Nervous neighbors: Five years after the Armenia-Turkey protocols

Nervous neighbors: Five years after the Armenia-Turkey protocols

The evolution of the relationship between Turkey and Armenia has entailed various phases, with some contradictory dynamics. The Republic of Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia as an independent state in 1991. This was followed by the establishment of official contacts between Yerevan and Ankara. After the 1998 coup that brought Robert Kocharian to power in Armenia, the Armenia-Turkey relationship entered a new stage. Kocharian moved to revise some key provisions of the country’s foreign policy agenda, declaring the international recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire as the axis of his foreign policy. In 2005, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wrote a letter to President Kocharian proposing that Armenia and Turkey establish a joint group consisting of historians and other experts from the two countries to study the developments and events of 1915.

The integration of the “historical” component in the official Armenia-Turkey relationship took pace in 1998, conditioning the resolution of political issues on the resolution of historical issues. This has significantly complicated the Armenia-Turkey relationship, which was already preconditioned by Turkey on Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Armenian diaspora.

A new stage in the Armenia-Turkey relations began in 2008 and resulted in the signing of the Zurich Protocols on Oct. 10, 2009. The Zurich Protocols failed to take into account two major realities. One was the provision on the establishment of the sub-commission of historians, which bound the normalization of relations to achieving a common assessment of Armenian-Turkish history. The other was the fact that the reality of power politics was underestimated. Both the international peace brokers and Armenia’s authorities tried to separate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict issue from the Armenia-Turkey normalization process, while for the officials in Ankara they were and are indivisible issues. This is the reason for Turkey’s blatant refusal to ratify the protocols, in contrast to the officials in Yerevan who are ready for unconditional ratification and implementation.

What do we have today, five years after the signing of the protocols? First, they had a negative impact on the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group to advance the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Second, the tension between Yerevan and Ankara began to mount after the signing of the protocols to a level never seen before. Third, Moscow moved to exploit this tension to substantially step up its military presence in Armenia. The fact that Russia has dramatically increased its political leverage in the region is perhaps the most serious outcome of the Zurich Protocols.

It is wrong to believe that the extent of the build-up of Russian influence in Armenia is in line with Turkey’s national interest. Also, no one believes that if Azerbaijan attacks Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, the Russian military base in Gyumri would act to protect Armenian interests.

The current tension in Armenia-Turkey relations could be diffused, as long as the process is free from external mediation.  Unmediated contacts on the government level should continue, such as Edward Nalbandian’s visit to Turkey to attend the inauguration ceremony of President Erdoğan in August 2014. In fact, these visits are more likely to happen after the April 24 centennial.

Because they were aimed at trying to produce agreement on the past from the onset, the Zurich Protocols could not serve as a basis for the normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations. To usher in the post-Zurich phase in Armenian-Turkey relations, it is clear that efforts to reconcile issues of history should be clearly separated from Armenia-Turkey relations at the state level. Only once diplomatic relations are established between the two states can a real process of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation between societies (including the diaspora) start.

* Ambassador David Shahnazaryan is a Senior Analyst with the Regional Studies Center, Yerevan, Armenia. He served as the Ambassador of the President of Armenia on Special Missions and Special Representative of the President of Armenia from 1992-95 and as the Armenian Minister of National Security in 1994-95. This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2014 issue.