Following a meeting between Sargsyan and Putin in summer 2013, and against the background of an upsurge of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia made an abrupt policy U-turn. (13) Yerevan rejected the Association Agreement and then formally signed the Eurasian Economic Union Agreement in October 2014. In discussions with Armenian officials and experts in Yerevan in this same timeframe, the authors’ interlocutors stressed that Armenia’s existential security concerns about the escalating conflict with Azerbaijan had tipped the balance toward Russia. Armenia’s close economic ties with Russia, including trade and financial flows, and its large diaspora in Russia, also constrained Yerevan’s options for associating formally with the EU. Armenian government officials openly admitted that the Sargsyan regime’s decision to join the EEU was forced by economic and security concerns. It was a decision driven by the three decades long blockade imposed on Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, the resulting economic dependency on Russia, and the escalating violence along the “contact line” between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. In short, it was a pragmatic, expedient move, not a “civilizational choice” to turn away from Europe and the West.

Windows to Turkey

Armenia’s lurch toward Russia and the Eurasian Union seemed to deal a further blow to the prospects of normalization with Turkey. Many had hoped in Yerevan, Brussels, and Ankara, that with Armenia and Turkey both engaged in negotiations for closer EU relations (or, in the case of Turkey, for accession), new doors might open for bilateral diplomatic contacts. However, even with these doors closed, regional policymakers and analysts suggested that some windows might still be opened, given the desire on both sides to forge a new relationship. In interviews in Yerevan in October 2014, Armenian experts stressed the intrinsic importance of opening the border with Turkey and maintaining a semblance of independence from Russia. As one academic put it: “without opening the border with Turkey, we can’t go West.” Another analyst argued that normalization with Turkey was a way for Armenia to show that “it is not a vassal of Russia.” In meetings in Ankara in November 2014, Turkish officials and foreign policy analysts discreetly noted that the decision in 1993 to break off the border negotiations with Armenia had not only left Yerevan completely dependent on Moscow, it had also limited Ankara’s own outreach to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Ratification of the 2009 Protocols, in their view, might have helped create new geopolitical configurations in the Caucasus. Furthermore, Turkish analysts recognized that Turkey’s policy of blockading Armenia since the 1990s had not persuaded Yerevan to change its policy toward Nagorno-Karabakh in the ways that Turkish decision makers had hoped. (14)

Behind the scenes and beyond the political gamesmanship, the Armenian and Turkish governments continue to be supportive of civil society contacts. They have not disrupted trade and the movement of people between the two countries. Nationals of both countries enjoy relatively free travel through electronic visas or visas obtained at international border crossings. This practice was introduced by Turkey in 2003 as part of what was then the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission and eventually reciprocated by Armenia. (15) Between 2000 and 2004 the number of Armenian nationals entering Turkey increased from less than 5,500 to about 32,000. The number had more than doubled to 73,000 by 2013. (16) Two private charter flights now operate between Istanbul and Yerevan each week – and those flights will likely bring some members of the Armenian diaspora to Yerevan for the genocide commemoration. There are also seasonal flights between Yerevan and the Turkish resorts of Antalya and Bodrum. Efforts to launch a Van-Yerevan air-route have been underway for some time, along with an ongoing project to open a new land border crossing between Turkey and Georgia that is much closer to the Armenian-Georgian border. (17) This crossing would cut travel time for road transportation between Armenia and Turkey and significantly increase the capacity for handling Turkish goods transiting through Georgia into Armenia. These and other initiatives illustrate the importance both sides ascribe to eventual normalization.

Looking Ahead

Moving beyond the anniversary of 2015, however, will be a significant challenge. Armenian distrust in Turkey’s intentions was exacerbated by the April 24th Gallipoli commemoration rescheduling and invitation. This will inhibit progress in the near future. Once April 24th has passed, the issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will continue to plague Turkish-Armenian relations. As analysts in both Ankara and Yerevan admitted in the authors’ meetings, underestimating Azerbaijan’s fierce objections to the 2009 Protocols was a “strategic mistake” for both sides. Azerbaijan’s reactions will now have to be factored into any future steps toward diplomatic normalization. Similarly, Russia’s relations with both Turkey and Armenia will remain a complicating factor, with analysts stressing that Ankara and Yerevan will have to make a strong case to Moscow that opening the border would benefit Russia economically and politically. Many diplomats and regional experts suggested, as a result, that both countries should focus on small, “under the radar” projects and informal contacts to pave the way for returning to the basic tenets of the 2009 Protocols. Turkey and Armenia should avoid large, conspicuous initiatives that might provoke adverse reactions from either Azerbaijan or Russia.

One such smaller meeting that could help pave the way forward took place in Ankara in November 2014, under the auspices of the Hrant Dink Foundation. The Foundation and the School of Political Studies of Ankara University hosted the “Sealed Gate: Prospects of the Turkey-Armenia Border” conference, where Turkish bureaucrats, officials and academics, along with Armenian analysts and international diplomats and experts, engaged in a series of discussions on topics related to opening the border and societal reconciliation. The conference setting was deeply symbolic. The School of Political Studies has long been recognized as a “bastion” of the Turkish bureaucracy and known for educating state officials committed to the denial of the Armenian genocide. Outside the auditorium where the conference was held, portraits are permanently displayed of the Turkish diplomats who were assassinated in the 1970s and 1980s by ASALA, an Armenian terrorist group. Posters were also on exhibit that depict the tumultuous events in late-Ottoman Turkey that preceded World War I and the genocide.

