Written by Gallia Lindenstrauss
INSS Insight No. 136
The agreement signed in Zurich on October 10, 2009 between Turkey and Armenia to establish diplomatic relations offers hope that some of the difficult problems in the southern Caucasus may soon be resolved. The two countries agreed in principle to open the border between them, closed since 1993 because of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally, resulting from the dispute over control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey chose then to close the border, and conditioned its reopening on a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The dramatic developments that took place about a year ago when Turkish president Abdullah GÃ¼l visited Armenia are the backdrop for the most recent advance in Turkish-Armenian relations.
During his historic visit in September 2008, GÃ¼l watched a soccer match between Armenia and Turkey, part of the World Cup preliminaries. "Soccer diplomacy" was the highlight of a process lasting for more than a year of secret negotiations between Armenia and Turkey over the renewal of diplomatic relations. Turkey and Armenia are still locked in bitter disagreement over Turkey's unwillingness to recognize the events of 1915 as a concerted campaign to destroy the Armenia people and that in the process of expelling the Armenian population from northeast Turkey to the south, about one and a half million Armenians were killed. Also in dispute is Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian occupation of nearby areas in Azerbaijan.
On April 22, after GÃ¼l's visit and before April 24, 2009, the day commemorating the Armenian genocide when the American president traditionally gives a speech - whose contents are the subject of dispute between the Turks and the Armenians - the sides arrived at a "roadmap" document towards establishing diplomatic relations, though the contents were not made public. In the speech itself, President Barack Obama, who promised during his election campaign to recognize the Armenian genocide, chose to use the Armenian expression "the great catastrophe," but avoided using the word "genocide." Obama stressed that he had no intention of interfering in the delicate negotiations taking place between the nations.
Nonetheless, after the commemoration day, it seemed that the attempt at dialogue between Turkey and Armenia had failed. During the visits made by Turkish prime ninister Recep ErdoÄŸan and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu to Azerbaijan in May, the two reiterated hard-line positions and made a solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan a precondition for renewing the diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey. This strengthened the Armenian suspicions that the true reason behind Turkey's attempts to forge closer relations was to prevent a revolutionary decision by President Obama to use the word "genocide."
What then led to the current agreement to establish diplomatic relations? On the immediate level, it seems that the threat by Armenian president Serge Sarkisian - that if there was no progress and the border was not reopened, he would not come to Turkey to attend the return match between Turkey and Armenia in the World Cup preliminaries, scheduled to take place October 14 - bore fruit. The Turks deny that the threat influenced them, but it seems that if Sarkisian decides not to visit Turkey, the accusing finger would be pointed at the Turks, and claims that Turkey has no serious intentions of resolving the conflict would once again resurface. Moreover, in Turkey, which has in recent years attempted to stress its desire for rapprochement with its neighbors as part of the "zero-problem" policy initiated by Foreign Minister DavutoÄŸlu, the cancellation of the visit might be viewed as particularly damaging.
More broadly, it seems that the compromise between Turkey and Armenia and recognition of the 1915 genocide are preconditions for Turkey entering the European Union. Turkey's admission to the EU is a problematic issue, but since Sweden, in favor of Turkey entering the EU, has served as the rotating president of the EU since early July 2009, it seems that there is now a window of opportunity for progress on this front.
Armenia, beset by severe economic problems as a result of both the isolation imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan and the instability in Georgia, has reportedly agreed to two major concessions. The first is Armenia's willingness to examine the events of 1915 with historians, versus its longstanding insistent opposition to such deliberations. The Armenians have claimed that most Western historians agree that these events did in fact constitute genocide, and that any such debate would only contribute to continued Turkish denials. Second, over the years the Turks were afraid that the principle of recognizing the genocide would generate possible Armenian territorial demands in eastern Turkey. Turkey's suspicions were also fueled by the fact that Armenia, since gaining independence in 1991, has refused to officially recognize the border between the two countries. Now it seems that as part of the protocols signed by the two countries, Armenia is prepared to recognize the demarcation. This concession is essentially of symbolic significance, because given that Armenia is much weaker than Turkey, it did not seem likely that it was able to present real demands regarding control of areas in eastern Turkey.
Despite the very achievement of an historic accord, some difficult problems remain. First, the agreement requires that both the Turkish and Armenian houses of parliament ratify the protocols about the renewal of relations and the nature of the bilateral relations before they take effect. The primary concern in this context is that this demand is liable to help opposition forces, especially in Armenia, oppose the move. Second, Azerbaijan is opposed to a closer relationship between Turkey and Armenia as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue remains unresolved; it has been claimed that this opposition was the main reason standing in the way of progress in recent months. Third, most Armenian organizations in exile were, and still are, adamantly opposed to any progress in Turkish-Armenian relations as long as the Turks do not recognize the genocide of 1915, whereas the Armenian president has not presented the solution to the problem of recognition as a precondition for the establishment of diplomatic relations. Organizations of Armenians in exile, which have a great deal of clout inside Armenia itself, are therefore expected to exert pressure on the Armenian parliament not to ratify the agreement.
If, however, these problems do not undermine the agreement, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries may have widespread ramifications. First, it would apparently help accelerate the negotiations on solution for Nagorno-Karabakh. Beyond the effect that this conflict has on Armenian-Azeri relations, it also projects on the status of Russia, Armenia's ally, in the southern Caucasus. Resolving the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh would have important economic and political ramifications for the construction of pipeline routes transporting natural gas and oil in the southern Caucasus.
Furthermore, this would strengthen Turkey's status not only in negotiations with the EU but also as a regional mediator. To date, it has not been entirely clear why Turkey has assumed the role of mediator between Israel and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Syria and Iraq, when Turkey itself has still not resolved its problems with some of its neighbors. Signing and implementing the agreement with Armenia would demonstrate that today Turkey has a leadership that is capable of making meaningful political breakthroughs, and this would enhance its credibility as an effective mediator with proven capabilities in solving bilateral conflicts.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.