Turkey and Armenia: What’s Next?

The issue of Armenia enters the Turkish foreign policy agenda almost exclusively in the context of Western attempts at legislating genocide resolutions. The result is often a reactive nationalist defense.

In less than two years, by 2015, Turkey will find itself in a similar dilemma. Once again, it will be external dynamics that will drive the domestic and foreign policy debate, and quite predictably Turkey will react with anger and resentment to Western attempts at commemorating the centennial of the Armenian genocide. In order to avoid such an ordeal, Ankara needs to think about Armenian-Turkish relations now, before Western pressure builds up. The fact that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Yerevan last week is a step in the right direction and needs to be congratulated. Instead of panicking shortly before 2015, the Turkish government needs to pursue a multidimensional strategy, starting now. The first dimension of the strategy should be the opening of the border and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

As it is well known, shortly after the signature of the two protocols aiming at achieving these two goals in 2009, Ankara decided to index the ratifications of the protocols to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Linking the normalization of relations to a “frozen conflict” had the impact of freezing the protocols as well. It also showed that Turkey had no empathy for the Armenian political leadership, which took a lot of heat from the diaspora for dropping genocide recognition as a precondition for the normalization of relations with Ankara.

In retrospect, the Turkish decision to establish a precondition for normalization with Armenia was shortsighted because it practically gave Azerbaijan de facto veto power over Turkish-Armenian normalization. Instead, what Turkey should have done was to establish diplomatic and economic relations with Armenia with the hope that such a policy of engagement would in time create positive momentum and leverage in favor of a resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh. It remains unclear whether a breakthrough in this frozen conflict can be achieved in the absence of Turkey gaining more leverage in relations with Armenia. It looks like sequencing is the main problem here. The Turkish side is reportedly ready to open the border, establish diplomatic relations and even provide financial support to Armenia in return for an Armenian withdrawal from two of the seven occupied regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. This proposal looks like the same one Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a few years ago to his Armenian counterpart at the time, Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan had refused the Turkish demand on the grounds that there should be no linkage between Nagorno-Karabakh and normalization with Turkey. It is hard to see why today the Armenian reaction to a very similar Turkish proposal would be any different.

Therefore, this most recent Turkish attempt at rapprochement with Armenia is also likely to fail in the absence of a unilateral Turkish gesture such as the opening of the border without preconditions. On the other hand, since Turkey is always in some kind of election season, it is almost impossible to see the Justice and Development Party (AKP) invest serious political capital in rapprochement by taking such a courageous step. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that the Armenian media saw Davutoğlu’s Yerevan visit as nothing more than a public relations campaign. If Turkey is really serious about normalizing relations with Armenia, it will have to take some risks in relations with Azerbaijan. The key will be to convince Baku that only the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations will create positive momentum in solving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Turkey needs to open the border first and expect its diplomatic and economic engagement policy with Armenia to pay off in the long run. The alternative is to continue with the current policy. The current Turkish policy has produced no change in Nagorno-Karabakh in the last 20 years. It is time to think more creatively.