"Armenian-Turkish rapprochement attempts are welcome. Dialogue is better than everlasting antagonism. However, the realistic perception of the situation leads one to inevitably conclude that the process would be very difficult and will need time", argues Alexandre Petrosyan in this op-ed.
December has seen an intensification in diplomatic activity in the Eastern Neighbourhood of the EU. The month started with a scandal. The Georgian flag was displayed in Moscow during the launch of the ‘3+2’ platform, to which Georgia had earlier clearly and emphatically refused to join. Then, amid Russian-Ukrainian border tensions resulting in a massive build-up of troops and armaments, the long-awaited Eastern Partnership summit took place in Brussels. One of the most positive parts of the summit were the bilateral and trilateral meetings of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders held on its margins.
This flurry of activity overshadowed the recent activation in Armenian-Turkish political dialogue, which started by the sudden announcement of the Turkish Foreign, Minister Cavusoglu, that Turkey is considering appointing a special envoy for the normalisation of relations with Armenia, adding that all processes will be harmonised with Azerbaijan. Later it was revealed that the person chosen is Serdar Kilic, former Turkish ambassador to the USA. The Armenian society, despite the hopes that it would be represented by Gerard J. Libardian, former senior adviser to former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and a person with solid background in negotiations with Turkey, was surprised to hear instead that the person chosen was Ruben Rubinyan, the young deputy speaker of the Parliament, and a close teammate of Pashinyan.
The announcement of the start of the process triggered controversy within Armenia. The issue of normalisation of relations with Turkey has been a sensitive topic over the last 30 years, and has become even more controversial given Turkey’s explicit participation in the Second Karabakh war. Armenia and Turkey have attempted to restore relations several times over the last 30 years. Turkey was one of the first states to recognise Armenian independence in December 1991. During the first years of independence there were contacts between high level officials, but relations deteriorated after 1993, when Turkey unilaterally closed the border, explaining that this was due to the advance of Armenian troops in Karabakh/Artsakh. In 2008, after Serzh Sargsyan was elected president of Armenia, he initiated a new normalisation process, which was welcomed and supported both by the West and Russia. However, this new process, which was labelled “Football Diplomacy”, was soon suspended, as Turkey’s demands to change the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh wasn’t acceptable for Armenia's leadership.
Yet, why does the Armenian leadership now promotes peace and speaks about a peace era and a bright future with neighbours, whilst at the same time submitting an appeal to the European Court for Human Rights with regards Turkey’s participation in the Second Karabakh war and in particular accusing Turkey of orchestrating the recruitment, financing and deployment of mercenaries from Syria. How then can Armenia's behaviour be understood? Is this just a response to the incentives stemming from the regional realities, or does Yerevan view the dialogue with Ankara as a means to restore itself as a subject, rather than a vulnerable and fragile object?
The best answer would include both dimensions. During his tenure as prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan has shown inconsistency in his policies, and a self-styled perception of realpolitik and pragmatism, all seasoned by hopeless aspirations for peace. However, any prospects of improving relations with Turkey need to take into account the rocks under the surface, which are two in this context: Russia and Azerbaijan. Yerevan considers engagement with Turkey as a means to reduce its dependence on Russia. As a result, the Kremlin, despite the fact that it welcomes possible Armenian-Turkish normalisation, has always been vigilant. Any chance of normalisation between Armenia and Turkey would make the Russian military presence in Armenia meaningless. Therefore, Moscow plays a crucial role in these relations, and is able to undermine the process, especially in the light of the current status quo in the region, where Turkey and Russia pursue totally different agendas from that of the West. Of course, Russia would be eager to see some rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara, if it’s not in contradiction with its interests, and would benefit from regional cooperation in the framework of ‘3+2’ platform.
Another major undermining factor in the Armenian-Turkish saga is Azerbaijan. Baku was seen as the major factor behind Ankara’s decision to suspend the so-called ‘Football Diplomacy’ process and the subsequent ratification of the Armenian-Turkish protocol back in 2008-9. Azerbaijan was not only able to undermine any possible rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara, but also could reach a harmonised common foreign and security policy , which might even trigger envy within the EU. Ankara would consider any possible concerns which Azerbaijan has, in order not to sacrifice its relations with Baku, which not only secures Turkey’s footprint in the region, but also plays an important role for its energy supplies.
But what are Turkey's own interests in normalisation with Armenia? As Bloomberg revealed, there was a personal request from the US president Biden addressed to his Turkish counterpart to open borders with Armenia during the G-20 summit in Rome in October. For Turkey, opening borders with Armenia and establishing diplomatic relations don’t have the same existential meaning as they have for Yerevan. Of course, Ankara would like to have diplomatic relations with Armenia based on mutually recognized borders, an issue which is a very sensitive topic within Turkey. Besides, by this attempt of rapprochement Turkey, on the one hand tries to improve its currently difficult relations with the US, and on the other hand it tries to accommodate itself in the ‘sui generis relations of cooperation and competition’ with Russia. Moreover, as usual, Turkey has regarded the relations with Armenia through the lens of conditions. Before the Second Karabakh war, this was mainly about changing the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, stepping back from the Genocide recognition, and recognising borders. In the current situation, Ankara, in addition, pushes forward the idea of the so-called ‘Zangezur corridor’ as well, which Armenia explicitly rejects.
Though overall expectations of the prospects of Armenian-Turkish normalisation are pessimistic, any kind of rapprochement attempts are welcome. Dialogue is better than everlasting antagonism. However, the realistic perception of the situation leads one to inevitably conclude that the process would be very difficult and will need time. If in 2008-9 the process had the support of Russia, France, the US and the EU, but eventually failed, there are high chances that it wouldn’t succeed this time as well given the current animosity and conflicting interests between the West and Russia.