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Are Armenia-Turkey relations heading in a positive direction?

Ankara and Yerevan’s ongoing talks to normalise relations could result in radical change at both the bilateral and regional level. Despite this, various historical and contemporary issues continue to challenge this process.

February 4, 2022 - Nino Chanadiri - Articles and Commentary

Little Ararat located in the Doğubeyazıt District, Ağrı Province, Turkey, as viewed from Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Shutterstock

Recent months have seen Armenia and Turkey take positive steps to improve their bilateral ties. Naturally, these moves could transform relations between the two countries, which have remained tense for decades. In early December, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that the two states were planning to appoint special envoys in order to start a discussion on the normalisation of relations. The initiative was positively assessed by the Armenian side. Russia offered its support in mediation in November. Two months later, representatives from the two countries met in Moscow for the first time. The meeting between the special envoys was held on January 14th. During the 90 minute meeting, the two sides exchanged views and confirmed their readiness to engage with the normalisation process “without preconditions”. It was noted that the talks will soon continue. Turkey has proposed that these negotiations take place in Yerevan or Ankara.

A few days after the meeting it was announced that round trip flights between the two countries will launch in February. The Armenian aviation authorities issued a permit for FlyOne Armenia to operate charter flights. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines will also operate between the two states.

It should also be remembered that December saw Armenia’s economic ministry announce the lifting of an embargo on Turkish goods. The decision about the embargo was followed the 2020 conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Ankara actively supported Azerbaijan. According to the Armenian side, the embargo was put in place due to security risks related to food safety. Additionally, the policy aimed to “put an end to the financial proceeds and fiscal revenues of a country with clear hostile attitude”. According to an announcement discussing the lifting of the embargo, it is expected that Turkey will also end its own ban. This will create favourable conditions for the export of Armenian goods.

Old attempts

Relations between Armenia and Turkey were essentially non-existent for nearly 30 years. Bilateral affairs were dominated by Turkey’s refusal to recognise the mass killings of Armenians by Turks during the First World War as a genocide. Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh also played a significant role in relations during this time. In 1993, Turkey closed the border in response to Armenia’s capture of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2009, there was an attempt to establish diplomatic relations. This resulted in the signing of the so-called “Zurich Protocols”, which were ultimately negotiated with the help of the Swiss foreign ministry. However, the protocols were never ratified by either country’s parliament. Some analysts believe that this unsuccessful attempt was the result of both societies’ lack of readiness to re-establish mutual trust, which undermined the diplomatic process. Another important factor was Azerbaijan’s dissatisfaction with the normalisation process. Baku stressed that Armenia’s improved position in the region could make it less willing to compromise on Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, relations between Armenia and Turkey remained unchanged for another decade.

New realities

The Second Karabakh War in 2020 fundamentally changed the realities of the region. Azerbaijan was able to regain much of the territories on which it had a claim. Turkey’s previous attitude regarding Armenian control of the territories quickly lost its relevance. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan during the war was strong and cooperation between the two countries now seems to be very comprehensive. This time, there is no reason why Azerbaijan should perceive the Armenia-Turkey normalisation process as a threat. The Azerbaijani foreign ministry now officially supports the process, while it also seeks the normalisation of its own relations with Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev recently held talks under EU mediation. The leaders agreed that further steps are needed to reduce tensions and avoid border clashes. This includes incidents like in November that involved the use of heavy weapons. The two countries also plan to restore shared communication infrastructure.

Ankara’s new “3+3 Platform” could also influence this process. This regional format brings together Turkey, Russia and Iran with Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to discuss security, economics, humanitarian problems and other important issues in the region. Georgia officially refuses to participate in this format due to Russia’s involvement. As both Turkey and Armenia are involved, it can be expected that the format will become a place of regular contact for both countries to discuss different aspects of their relations. The format opens possibilities for other interested regional actors to get involved in the process. This is viewed as especially important in Turkey.

Prospects and obstacles for the diplomatic process

The normalisation process is expected to have benefits for both Armenia and Turkey. Some believe that improving relations with Armenia will help Turkey increase its role in regional developments. Overall, Russia remains a dominant actor following the war. Moscow now not only has a peacekeeping presence in Nagorno-Karabakh but also a bigger role in talks about “unblocking” regional transportation routes. For Armenia, the most widely discussed benefits are regional integration and the economic opportunities related to an open border with Turkey.

The recent positive steps taken by the two countries have raised hopes that Ankara and Yerevan will be able to transform their relations. However, several factors could still influence the diplomatic process.

As noted above, border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan occurred just a couple of months ago and resulted in casualties. Whilst hostilities on the border have ceased for the time being, such events show that the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh remains fragile. In light of previous experience, issues surrounding the disputed territory still have the potential to affect the normalisation process between Armenia and Turkey.

Another obstacle includes mixed feelings in Armenia regarding the process. Given Turkey’s extensive support for Azerbaijan during the Second Karabakh War, encouraging trust at the societal level will likely prove difficult. Additionally, some Armenians might also be sceptical about “normalisation without preconditions”, which might be perceived as going against Yerevan’s interests. Turkey’s continued refusal to recognise the atrocities committed against Armenians during 1915 and 1916 as a genocide remains important for many Armenians. For some, recognition may be seen as a necessary precondition for negotiations. In order to ensure the success of the diplomatic process, Yerevan will have to convince the public that opening the country’s borders does not mean giving up on Armenia’s interests.

Nino Chanadiri holds Bachelors degree in Political Science and Masters degree in International Relations from Ilia State University. She is interested in peace and conflict studies. Nino has experience of providing analysis about developments in Eastern Europe and beyond to the Georgian Foundation For Strategic And International Studies as well as to Lossi 36.

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