At the opening of the conference, statements were read from Turkish parliamentarians representing both the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Books, published by the Hrant Dink Foundation, relating the oral histories of families who went through the events of 1915 in Anatolia, including the revelations of many Turks about rediscovering their Armenian ancestry, were available at the conference. Photographs and other images from both sides of the Turkish-Armenian border were hung in the hallways. The significance of the juxtaposing images and narratives was inescapable. The substance of the conference itself was restrained, but Armenian and international participants appreciated the importance of the event as another step in a gradual process of reconciliation.

On the margins of the Hrant Dink conference in Ankara, other plans were discussed to organize follow-up events, including Turkish civil society efforts to observe, in some way, the upcoming commemorations in Yerevan. These types of discussions and initiatives were precisely what Hrant Dink had in mind when he considered the necessary steps toward Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Dink was in favor of a methodical series of goodwill gestures, and increased interaction. This is the direction that both governments also generally favored before they embarked on the 2009 Protocols. Small, symbolic steps like the conference at the School of Political Studies and an intensification of bilateral engagement at the societal level, along with the efforts to enhance trade and communications, could help put Turkey and Armenia back on track toward diplomatic normalization – and, over time, toward reconciliation.

A unilateral act of statesmanship could also advance normalization as well as reconciliation. One proposal is for the Turkish government to quietly open its side of the land border with Armenia. Former Turkish Ambassador to London, Ünal Çeviköz recently suggested a game-changing step along these lines in an article published in late 2014. (18) A move like this would be akin to the Turkish Cypriot decision in April 2003 to lift their long-standing restrictions on crossing to the Greek Cypriot side of the island. The conflict over the reunification of Cyprus has not been resolved in the decade since, but the tension on the island has dramatically diminished. Greater contacts across the divide in Cyprus keep the prospects of a peaceful resolution alive. A similar quiet move by Turkey would do the same for realities with Armenia, once both countries have dealt with their competing commemorations of 1915.

(1) Thomas de Waal, “The G-Word: The Armenian Massacre and the Politics of Genocide” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 1 (2015), p. 136,
(2) David Shahnazaryan, “Five Years After the Armenia-Turkey Protocols,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 2014),
(3) Ayhan Aktar, “Yüzleşme yerine acıları yarıştırma hamlesi: Ankara ‘biz de mağduruz’ diyecek” Taraf, 25 January 2015,; Robert Fisk, “The Gallipoli centenary is a shameful attempt to hide the Armenian Holocaust,” 19 January 2015, The Independent,
(4) These include the Church of the Holy Cross on the Akdamar Island and Saint Bartholomew Monastery near Van. Parkinson, Joe. “Armenian Church in Turkey Reopens to Worship”, Wall Street Journal, 20 September 2010 and “Historic Armenian church to reopen in Turkey’s east”, Anadolu Agency, 4 February 2014.
(5) “Turkey Approves Construction Of First New Church In Nearly A Century,” The Huffington Post, 1 May 2015,
(6) Cengiz Aktar, “Turkish Civil Society: Driving the Politics of Memory,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, Vol.13, No. 1 (Spring 2014),
(7) See: The full text reads: “My conscience cannot accept the ignorance and denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and – on my own behalf – I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters – and I apologize to them.”
(8) “To Unlock and Transcend History,” Agos, 27 May 2005. Translation provided by Hrant Dink Foundation.
(9) “Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey” and “Protocol on Development of Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey.” For the full text see:
(10) “Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds, Opening Borders,” Crisis Group Europe Report No 199, 14 April 2009.
(11) For an assessment of projects supportive of civil society contacts between the two countries see: Susae Elanchenny and Narod Maraşlıyan, Breaking the Ice: The Role of Civil Society and Media in Turkey-Armenia Relations (Istanbul: Istanbul Kültür University, GPOT, 2012)
(12) Tracing the volume of trade between the two countries is very difficult as it occurs mostly through Georgia. However, according to one study of Armenian-Turkish economic relations “the trade volume between the two countries is 150-200 million USD.” See: Armenian-Turkish Business Relations through the Eyes of Business Opinion Leaders – Study Report (Yerevan, 2011), p. 15. According to a more recent study, Armenia’s imports from Turkey were 213 million dollars and Turkey was listed as Armenia’s fifth largest import partner, ahead of Germany, Italy, and the USA. See: “Strengthening Connectivity and Business Synergies in the Southern Caucasus Towards a new Confidence Building Agenda: Final Report,” TEPAV (March 2014), p. 28. Businessmen dealing with Turkey told the authors of this article that they estimated the trade volume between the two countries to be between 250-300 million dollars but that it was probably much higher.
(13) For more on Armenia’s decision to abandon the EU Association Agreement in favor of joining the Russian-led Customs Union see: Richard Giragosian, “Armenia’s Strategic U-Turn,” European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR),
(14) Ünal Çeviköz, “Turkish-Armenian relations need a new game-changer,” Hurriyet Daily News, 13 November 2014.
(15) David L. Phillips, Diplomatic History: The Turkey-Armenia Protocols (New York: Columbia University, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, 2012).
(16) Statistics obtained from
(17) “Turkey-based Van Airlines plans to operate flights to Armenia,” PanARMENIAN.Net, 10 July 2014,
(18) Çeviköz (2014).