Turkish-Armenian Stalemate

Ömer Taşpınar

It has been more than three months since the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers signed the two protocols that were supposed to launch a historic reconciliation and rapprochement process between Yerevan and Ankara.

It was clear that this was not going to be easy. The signature ceremony itself was crisis prone. A major humiliation for all the dignitaries assembled for the occasion (the foreign ministers of Russia, France, Switzerland, the EU’s top diplomat, Javier Solana, and the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were all in the room) was averted at the last minute. Yet, the devil was still in the details: The signed protocols required parliamentary ratification in national Parliaments in order to become effective.

There were major obstacles from the very start. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already linked the ratification of the protocols and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border to Armenian concessions in Nagorno-Karabakh. He made it clear, speech after speech at home and abroad, that no positive steps could be taken before Armenia withdraws from Azerbaijan. The main reason behind his position is related to domestic Turkish politics as well as to the rigid Azeri position regarding Turkish-Armenian relations. Internally, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is concerned about opposition parties the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) willingness to exploit the issue. Both Deniz Baykal and Devlet Bahceli are nationalist hardliners who see the rapprochement with Armenia as “selling out” Turkish national interests. They claim that Armenia maintains territorial ambitions over Turkey and that the process will eventually lead to worldwide recognition of Armenia’s version of history, followed with demands of financial compensations for the “genocide” of 1915.

It does not help that election season is fast approaching. The AKP has already spent precious political capital on the Kurdish opening, which is also at an impasse after the Constitutional Court decided to close the pro-Kurdish and pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Democratic Society Party (DTP). The nationalist credentials of the AKP are under severe scrutiny by the MHP. This poses a major dilemma for Erdoğan because the AKP and the MHP often fight for the same political constituency, particularly in the conservative Anatolian heartland. Add to these internal political considerations a crucial external dimension: Azerbaijan vehemently opposes the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, which it describes as harmful to its interests and gravely damaging to its relations with “fraternal” Turkey. Given the considerable influence of the Azeri lobby in Turkey and the fact that Turkey gets much of its oil and gas from Azerbaijan, this outside pressure further exacerbates domestic difficulties. All these dynamics explain the AKP’s reluctance vis-à-vis the ratification of the two protocols.

The situation in Armenia is equally complicated. Yerevan has no intention of relinquishing control of Nagorno-Karabakh and must contend with the hard-line views of its influential global diaspora and vocal domestic opposition. The majority of diaspora Armenians have spent decades trying to persuade their governments to recognize the mass killing of Turkish Armenians in 1915-1918 as genocide. Today, they see Yerevan’s deal-making with its historic foe as unacceptable. This is particularly the case with Armenian-Americans who believe they are very close to such recognition thanks to campaign promises made by President Barack Obama. A historic deal between Yerevan and Ankara would be a major blow to their hopes of passing a genocide recognition resolution in the US Congress.

Given all these dimensions to the problem, there are clear limits to how much pressure the administration of Serzh Sarksyan can endure. Facing growing domestic opposition, the pressure of the diaspora and the negative tone in Ankara, it is not surprising that Yerevan is having second thoughts about staying the course. Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan recently cautioned that if Turkey tried to link the Karabakh progress to the ratification of the protocols then Armenia “would be free” to impose conditions of its own. This was a clear hint that Armenia may bring the genocide issue to the table. President Sarksyan stated flatly that if Turkey proposed any sort of pre-condition for ratification, Yerevan would immediately abrogate the protocols. Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Hovik Abrahamyan hinted during a late December news conference that Turkey would have to make the first ratification move. In short, the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is in deep trouble and needs to be rescued by visionary leadership, something in short-supply in both Ankara and Yerevan these days.