Armenian-Turkish Relations – Progress, but no Breakthrough

A recent summit on 24th of June of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation organization (BSEC) opened with hopes for a breakthrough in troubled Turkish-Armenian relations. Although the meeting fell short of high expectations, according to most observers bilateral consultations between the parties delivered substantial progress. However, until parliamentary and presidential elections are held in Armenia in a year or so, actual normalization of relations is not expected.

Turkish diplomacy has been very active towards Armenia in recent months. Few months ago, before Reykjavik summit of NATO member and partner countries foreign ministers Turkish authorities expressed hope that the opening of closed border between Turkey and Armenia would be possible. Though, a number of strict conditions set forth to Armenia by the Turkish side [link] proved unacceptable to Yerevan. Similar hopes had been expressed before BSEC summit.

Intensive talks between Ankara and Yerevan preceded the BSEC summit in June. Ertan Tezgor, high official of the Turkish foreign ministry visited Yerevan to elaborate details of the foreign ministerial meeting.

Intensification of relations between Ankara and Yerevan is related to the increasing role of the United States. Softening of the positions of the parties seems to be largely induced by the pressure from Washington. Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan said, he has witnessed a “positive change” in the Turkish position on the Karabakh problem, arguing that Ankara now seems ready to pursue a “more balanced” policy toward Armenia and Azerbaijan. He said, Turkey can play a “constructive and positive role” in the region if that policy change deepens.

In his turn, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismael Cem stated, that Turkey is ready to make its positive contribution to the process of the Karabakh conflict settlement.

Although Turkey is clearly willing to regulate its relations with Armenia, which would allow the country to play much stronger regional hand, Ankara is concerned with global campaign on recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire spearheaded by the Armenian diaspora and widely supported in Armenia. At the same time, Turkish diplomats have to take into account the position of their close ally – Azerbaijan. Azeri politicians adamantly resist the policy change towards Armenia if Yerevan does not make serious concessions on Karabakh issue.

Armenian side too has shown determination to separate the Karabakh issue from normalization of relations with Turkey, and seems ready to make some concessions. “Bilateral relations should not be taken hostage by Azerbaijani-Armenian disputes… we are not asking Turkey to recognize the genocide as a precondition”, emphasized Oskanyan at the meeting organized by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. Such détente is clearly in Armenia’s national interest, as opening of the border checkpoint with Turkey would relieve economic pressure on Yerevan and ease trade relations with the outside world.

Opening of the new checkpoint at the Turkish-Georgian border is also thought to indirectly encourage economic relations between Armenia and Turkey. The new border crossing at Aktas will connect Turkish province of Ardahan with Georgia’s Armenian-populated province of Javakheti. Unlike the two existing border crossings between Turkey and Georgia (Sarpi on the Black Sea coast and the second one near Akhaltsikhe also in Javakheti), new checkpoint will be much closer to the Armenian border and, many expect, will increase unofficial trade between Turkey and Armenia. Analysts say, the opening of new Aktas border crossing is more the endeavor to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia, than the sign of growing trade between Turkey and Georgia.

According to the experts, internal political process in Armenia has tremendous impact on dynamics of relations with Turkey. Against the background of pending parliamentary and presidential elections, opposition shows willingness to unify and even demand resignation of President Robert Kocharian. In fact, it took a great effort of the Armenian president to postpone impeachment procedure till the fall session of the parliament.

There are also persistent rumors on deteriorated relations between the president and a political heavyweight defense minister Serj Sarkisyan. Under these circumstances, any concession from president in the Karabakh peace talks can be manipulated by the opposition to force the president out of the office, as it already happened with Armenia’s former President, Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Many have argued, that Azeri President Heydar Aliev attempted to undermine Kocharian’s internal base of support by revealing so called Paris Principles. According to Aliev, parties agreed on exchange of Lachin and Meghri regions in the peaceful resolution framework. Speaking with journalists, Kocharian reacted stringently explained that at no point has he agreed to cede any part of Armenia’s territory to Azerbaijan. “We talked only about a sovereign (Lachin) corridor between Armenia and Karabakh. As for Meghri, we were only discussing a road access” to provide uninterrupted communications between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan.  

Thus, Armenian authority is handling its relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan with great caution, trying to maintain a fragile balance between the pragmatic foreign policy needs, and internal political climate. After having talks on high level, Oskanyan cautioned journalists against any illusions about quick improvement of bilateral relations, saying that “numerous hurdles” still stand in the way.

It is obvious, that until parliamentary and presidential elections are not held in Armenia and Azerbaijan drastic changes in foreign policy of each of the states in unlikely. However, the Armenian diplomacy seems to be probing the ground for the new regional policy. Before the changes occur, however, parties involved in conflict are likely to continue bilateral relations through Georgia.

By Revaz Bakhtadze, Civil Georgia