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Domestic policies of Armenia and Turkey state the agenda of relations


Standpoint of Turkey

Domestic policies of Armenia and Turkey state the agenda of relations

Diba Nigar Göksel


Diba Nigar Göksel

Editor-in-Chief, Turkish Policy Quarterly

For Diba Nigar Göksel, Ankara’s guiding logic on Turkish-Armenian relations has not changed. Baku’s influence on Ankara is at an all-time high, and nearing elections in Turkey increase the importance of nationalist constituencies. However, there is some hope vested in the fact that as of January 2014, Switzerland has taken over the chairmanship of the OSCE. At the same time, a gradual spreading of views critical of past official narratives about 1915 is taking place in Turkey.


How do you evaluate the situation after Armenia visit and last explanations of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu? Could protocols be put into effect? Is there any change in the intervention power of Azerbaijan comparing with 2009?

On 12 December 2013, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Yerevan for a BSEC meeting. This visit provided an occasion for the discussion of whether circumstances have changed in a way that could enable forward movement with the protocols.

Ankara’s primary incentive in what became the protocol-based normalization effort in 2008 was actually to embark on joint history commission work, for which Swiss expertise was sought. To incentivize Yerevan - or in other words, to get Armenia on board- the joint history commission needed to be part of a package that would open the borders between the two countries. And for Ankara to accept this, it needed to be convinced that positive steps in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would follow. While these issues were all intricately tied together, in the course of arduous negotiations, by the time the text of the protocols was mutually acceptable, its so-called “constructive ambiguity” concealed the controversial linkages between issues, enabling contrary interpretations to co-exist - which arguably fuelled more suspicion and mistrust.

The primary reason for stall of the protocol process on the Turkish side was the realization that steps towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict were not imminent.  For Ankara, one thing that has not changed since the fizzling of the protocol process in late 2009 is the assessment that an open border with Yerevan, absent any positive developments regarding the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, will in all likelihood strike a blow to Baku, which can have negative consequences for Ankara’s regional geostrategic and economic traction, and strain the Turkish government domestically.

In this sense, Ankara’s guiding logic has not changed, and if anything Baku’s influence on Ankara is at an all-time high due to the TANAP pipeline being in the making, Azerbaijani investments in various sectors in Turkey peaking, and nearing elections in Turkey which increase the importance of nationalist constituencies which place importance on solidarity with Azerbaijan.

However, there is some hope vested in the fact that as of January 2014, Switzerland has taken over the chairmanship of the OSCE. Based on the Swiss mediation of the 2007-2009 Turkey-Armenia normalization process, Swiss diplomats and conflict resolution/reconciliation experts have a deeper understanding of the interrelated dynamics of Turkey-Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. This mindfulness can be useful in crafting more realistic and informed proposals to move forward, or at least avoiding risks posed by unrealistic formulas.

For some time there has been deadlock in the efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Turkey is not among the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which mediates the resolution process of the NK conflict. This process, run primarily by the three co-chairs, -the United Stated, Russia, and France- has not been a particularly transparent one. Substantial information as to the negotiations has not been shared with even the OSCE chairmanship, and arguably both the co-chairs and the capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan have settled in a comfort zone of the status quo, with little incentive to change paradigms to achieve concrete results. The Swiss chairmanship is interested in making this process more inclusive, by bringing stakeholders from other countries as well as track two/civil society more into the fold. Already a number of preparatory discussions have been held to this end. This heightened attention to the process by the OSCE chairmanship generated cautious optimism among observers and analysts involved in the region.

For Turkey, it is important that negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia proceed in parallel to a Turkey-Armenia opening, mutually reinforcing each other. There has been an expectation on the Turkish side that Armenia make an initial gesture of goodwill, by for example withdrawing from a couple of the seven districts it occupies outside of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh territory, enabling the Azerbaijani IDPs to return. Then supposedly Turkey would open its land-border with Armenia, setting off a positive dynamic for the region to start integrating more comprehensively. There have been some efforts to examine this conception, or to formulate it in a way that all three sides could be assured simultaneous, sustainable, and tangible benefits – public support and security guarantees. However given Russia’s role in the region and the dynamics at play in Yerevan and Baku, conducive grounds for resolution do not appear on the horizon.

Another option that has been discussed by regional experts is for Ankara to establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan and/or open the railway between Kars and Gyumri if and when Baku and Yerevan explicitly agree on a framework of resolution as foreseen in the Madrid Principles negotiated by the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs. This may involve Baku and Yerevan accepting that the issue of NK’s eventual status cannot be agreed on now, and “working around” this most sticky issue with regional integration schemes that could, in the longer term, bring about an environment more conducive for comprehensive resolution.

