"It is likely that Armenia and Turkey are close to making an official announcement about the launch of a new normalisation process. It may result in establishing diplomatic relations, and in Turkey deciding to open its border with Armenia", says Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed.
The possible normalisation of Armenia–Turkey relations have always been in the spotlight of the South Caucasus geopolitics. Turkey recognised Armenian independence back in 1991 but refused to establish diplomatic relations, and in April 1993 closed its border with Armenia in response to the advance of Armenian forces in the first Karabakh war. Since then, Turkey has put forward several preconditions for normalising relations with Armenia: the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Karabakh, the end to the Armenian genocide international recognition campaign, and the official recognition of Armenia–Turkey borders by independent Armenia. At the same time, Armenia–Turkey relations were a part of the broader regional geopolitics. Russia struggled to regain its influence in the South Caucasus while the US viewed the emerging Turkey–Georgia–Azerbaijan strategic partnership as a critical tool to counter Russian efforts.
Since the early 1990s, the main stronghold of Russia in the region has been Armenia. Yerevan hosted a Russian military base and Russian border troops, and signed the Collective Security Treaty in 1992 – which transformed into the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2002. The primary rationale behind Armenia's geopolitical choice towards Russia was the necessity to deter Turkish military involvement in any potential flare-up of the Karabakh conflict.
Thus, anyone who wanted to decrease the Russian influence in the South Caucasus had to start from weakening Russian positions in Armenia. And as the Turkish threat, alongside with Karabakh conflict, was the primary reason for Armenia to establish a strategic alliance with Russia, the road towards the diminished Russian influence in the region passed through the normalisation of Armenia–Turkey relations. The launch of the Armenia–Turkey normalisation process in 2008, dubbed "Football diplomacy," aimed to achieve that goal. Normalised relations with Turkey could decrease the necessity for Armenia to be anchored in the Russian sphere of influence.
From the Armenian perspective, normalisation of relations with Turkey without changing the post-1994 status quo in Karabakh was a worthy step to drive a wedge between Azerbaijan and Turkey and spoil Azerbaijan's strategy to put joint Azerbaijan–Turkey pressure on Armenia. Russia publicly reacted positively towards this initiative, since after the Russia–Georgia of August 2008 war, it did not want to be perceived as a villain, which was against any positive developments in the region. However, Russia could not have been happy with this initiative since in the long term, it could weaken its positions in Armenia and the South Caucasus in general.
However, the main loser in this scenario was to be Azerbaijan, and not surprisingly, Baku adopted a very negative approach towards the Armenia–Turkey normalisation process, demanding that any step be done only after the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. In the end, the Armenia–Turkey normalisation process failed. After signing two protocols with Armenia in October 2009, Turkey refused to ratify them until changes occurred in the status-quo in Karabakh. Turkey did not want to damage its relations with Azerbaijan significantly. Turkey calculated that worsened relations with Azerbaijan would harm its stance in the region more than improved relations with Armenia would foster its positions. Russia also could have played a role here, by simultaneously pushing Azerbaijan to protest, and convincing Armenia not to bow under Turkish pressure to bring the Karabakh issue into the centre of bilateral relations.
The standard geopolitical narrative in the South Caucasus, where Russia and Armenia were countering the pro-Western Turkey–Azerbaijan–Georgia alliance, started to change in the mid-2010s. The primary driver of the change was the strategic shift in Turkey's foreign policy, which gained momentum after the July 2016 failed military coup attempt. Turkey pursued the ambitious goal of becoming an independent regional player and said goodbye to its role as a junior partner of the US. This transformation aligned with Russian strategic interests given that Russia–US relations plummeted after the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Russia was aware that a more independent Turkey would still continue to pursue policies often contradicting Russian interests, but Russia thought it would be easier to manage disagreements with Turkey without a US presence and interference. Meanwhile, Russia–Turkey co-operation would inevitably create additional tensions in US–Turkey and NATO–Turkey relations, which Russia hoped to use for its benefit.
The Armenian defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war, and the signing of the 10 November 2020 trilateral statement have significantly shifted the post-1994 status quo in Karabakh. Armenia lost its position as a security guarantor of Karabakh, ceding this role to Russia. The part of Karabakh which Azerbaijan did not take was transformed into a de facto Russian protectorate. The program of the new Armenian government approved by the Armenian Parliament in late August 2021 has zero mentions neither about the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, nor the need for Azerbaijan to return at least some of the territories it took during the war, and lacks any clarity regarding the future of Karabakh. It only speaks about the necessity to fix the final status of Karabakh under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairmanship according to the well-known principles and elements, including the principle of self-determination. The program is an indication that the Armenian government views its future role in Karabakh only through socio-economic lenses. The government's sole responsibility is to cover the social needs of the Armenian population by paying salaries, pensions and funding the construction of new houses for those Armenians who lost their homes as a result of the war. Thus, Armenia indicates that it has nothing to do with Karabakh as a conflict, which now is in the realm of Azerbaijan–Russia bilateral or Azerbaijan–Russia–Turkey trilateral relations.
The results of the 2020 Karabakh war, the new Armenian government approach towards Karabakh, and the significant changes in the Russia–Turkey relations have created a momentum for the possible launch of the new Armenia–Turkey normalisation process. From Turkey's point of view, the main obstacle – Armenia's position on Karabakh – no longer exists. It means that now Azerbaijan will not seek to torpedo the Armenia–Turkey normalisation process as in 2008-2009. The successful management of Russia–Turkey relations and their ability to overcome disagreements in the South Caucasus indicate that this time Russia is part of the process and does not view normalisation of Armenia–Turkey relations as a threat to its positions in Armenia or the region. On 3 September 2021, Russian foreign minister Lavrov stated that after the 2020 Karabakh war, it is quite logical for Armenia and Turkey to start a normalisation process, and Russia was ready to support it. It is in line with the Russian vision to restore the communications in the South Caucasus, stabilise the post-2020 status quo, and use the region as a transportation hub to reach Turkey and Iran, circumventing Georgian territory.
Both the US and EU will support the Armenia–Turkey normalisation process as it will align with their strategy to stabilise the South Caucasus after the geopolitical earthquake of 2020. They may also hope that in the long run (10-15 years), Turkey will be able to compete and even replace Russia in Armenia economically, thus contributing to the decrease of Russian regional influence. The new president of Iran has already declared that the main focus of Iran's foreign policy will be strengthening relations with China and Russia, which Iran views as its primary foreign partners. In this context, Iran will not seek to create obstacles for Armenia–Turkey normalisation process, which Russia supports. Iran is interested in restoring stability in the region, and from this point of view, better relations between Armenia and Turkey are in line with Iran's interests.
Thus, all external players are ready to support the second round of the Armenia–Turkey normalisation process. In late August 2021, the Armenian prime minister stated that Armenia received some positive signals from Turkey and was ready to respond positively. Subsequently, Turkish President Erdogan emphasised a need for constructive approaches and regional co-operation, which is achievable if all states respect each other's territorial integrity, refrain from unilateral accusations, and stop using the recent history as a source of hostility.
The history of diplomacy teaches us that under-the-surface processes usually precede public statements about such sensitive issues. This was the case during the 2008-2009 process, and it is probably the case now. Thus, it is likely that Armenia and Turkey are close to making an official announcement about the launch of a new normalisation process. It may result in establishing diplomatic relations, and in Turkey deciding to open its border with Armenia.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: A soccer match in 2008 was a big step forward for relations, launching what became known as "football diplomacy" (archive picture)
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