ISSN 2330-717X

Assessing Armenia-Turkey Normalization – OpEd

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By Richard Giragosian*

In an apparent breakthrough in the long-standing deadlock between Turkey and Armenia, the two countries have agreed to appoint envoys to negotiate the normalisation of ties. The restoration of direct flights is also planned. 

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu announced the move in parliament on  December 13 following months of positive public statements hinting at a rapprochement from not only  Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Turkish president Recept Tayyip Erdogan, but also by Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s leader  and a close ally of Turkey.

This announcement, seen as Turkey taking a first step in support of restoring ties  with Armenia, is significant for three reasons.

First, the process of normalisation and a foundation for eventual reconciliation is part of a broader effort following the 2020 Nagorny Karabakh conflict to restore regional trade and transport in the South Caucasus region. 

This is important for both sides, as Armenia needs to escape from its isolation and closed borders in order to better adapt to the new reality that followed the conflict, including the loss of control over extensive territory.

For Turkey, a mounting economic crisis has also imposed its own cost on keeping borders closed and missing opportunities to open new markets.

Secondly, a return to diplomatic engagement between the two countries  offers a rare win for Turkey’s foreign policy and a positive development after months of political instability and economic crisis.  This is especially important after Turkey’s own isolation within the NATO alliance and its estrangement from the US, its traditional ally.  Moreover, normalisation with Armenia is also a component of Erdogan’s more ambitious  effort of rapprochement with Israel, the UAE and others.

For Ankara then, normalisation with Yerevan offers important diplomatic dividends with the West, especially after the strains between Turkey and the US, and with NATO as well as with the EU. 

In this context, any move by Turkey to reopen the border and establish diplomatic relations with Armenia offers specific bonuses, including a new strategic opportunity to galvanize economic activity in the country’s impoverished east .

Turkey also needs an opening with Armenia more than ever before.  Some observers see last year’s 45-day Karabakh war as a victory for Turkey as much as for Azerbaijan.  This view stems from the unprecedented military support and unexpectedly direct engagement by the Turkish military in waging the war alongside Azerbaijani forces.  Although this joint military effort succeeded in seizing large areas of territory and gaining control over parts of Karabakh, Ankara’s victory is neither as complete nor as convincing as it might seem.  Rather, Turkey is now over-extended in both the military and diplomatic dimensions. 

This assessment is also confirmed by Russia’s belated engagement in the conflict, as shown by the future peacekeeping mission in the region .  This proved embarrassing for  Ankara, as Moscow seems to have reneged on promises for a great, more direct role for Turkish military peacekeepers.  Russia allowed Turkey a merely symbolic status, with a minimal, marginal position in peacekeeping planning and supervision within Azerbaijan itself.  This effectively gives Russian peacekeepers the dominant role in the region.

Russia also excluded Turkey from  the tripartite Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian working group on regional trade. This means that normalisation with Armenia could provide Turkey with a “seat at the table” and a more active role in regional plans for the restoration of trade and transport.

At the same time, Turkey did regain its lost position as Azerbaijan’s primary military patron state, thereby replacing Russia as leading arms provider and source of weapons.  This is also matched by a deeper trend of a shifting balance of power, with a resurgent Turkey empowering an over-confident Azerbaijan after the successful military campaign against Karabakh.  

A third important factor stems from the fact that normalisation is not a new policy.  Armenia remains committed to a consistent policy of “no preconditions,” seeking merely a reopening of the closed border and the establishment of long-denied diplomatic relations with Turkey. 

In fact, the two countries have never established formal ties. Turkey has kept its border with Armenia closed since the 1990s, in the wake of what Turkish authorities said was Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh and surrounding districts.

Now, both Turkey and Armenia gain from an earlier period of negotiations in 2008-2009 that resulted in the signing of two diplomatic protocols in Zurich.  That process, which required Swiss mediation, was effectively undermined by Azerbaijan insistence that that normalisation would be an unearned reward for Armenia, convincing Turkey to demand progress over Karabakh in a new prerequisite that halted the process.  But although it failed in its implementation, this dialogue not only offered serious points of concession beyond but also offers “lessons learned” for this coming round of talks.

Nonetheless, it is also imperative to note that normalisation is just that: a mere first step and not reconciliation or rapprochement.  Normalisation of relations stands as the basic minimum, and reconciliation stands apart as a much more intensive, broader and longer process spanning generations.

So although a welcome move, this week’s announcement is merely an initial move toward the most basic of relations between neighbours: the reopening of the closed border and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Ankara and Yerevan.

This does, however, reflect a new environment more conducive to de-escalation and post-war stability, as well as the start of a return to diplomacy after unprecedented Turkish military support for Azerbaijan’s war for Karabakh in 2020.

And as it was Azerbaijan that derailed the earlier round of diplomacy for normalisation, Turkey has been cautious, determined to ensure Azerbaijan’s support to extend such an offer to Armenia.  But given the looming elections in Turkey and a serious crisis in its politics, the outlook for normalisation also depends as much on Turkish domestic concerns as on the separate track of Armenian-Azerbaijan diplomacy.

In that context, this may be an attempt by the embattled Turkish president to present a more mature model of statesmanship, with a policy favoring normalisation that much of the Turkish opposition would be hard pressed to oppose.  This is also the broader perspective of Erdogan’s similar bid to improve relations with Israel and the UAE, although with every vote in a looming 2023 election critical, he will need to counter likely criticism from his long-time nationalist allies. 

Yet no matter the motivation, the outlook for Armenia-Turkey normalisation is good . After decades of strained relations, this marks a refreshingly positive start.

*Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia. Published by IWPR

IWPR

The Institute for War & Peace Reporting is headquartered in London with coordinating offices in Washington, DC and The Hague, IWPR works in over 30 countries worldwide. It is registered as a charity in the UK, as an organisation with tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) in the United States, and as a charitable foundation in The Netherlands. The articles are originally produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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