Is the Détente Between Turkey and Armenia Here to Stay?
Mariano Giustino 19 January 2022

Hrant Dink would be greatly satisfied and filled with hope by the recent attempt to normalise relations between Turkey and Armenia, as a viaticum for definitive reconciliation.

January 19th marks the 15th anniversary of the day on which Dink, an Armenian intellectual from Turkey, founder and editor of the Turkish and Armenian language magazine Agos, was assassinated in broad daylight in the centre of Istanbul in 2007. He was killed for defending the rights of citizenship for Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Jews and Kurds, just as Martin Luther King was killed for defending the rights of all individuals.

Now the steps towards reconciliation, shared by these two regional neighbours and that we are witnessing these days, have raised hopes and expectations for the beginning of a “new normalisation” period following two previous failed attempts.


Glimpses of clear skies

The foundation stone was laid last January 14th in Moscow at a meeting between the special representatives of their respective countries, Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kılıç and Armenia’s Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ruben Rubinyan, who agreed to continue negotiations without preconditions.

This was a first step of rapprochement for the preparation of a road-map aimed at allowing the resumption of negotiations for a historical reconciliation between two neighbours whose borders had been closed since 1993, after Armenia invaded the Azeri-majority Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Ankara, showing support for its ally Azerbaijan, involved in a bitter war in the Karabakh region, sealed all land borders with Yerevan, closed its air space and also blocked all humanitarian aid.

But now, as of January 1st 2022, as a sign of détente and trust, Armenia has repealed the embargo on Turkish goods imposed due to Ankara’s support for Baku in the Armenia-Azeri war that officially ended on November 9th 2020 thanks to a ceasefire mediated by Russia.

The Turkish airline Pegasus and Armenia’s FlyOne have announced that as of February 2nd flights will be resumed three times a week between Yerevan and İstanbul.

The European Union described the Moscow meeting of special envoys as “an important step forwards for prospects of reconciliation and economic development” and approval has also been immediately expressed not only by Russia, but also by the United States, France and the Minsk Group, as well as other important western nations and international organisations.

The road-map envisages an initial period during which diplomatic relations will be reinstated, sealed borders re-opened and economic trade and transport projects started between the two nations.


Wounds to heal

Those walked in Moscow were the first steps taken towards normalisation after the failure in 2009 of negotiations agreed on with the Zurich Protocols.

Armenian-Turkish talks have started just as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, isolated in the region due to his coercive foreign policy and overwhelmed by an unprecedented economic crisis, is attempting to re-establish relations with a series of other countries in the region, such as Israel, Egypt and various Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

The task assigned to the special representatives of the two countries is, however, extremely difficult, because there are important political and psychological issues undermining the process.

The recent history of bilateral relations between these two neighbours presents various crucial issues that, since 1915, have been at the basis of divisions between these two communities, which in past centuries had coexisted peacefully – to the extent that in 1453, the year of the Conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Fatih Mehmet allowed the foundation of the Armenian Patriarchate in the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

On December 16th, 1991, Armenia became independent and was instantly recognised by Turkey, a nation that supplied it with significant amounts of humanitarian aid.

This seemed to mark a positive beginning for reconciliation, so much so that in September 1992 an energy-trade protocol was signed between Ankara and Yerevan, and although Armenia was not bordered by the sea, it was invited by Turkey to become a founding member of the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, with an agreement signed on June 25th, 1992.

The normalisation policy initiated by Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, was also successful in this initial rapprochement. Petrosyan realised that for Armenia, a country that had just regained independence from Moscow and had no access to the sea, economic development required a rapprochement with the West and thus with Turkey.

But this first reconciliation process was interrupted due to Armenia’s occupation in 1883 of the Karabakh region, fought over with Azerbaijan.

Robert Kocharyan, who governed Armenia until 2008, distinguished himself because of his nationalist rhetoric and intransigent attitude regarding the Karabakh issue and this clashed with Petrosyan’s reconciling attitude towards Turkey.

Serz Sargsyan came to power in the February 2008 presidential elections. He realised that continuing the previous government’s policies would exacerbate problems faced by Armenia, which was struggling with high unemployment, widespread corruption and, above all, migration of the young.