However, at this time optimism has more or less faded again.  Both Armenia and Azerbaijan seem to figure time works in their favor, and any intermediate step towards resolution could weaken their leverage at the negotiation table. Azerbaijan is integrating more solidly with Georgia and Azerbaijan as its economy grows; it would not want to break this course that isolates Armenia without assurances. And Armenia also is not interested in compromising its negotiation leverage by returning districts that it holds as leverage.  In sum, there are strategic and domestic political considerations on both sides.

To go back to the question, rather than rejuvenating the protocols, identifying a sequence of smaller steps, which also factor Azerbaijan in, has been on the agenda. However, another complication is the nearing of 2015, the centenary of 1915.  Armenians widely perceive that in 2014 and 2015 they will have the strongest leverage to pressure Turkey – through international campaigns for recognition and restitution - - into opening the border without conditions. It is accordingly likely that Yerevan reject reconciliatory attempts from Turkey. It was speculated that Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s attempt to re-establish high level bilateral correspondence during his visit to Yerevan was accordingly received negatively.

What is the effect of 1915 on Turkey-Armenia relations? How about efforts between two countries in order to get over the differences regarding this issue?

The underlying problem between the two nations is the clashing narratives about the history of Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman-Turkish state during World War I. As expressed by the report of the International Center for Transitional Justice, there is “disagreement as to the magnitude and scope of these events, their context and intended effect, and the identities and affiliations of their perpetrators”. For decades, the stripping of much of present-day Turkey of its Armenian communities was taken up by the Turkish bureaucracy with denialist and defensive approaches, reflecting as such in public discourse and official publications. The response from segments of the active Armenian diaspora has been indiscriminate anti-Turkish propaganda. A vicious cycle of mutual antagonism has become entrenched.

The involvement of third party politicians, through genocide recognition resolutions that attempt to describe what happened in 1915 and reach legal conclusions, has contributed to the reduction of historical reflection to whether or not the word genocide applies, and the consequences thereof. This has created a cauldron of not only legal and historical dispute but also political and material interest, as well as international strategic power games, turning the word genocide into a litmus test of “patriotic credentials” for a sizeable proportion of Turks and Armenians.

The effort, in particular by organized hard-line Armenian diaspora groups, to pressure Turkey into recognition, restitution, and reparation has been countered with significant resources as well as political and diplomatic capital by the Turkish state. This course of events has at times severely limited Turkey’s diplomatic manoeuvre space on other strategic questions, and hardened public opinion and political space in both countries.

1915 has been on the agenda of bilateral talks between official Ankara and official Yerevan for over 20 years. In 1991, when Ankara first started talks with Armenian counterparts to establish relations, an expectation that the Armenian diaspora end genocide-recognition campaigns was on its agenda. However, Yerevan clearly and consistently held that it was not the interlocutor of this issue. History as an agenda item somewhat faded out of state-to-state negotiation, especially as it became clear that Yerevan was not leading or controlling the diaspora on this issue, and that President Ter Petrosyan did not include genocide recognition in Armenia’s foreign policy or its policy regarding the normalization of relations between the two countries. However, when Robert Kocharian came to power as president in 1998 and raised the question of genocide recognition to the level of state policy – both as a weapon against Turkey and to stimulate diaspora support to his administration– 1915 once again rose to the forefront of the official bilateral agenda.

The first publicized expression of the idea of a history commission (to study archives and historical records) to be agreed on between Ankara and Yerevan, was proposed by the Turkish Prime Minister in April 2005. The Armenian response was that relations should first be normalized and borders opened, before history, as well as “other issues of mutual interest” could be taken up.

Eventually, the 2009 protocols, initialled by both sides, foresaw a “sub-commission on the historical dimension to implement a dialogue with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations, in which Armenian, Turkish as well as Swiss and other international experts shall take part.”

