AGBU Magazine Cover for November 2009


In what has become the most significant development in Armenian foreign policy since reclaiming Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia and Turkey are edging ever closer to a deal to "normalize" relations, with the signing October 10 of a set of protocols outlining potential agreements between the neighboring countries.

Since announcement of the protocols August 31, however, reaction has been sharp and visceral and has led to division within Armenia and in the Diaspora. Most notably, opponents of the protocols condemn the Armenian government, stressing that the price for normalization is far too steep, and that the process casts Armenia as being desperate to make deals with Turkey.

Many, too, have criticized the Armenian leadership for being rushed (by third-party countries) into making hasty decisions, the results of which might have profound implications for generations of Armenians to come.

Deep divisions in some sectors have clearly been cleaved among some in this recent stage of Armenian-Turkish diplomacy. Nonetheless, against this backdrop Armenian President Serge Sargsyan appears determined to move forward, and move fast, toward a final agreement with Turkey.

The evolution of Armenian-Turkish relations

For decades, a string of consecutive Turkish governments has funded and furthered a state-directed effort aimed at denying the veracity of the Armenian Genocide. Over the years, this effort at historical revisionism has become a pillar of Turkish state policy.

Even in recent years, Turkey has followed a foreign policy predicated on a perception of Armenia as an enemy. Despite being one of the first countries to recognize Armenian independence in 1991, by 1993 Turkey had imposed a virtual blockade of Armenia, sealing its border with Armenia and refusing to extend even basic normal diplomatic relations. For both Turkey and Armenia, the last decade and a half has been a period of stalemate. The border has remained closed while the lack of diplomatic relations has deprived both sides of options or dialogue.

The deadlock also deepened mutual misunderstandings, largely centered on the efforts of the Armenian Diaspora to pursue international recognition of the genocide, which in turn solidified a defensive Turkish reaction.

In the mid-1990s, however, there was an attempt by the Armenian government to pursue a two-track effort aimed at establishing normal "neighborly" relations with Turkey. On a state level, Armenian diplomats held a series of meetings with their Turkish counterparts, spurred by the vision of then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian for a new chapter in Armenian-Turkish relations. In addition, the diplomatic efforts of the Ter-Petrosian administration were bolstered by a second, private "track-two" attempt to engage Turkey. This private initiative, through the so-called "Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission" (TARC), sought to provide a new arena for discussing the more controversial issues, including the Armenian Genocide, which divided both sides.

Although these early attempts at engagement failed, they did constitute first steps in the preliminary round of talks that the more recent diplomatic engagement has been able to use as a foundation for dialogue.

The most powerful impetus for a possible breakthrough in relations between the two countries was not a state initiative, however, but one that arose in the wake of the tragic killing of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007. Unexpectedly, Turkey and the world saw a mass outpouring of grief as more than 100,000 ordinary Turks joined a public funeral in Istanbul. The tragedy of Dink's death went beyond influencing Turkish public opinion; it also prompted a new opening within Turkish society, as many began to reassess the past and question the official Turkish line on "the Armenian issue."

The Turkish president comes to Armenia

Real breakthrough came in July 2008, when Armenian President Sargsyan extended a public invitation to his Turkish counterpart, President Abdullah Gul, to visit Armenia to attend a World Cup qualifying match between the Armenian and Turkish soccer teams. The invitation and subsequent visit by the Turkish president in September 2008 followed months of secretive closed meetings between Armenian and Turkish officials in Switzerland. Those talks, aimed at forging a preliminary understanding of the issues dividing both sides, culminated in the historic first-ever visit of a Turkish head of state to Armenia.

Encouraged by the gesture, both sides completed a series of negotiations; however, the divide between Armenia and Turkey remained profound. While Armenia offered to normalize relations with no preconditions, Turkey sought three specific goals prior to any such normalization.

First, Turkey was adamant in demanding an end to international efforts to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Turkey also wanted Armenia to clearly renounce any territorial claims on Turkey or, at a minimum, to formally recognize the territorial integrity and current borders of the Republic of Turkey (thereby squashing ongoing legal attempts by genocide survivors for compensation of property). Turkey's third goal was to pressure Armenia to produce "progress" over the unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

While some of these demands are not specifically outlined in the protocol, they are more or less issues of concern for those who think the documents hold hidden agendas.