Armenia, which ever since its independence had exhibited an attitude of intransigent opposition to both Azerbaijan and Turkey, had condemned itself to isolation on a regional scale, paying a high price for this policy by becoming heavily dependent on Russia and excluded from all energy-trade projects in the region.

With Sargsyan, however, Yerevan strengthened its conviction that there was only one way to open to the outside world and that meant reconciliation with Turkey in order to promote the country’s economic development and reduce its dependence on Moscow to the extent this was possible.

Ankara expressed its openness in response to this second attempt at rapprochement and new negotiations began to take shape with the signing of the Zurich Protocols on October 10th, 2009, mediated by Switzerland, under the auspices of the U.S., Russia, the EU and France.

owever, historical unresolved conflicts soon resurfaced. Azerbaijan had felt excluded from this reconciliation because the problem of the Armenian occupation of Nagorno Karabakh was not addressed in the protocols.

On the other hand, in a judgement dated January 12th, 2010, the Armenian Constitutional Court, under pressure from nationalists at home, reiterated the thesis of a need to acknowledge the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 during World War I. Ankara was irritated because it had always denied this thesis and it was thus that the second reconciliation process also failed.

That was an important missed opportunity.


A strategic turn

There is now more than one factor that allows greater hope that this third and final normalisation process will have a better outcome compared to that of 2009, including the ’44-day war’ in the autumn of 2020 that changed the game and the balance in the region.

The text of the trilateral agreement signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which put an end to the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Nagorno-Karabakh, provides clues to Turkey’s motives allegedly behind this reconciliation attempt. The understanding, also supported by Ankara, is more than just a “ceasefire” agreement; it is a clear document aimed at shaping the region’s future. The last provision of the agreement in fact envisages the creation of a corridor linking Azerbaijan to its Azeri majority autonomous exclave of Nakhichevan located in Armenian territory bordering Turkey.

If opened, such a corridor would constitute an energy and trade route directly linking Ankara to Baku on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and from there winding its way towards other Central Asian Turkish-speaking states stretching as far as the land of the Uighurs, East Turkestan, which Beijing calls Xinjiang. This corridor fuels ancient dreams of Turkish-speaking nationalism, dreams of the creation of a great Turkish world, the unification of Turkic nations, of a ‘Grand Turan’.

This is a decades-old Turkish and Azerbaijani ambition involving the establishment of regional corridors, of roads linking the nations of the Turkic-speaking region, which would also be useful for China’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Turkey therefore wants to benefit from this corridor, the opening of which will only be possible if there is reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Russia would be in control of this road, while Turkish and Chinese goods would travel freely and all parties involved would profit financially.

Even Azerbaijan’s President İlham Aliyev has praised the importance of these plans for a transit corridor.

At a Turkish Council summit in Istanbul last November, Aliyev said such a route would “unite the Turkish world and Russia with Armenia”.

The opening of this transport corridor is also a Russian objective, a country that would see its geopolitical influence increase in what it considers its own backyard, the South Caucasus, since it would have access to Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan via railways, bypassing Georgia.

It is therefore this change in the balance of power in the South Caucasus that has encouraged Ankara and Yerevan to normalise relations. Armenia lost the war with Azerbaijan and had to cede all the Azerbaijani territories occupied in 1993. At that time Turkey closed the border with its neighbour in solidarity with Baku, but this new status abolishes the reasons for which borders had been kept closed until now. During a visit to Baku in December 2020, Erdoğan had said, “we will open our closed doors if there are positive developments”, referring to Armenia’s readiness to resume a dialogue.

In the meantime, on the 15th anniversary of the assassination of its publisher, Hrant Dink, white doves of peace are projected onto the former building of Agos in Istanbul.

Dink had devoted his short life, lived as a ‘white dove’, to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, but his wings were broken forever in front of his office by the hatred and nationalist fanaticism.


Cover Photo: Turkish soldiers stand guard on a road at Turkey’s Dogu Kapi border gate with Armenia – April 15, 2009 (Mustafa Ozer / AFP).

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