The Sarkisian administration was widely accused by Armenians of agreeing to a formulation that questioned the characterization of the 1915 events as genocide. In response, Yerevan underlined that no change in its approach to genocide recognition would take place. This position was officiated by the verdict of the Armenia’s Constitutional Court about the constitutionality of the protocols. While the court gave a positive verdict regarding constitutionality, it explained that the protocols cannot be interpreted or applied in the legislative process and application practice of the Republic of Armenia (RoA) as well as in the interstate relations in a way that would contradict the provisions of the Preamble to the RoA Constitution and the requirements of Paragraph 11 of the Declaration on Independence of Armenia, which confirms the “support of the republic for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”

On the Turkish side, this revelation was one of the spoilers of the process. However even before then, during the closed discussions in which established parameters of similar commissions set up for other conflicts were examined, it had become clear to both sides that the history examination would necessarily have a level of autonomy and objectivity that would have precluded either side from being able to steer the work in a direction that would politically favour them. Thus, even before the protocols were released, the enthusiasm on both sides about joint history work had arguably faded.

Could we make any progress in relations between these two countries while 2015 is coming or on the contrary, do we make for a situation in which parties sharpens their attitudes towards each other?

There is a risk that 2015 will strain Turkey’s relations with not only Yerevan and Baku, but also with third countries commemorating 1915, or using 1915 as a card against Ankara.

The risk is that we will witness a heightened level of the zero-sum “genocide diplomacy” which takes place every year as April 24th approaches, Armenian diaspora campaigns and the diplomatic corps around the world will be ever more coordinated in demanding genocide recognition, and Turkey will use both its geostrategic leverages and the commemoration of other World War I tragedies to respectively subvert and divert these efforts. Meanwhile sincere efforts towards commemoration from among various circles of the Turkish society will be perceived by most Armenians as, at best, “too little, too late,” and be dismissed and discredited, lest they “soften” the pressure on Turkey.

The concept of fair (or just) memory, put forth by the Turkish Foreign Minister, is one way to open space in the conversation in Turkey for Armenian collective memories of suffering. In line with this spirit, during his trip to Yerevan at the end of 2013, Foreign Minister Davutoglu made a statement about the Ottoman deportation of Armenians in 1915 being “wrong” and ‘inhumane, ” reflecting this new discourse. 

Part of the “fair memory” lexicon involves NOT attributing Armenian tragedies to a fundamental trait of Turks, but rather calling into consideration the context of 1915 – the ongoing wars in which many Muslims and Turks were also being targeted on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.

Ankara’s effort to take a holistic view that also accounts for Turkish citizens’ collective memories involving tragedies their ancestors incurred during the related uprisings and wars of the time, has been largely received among its critics as an attempt to ‘equalize victimhoods’ or justify atrocities. Perhaps more importantly though, the fair memory notion has not been introduced to wide Turkish constituencies in any comprehensive way with a view to generating empathy for Armenian victims, nor has it translated into general domestic political rhetoric.

Despite its controversies, so far a better idea of navigating the differences in history learning has not been put forth. If those who have critical views about the approach suggest how it needs to be modified, developed, or substantiated, already a more constructive dialogue can come about. Ultimately the just memory opening will only be as effective as mainstream intellectuals, politicians and practitioners render it. It can serve as a means to question the maximalist narratives about 1915 on both sides, or it can be taken as a new “frontline” to continue battling across.

The current political mood in neither Turkey nor Armenia offers much hope that the former will be pursued.  Given the fact that there will be three elections in Turkey in the next 18 months and domestic challenges are dominating the agenda, it appears unlikely that Ankara will pro-actively develop a well-communicated overall vision and a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary action plan towards dealing with the potential fallout of 2015.

Ensuring that pressure on Ankara does not resemble the demonization of Turks as a race is important. For the tragedies inflicted on Ottoman Armenians to be attributed to “Turks being a murderous race”, as is often the case in Armenian campaigns, naturally hardens mental barriers within the wider Turkish society, rather than opening hearts and minds.

In sum, while there is significantly more freedom in Turkey for discussing 1915, it has been left largely to “market forces”, meaning those who wish to study and discuss this page of history can, however a new discourse is not widely promoted, and it is hard to say a more empathetic attitude is emerging among the society at large. That being said, in light of the general questioning of state wrongdoings throughout history, a gradual spreading of views critical of past official narratives about 1915 is taking place. It appears unlikely though that this can spread to a critical threshold by 2015. Meanwhile on the Armenian side it is also hard to say a more nuanced and less ethnocentric view of Turkish-Armenian or Armenian-Azerbaijani history is evolving.

However, the risks of 2015 also spell an opportunity. With many other neighborhood problems and domestic challenges dominating Ankara’s agenda, focus on Armenian relations has been sporadic. 2015 will refocus attention to this issue. To brace for the expected expression of hostility, there is more incentive for constructive circles to take positive initiatives.