The role of Russia

Overall, the Russian role in Armenian-Turkish relations represents an important change. This is due to the fact that it is now in Russia's interest to maximize the Turkish-Armenian thaw for its purposes. More specifically, Russian policy has long been opposed to any significant improvement in relations between Armenia and Turkey, and the closed border was seen as a helpful way to maintain Russian dominance over Armenia, as demonstrated by the continued presence of a Russian military base and Russian border guards in Armenia. But Russian policy shifted dramatically in the wake of Russia's short war with Georgia in August 2008. Now, a possible Armenian-Turkish rapprochement bolsters the Russian strategy to more completely isolate, marginalize and surround Georgia. Nevertheless, Russia will only remain supportive as long as the future direction of Armenian-Turkish relations remains under its control.

The April shock

In a surprising development in Armenian-Turkish diplomacy, only two days before the April 24th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a trilateral statement was issued by the Armenian, Turkish and Swiss governments: "Turkey and Armenia, together with Switzerland as mediator, have been working intensively with a view to normalizing their bilateral relations and developing them in a spirit of good-neighborliness, and mutual respect, and thus promoting peace, security and stability in the whole region."

The statement went on to note that "the two parties have achieved tangible progress and mutual understanding in this process and they have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner. In this context, a road-map has been identified."

Concluding by stating that "this agreed basis provides a positive prospect for the on-going process," the joint statement was seen as an insult to the solemn April 24th commemorative anniversary. Although the brief 95-word statement may have reflected an opportunity for a genuinely historic breakthrough in relations between Armenia and Turkey, the message of its text and the timing of its release raised important concerns.

Armenian-Turkish protocols

The April statement was then followed by a second, late-night release. This time two diplomatic "protocols," envisaging the establishment of diplomatic ties and normalization of bilateral relations, were released late at night on August 31. Serving as the basis for the normalization agreement, the protocols have emerged as the defining terms of what to expect from both sides. And the test came on October 10, 2009, at a Swiss-hosted signing ceremony by the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers.

Even with the fanfare of a historic moment and expectations intensified by the presence of senior international dignitaries gathered at Zurich University, the protocols signing ceremony had a strained start. The planned signing was abruptly halted, after which the Swiss hosts, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior American officials were hurriedly linked in mediation while a puzzled press and television audiences stood by.

The delay in signing the protocols was triggered by an unexpected move by the Turkish delegation to read a new declaration immediately after the signing ceremony. The fact that the text was not cleared in advance with either the Armenian side or the Swiss hosts angered many observers, including Clinton, whose delegation reportedly turned around and returned to their hotel even before reaching the university.

The Turkish text, to be read aloud by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, contained a new reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to some diplomatic officials present at the scene. And as the new mention of the Karabakh conflict was reportedly seeking to demand some concession form the Armenians over the conflict, it promoted a dramatic walkout by Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and his entourage.

After the intervention and persuasion of the US and Switzerland, the Turkish and Armenian ministers reached a successful conclusion about 90 minutes later, allowing the ceremony to proceed, only after many worries among the gathered dignitaries.

The Turks' attempt to introduce unapproved commentary into the signing ceremony was seen by some as a tactical test of resolve—challenging the determination of the Armenian side and probing the reaction of the international mediators. Whatever the reasoning, the incident underscored the difficulties inherent in the entire process, and was an indicator of the delicate nature of diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey, in which nothing can be taken for granted.

The path to the signing table in Zurich was fraught with controversy that included calls for resignations of Armenia's president and its foreign minister by radical opponents. And even with the delayed and difficult signing of the two diplomatic protocols now over, both sides face an even more challenging period of political peril.  More specifically, the period of diplomatic negotiations between the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers has moved on to the consideration of the protocols by the two parliaments, in separate and significant debates within each country.

Further, there is also an added element of the role of Armenia's domestic political situation. Close to two years after his election in February 2008, President Sargsyan still faces a domestic political crisis marked by a vibrant opposition and his tainted presidential election. In this context, there is a mounting need for the Armenian government to garner a bold foreign policy success. The necessity for such a breakthrough is rooted in the Armenian president's need to gain the trust of his constituancy and to establish confidence in the international community.

The Final Act

As this final stage now begins, there is a real danger that new obstacles may arise.  For the Turkish side, the temptation may be to try to pressure the Armenians to offer some sort of concession regarding the Karabakh conflict.  At the least, Turkish officials may press for a "sign of progress" from the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations over Karabakh in order to ensure the passage of the protocols by the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  And it seems evident that Turkey will continue to test Armenia.

Whether Armenian diplomacy will be adequately strong to resist and overcome any such threats to its will is a question of vital concern, equally relevant to internal political stability and the foreign policy of rapprochement.

Originally published in the November 2009 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.