Turkey-Armenia: Bridging historical divide

The signing of the Turkish-Armenian protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and further development of bilateral relations is an important milestone in the tortuous process of the slow-moving rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan. Clearly, the signing ceremony, with all its nail-biting suspense, marks the beginning of the story rather than its end. To better understand its significance and possible implications, the current feeble thaw between the erstwhile foes should be analyzed through answering the two key questions:

1) What are the main drivers that at the moment are pushing the two sides closer to one another?

2) What are the forces that restrain them and put hurdles on the path toward normalization?

To answer these questions, we will have to see a broader picture that goes beyond Turkey-Armenia bilateral relationship; we will also have to put the latter into a broader historical context.

There seem to be the two sets of country-specific factors that influence Turkey’s and Armenia’s international conduct and nudge the two sides toward rapprochement.

Turkey appears to be seeking to mend ties with Armenia due to three main reasons. First, normalization with Yerevan is likely to enhance Turkey’s geopolitical stature in the region. Second, it will arguably help kick-start the stagnating process of the EU accession – primarily by demonstrating to Brussels that Ankara could be a key security provider in the strategically important Caspian-Black Sea region. Finally, better ties with Armenia could remove a painful aspect currently present in US-Turkish relations – the one that could potentially wreak havoc to Ankara’s ties with Washington, namely the possible recognition of the Armenian genocide by US lawmakers.

For its part, today’s Armenia is a small, weak, impoverished, landlocked and isolated country. It has survived the Turkish blockade, but further economic development, to say nothing of prosperity, is out of the question if the current situation persists. Furthermore, Yerevan badly needs to recalibrate its geopolitical orientation – specifically, to balance the highly pronounced Russian vector with a more robust opening up toward Europe and the US. The recent Russia-Georgia war appears to have made this need ever more acute.

It is the above factors that seem to have been behind the year-long Turkish-Armenian talks which resulted in the October 10 signing ceremony in Zurich. But those factors are acting against the backdrop of the extremely complex and tragic historical legacy.

It is important to understand that Turkey and Armenia are not any regular neighboring countries: both were shaped as nations following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and they still find themselves in the midst of the painful process of post-imperial readjustment. Turkey and Armenia appear to be still sorting out the consequences of what Rogers Brubaker would call the “post-imperial unmixing of peoples” – the process that took on particularly atrocious forms in the Ottoman Anatolia in the early 20th century.

The clash between the two incipient nationalisms led, literally, to the “struggle to the death” that resulted not only in the untold human losses but also in the deep-seated mistrust between the two peoples. It is this mistrust that the present-day leaders in Ankara and Yerevan are struggling to overcome.

Again, it involves more than Turkey-Armenia bilateral relationship. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – itself a product of yet another imperial collapse – is definitely part of the mix although it is not mentioned in the signed protocols. But the Karabakh dispute inevitably brings Turkey’s and Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan into an already complex equation. Hence Turkey’s strategic dilemma: how to normalize relations with Armenia without ruining its special ties with Baku. Judging by Azerbaijan’s nervous, if not outright hostile, reaction to the signing of the protocols, solving of this dilemma appears to be a tall order indeed.

Ideally, the healing of the greater Caucasus’ post-imperial wounds and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azeri relations should proceed along the parallel courses. In fact, this ideal scenario appears to be the only viable one if we want to see the comprehensive settlement. However, the fundamental lack of trust between the main actors – which is reflected in, among other things, the ambivalent wordings of the protocols, their often erratic domestic politics, and possible distraction of the outside great powers whose attention span tends to be pretty short, may still block or even derail altogether the normalization process.

Jury is still out as to which scenario will eventually come to pass.