Turkish-Armenian relations need a new game-changer

Turkish-Armenian relations need a new game-changer

As Turkey prepares itself for the centenary of Gallipoli and chairing the G-20 summit in 2015, some other forces around the world are perhaps preparing inconspicuous scenarios to increase the duress on Turkey to “recognize” the events in 1915 as “genocide.” Turkish-Armenian relations, as well as Turkey’s bilateral relations with a number of other countries, will have to go through yet another test to overcome the 2015-syndrome.

When I think of Turkish-Armenian relations, I am inclined to characterize it as “history of missed opportunities” that has done injustice not only to the two nations, the two peoples, the two countries, but also to the whole Caucasus region. Unless there is normalization in Turkish-Armenian relations we will have serious difficulty in talking about an environment of sustainable peace and stability in the Caucasus.

Looking at the relations between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, one can easily observe the complex and interrelated trilateral imbroglio. On the one hand, Armenia and Azerbaijan are officially at war with one another. Despite some sporadic clashes, however, the cease-fire since 1994 still holds, pending a peace agreement. On the other hand, having closed its border with Armenia since April 3, 1993 in order to show its solidarity with Azerbaijan as a reaction to Armenia’s occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory, Turkey cannot find a way out through the impasse it has created. Obviously, all of these factors make Turkish-Armenian, Armenian-Azerbaijani and Turkish-Azerbaijani relations mutually interlocking.

The two protocols signed in 2009 have been the most important game changers in this complex equation. First of all, for the first time since the 1921 Kars Treaty, Turkey and Armenia undersigned two inter-governmental instruments.

Secondly, Turkey was perceived by Armenia as pursuing a new foreign policy approach in the Caucasus. Prior to the beginning of the normalization talks, Armenia could hardly believe that Turkey was genuinely interested in engaging in the normalization of bilateral relations, instead thinking Ankara was attempting to diffuse the initiatives of third countries to recognize Armenia’s interpretation of history. Now, Turkey is seen by Armenia as being in a serious commitment to address the issue at its essence. Eventually, the change in the Armenian perception has engaged Armenia in the negotiations.

Thirdly, normalization talks with Armenia indicated that Turkey was genuinely interested in opening a new chapter in the Caucasus as well. Turkey was aware that the normalization of bilateral relations with Armenia would give a new momentum to other processes and bring about a new spirit of constructive commitment to multilateral cooperation in the region. The launching of normalization talks with Armenia, therefore, aimed at both the progress in Turkish-Armenian relations and in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.

Obviously, this calculation was not misguided. Negotiations between Turkey and Armenia created a positive impetus for the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to get together at least nine times in 2008-2009. This was unprecedented in the history of the Minsk Process, which aimed to resolve the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

After five years, it is hard to believe that there is any substantial way forward in the development of Turkey’s relations with Armenia other than the ratification and implementation of the two protocols. For various reasons, this is not happening. No significant development has taken place since 2009, except President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s message on April 23 this year, when he was still prime minister. The important aspects of that message have to be reiterated. First of all, it included concepts such as “condolence,” “respect and compassion for those who lost their lives” and “common pain.” It emphasized “respecting history with a perspective of just memory” and “building our past and future together.” Finally, it highlighted a free and pluralistic environment to discuss the events of 1915 in Turkey. For Turkey, this message is a revolutionary step in terms of content and timing. It would be a pity if it was not taken seriously by the Armenians. The 2015-syndrome, however, hinders taking a positive conclusion from the message.

No matter what happens and how the two countries get through it, obviously 2015 is not an end in itself. What is important is how Turkey and Armenia look at their relations beyond this notorious date. What they need is a new game changer.

In order to regain its position in the Caucasus as a pro-active subject of regional politics, Turkey might come forward with a new initiative to overcome the current impasse. This could be achieved by opening its border with Armenia to test its impact on the region, on Turkish-Armenian relations, and on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. One may simplistically argue that the closed Turkish-Armenian border is a strong leverage on Armenia to engage in Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks, suggesting that its opening before the problem is resolved would cause Armenia to lose enthusiasm and motivation in the peace process. But it is hard to see how the closed border remains a leverage if it has not caused Armenia to engage in a committed negotiation with Azerbaijan in the last 20 years. Equally, the closed border does not give Turkey the initiative to contribute to the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, but simply sustains Turkey and its closed border with Armenia as an object of regional politics.
An open border, on the other hand, would become a more influential leverage compared to a closed one if it really brings significant gains to Armenia. Turkey, by gradually and incrementally opening the border, would be in a position to encourage its neighbors to engage in a new phase of negotiations, perhaps much more positively than before. Turkey would then look at the progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and would be able to transform the Turkish-Armenian border into a more functional instrument in time.

Turkey, in order to become an honest broker in the Caucasus region, particularly pertaining to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, has to be equidistant to all actors in the region. Such an approach would also positively change the Armenian misperception about Turkey’s will and commitments. It is time for Turkey to show a respectable presence in the region. Such an assertive attitude would help Armenia and Azerbaijan follow suit with similar strong statesmanship.

* Ünal Çeviköz is Turkey’s former ambassador to the UK.