BACKGROUND: The Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process got serious on the inter-governmental level in 2008. (See Turkey Analyst, 10 April 2009 for background) Following Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s historic visit to Yerevan, Swiss mediation helped produce Protocols that would lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the common border. The Protocols, originally intended for signing in April 2009, were nevertheless not endorsed formally until August that year.
Enormous external pressure – primarily from the White House – appears to have been the main reason that the Turkish and Armenian Foreign Ministers signed the Protocols. The presence at the signing ceremony of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana was indicative of the level of pressure on Ankara and Yerevan. Yet even then, the process almost broke down at the last minute, as differences on the ceremony itself led to a three hour long delay, which was only solved by shelving the intended declarations of the two signatories.
This very delay suggested the lack of enthusiasm that had already begun to grip the Turkish and Armenian governments. Indeed, in the months that followed, it is difficult to avoid the perception that both governments - the Turkish perhaps slightly more than the Armenian - took steps to distance themselves from a process that neither felt comfortable with. In Yerevan, while the government asked the Constitutional Court for an interpretation, leading parliamentarians spoke of the need for an “exit strategy.” In Ankara, the government handed the Protocols to the parliament, but appeared perfectly happy to have it languish there rather than bring them to a vote of approval. As time passed, mutual incriminations ensued: Ankara seemed to seize on the Armenian Constitutional Court’s interpretations of the Protocols as an excuse to delay the process, while Yerevan threatened to shelve it entirely.
By the spring of 2010, the process was hanging by a thread. Then came the passage (by a single vote’s margin) of a bill to recognize the 1915 massacres of Armenians as Genocide in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. As in previous years that this had happened, visceral reactions ensued in Turkey, including the recall of the Turkish Ambassador to Washington. More unexpected was the introduction and passage of a similar bill in the Swedish Parliament. That bill also passed by a single vote’s margin. In fact, both the ruling coalition government and the leadership of the main opposition Social Democratic Party were opposed to the bill. But because it had been pushed through as a binding resolution at the Social Democratic Party’s yearly Congress, and because four members of the ruling parties split ranks, it eventually passed. Taken together, these two resolutions stirred up emotions in the region – particularly in Turkey – adding what may have been the last two nails in the coffin of the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process.
IMPLICATIONS: Time has thus come to evaluate why this process went wrong, and what implications are likely to emerge from this failure. The deeply negative effect of foreign parliaments’ meddling in historical truths exacerbated the difficulties in the process and may have helped kill it – if nothing else, given Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction to threaten to expel 100,000 Armenian migrant workers living in Turkey. (In fact, the real number is believed to be lower.) But as deplorable as the role of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Swedish Parliament may have been, they were not the root causes of the failure of the normalization process.
One key reason, however, was that the process was allowed to proceed on the basis of divergent and erroneous assumptions. First, the tragedy of 1915 was a main cause of the discord between the two countries, and intimately connected with the normalization process. Ankara, rejecting the label of genocide, interpreted the Protocols as having moved that issue to a commission of historians to be created following ratification. Perhaps naively, Turkish leaders therefore expected the Diaspora Armenian push for genocide recognition to be eased – an unlikely prospect given Yerevan’s limited influence on the Diaspora, and the latter’s deep misgivings about the Protocols. But as the Armenian Constitutional Court made clear, Armenia interpreted the Protocols as in no way hindering the push for international recognition. As Armenian and allied groups kept pushing for recognition in both the U.S. and Europe, it became clear that the normalization process would not even temporarily relieve Turkey of that headache.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict posed an even larger problem – but also one whose importance the Western powers fundamentally misunderstood. Turkey had originally closed its border with Armenia as a result of the Armenian occupation of the Azerbaijani province of Kelbajar – one of seven districts outside of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabach that Armenian forces occupied and ethnically cleansed during the war. To most Turks, therefore, some form of progress in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations was a prerequisite for opening the border. In fact, Turkish leaders appear to have embarked on the process in the belief – entertained by American and Russian diplomats – that there was indeed a serious prospect for a breakthrough in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks. As the AKP had not been closely involved in the conflicts in Caucasus prior to 2008, its leaders overlooked the fact that such imminent breakthroughs in the negotiations had been predicted frequently during the past fifteen years, without results. In other words, it was clear from the AKP leadership’s moves that it gambled on a breakthrough in negotiations that was never to be. (See Turkey Analyst, 14 September 2009 issue for background)
If the Turkish government miscalculated, the West’s behavior was unrealistic. Egged on by NGOs such as the International Crisis Group, American and European leaders urged Ankara to de-link the Turkish-Armenian normalization process from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Positive ties between Turkey and Armenia, they argued, would lead Armenia to feel more secure, thereby more likely to make difficult concessions over Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet de-linking the two conflicts was both politically and practically impossible.
To begin with, the Western logic did not play out. Having signed the Protocols, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian lost a nationalist coalition partner and a good deal of domestic public support. Sarkisian thus moved to harden rather than soften Armenia’s negotiating stance in talks with Azerbaijan, putting those talks in peril.
Secondly, whether one liked it or not, de-linking Turkish-Armenian ties from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict was impossible in the Turkish domestic context. This has often been blamed on Azerbaijan’s supposed “lobbying” in Turkey. Reality is much simpler: most of the Turkish population and a significant share of the AKP voters and politicians (though not the top leadership) are strongly wedded to Turkic solidarity. Thus, the AKP leadership faced vehement nationalist opposition from within the party (not simply the nationalist opposition) to ratifying the Protocols without some progress on the Karabakh conflict. Given the close linguistic ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan, the AKP leadership knew that a single camera crew, filming from Azerbaijani refugee camps to which 800,000 people had been confined by Armenian conquests, could generate a public outcry against the government should it open the border without Armenian concessions. Rather than understanding this reality and putting serious efforts behind the diplomatic endeavors on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Western powers pushed harder for Ankara to de-link the two processes.
Stuck in the Mountains of Karabakh?
This was all the more remarkable given the recent history of the South Caucasus. Indeed, if there was one lesson to be learned from the Russian-Georgian war, it was that the conflicts in the Caucasus were not “frozen”. They were dynamic and dangerous processes that the West had willfully ignored, thereby contributing to allowing the tensions between Russia and Georgia to spiral out of control. The Russian-Georgian war having rocked the foundations of the European security structure, the lessons for Nagorno-Karabakh were clear: left to its own devices, the conflict was at great risk of re-erupting, an event that could pull in regional powers including Russia, Iran and Turkey. Substantial revamping of efforts to resolve that conflict was in order, but the West instead decided to push it even deeper into the “freezer”.
In general terms, this failure may have left the region in an even more precarious position than it was before its inception. Turkish and American policies have alienated Azerbaijan – damaging Western interests in that crucial country and in the broader Caspian region. The energy partnership between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan – which formed the cornerstone of Western policies toward the region since the Clinton Administration’s times – is in tatters, as seen in the difficulties Baku and Ankara are experiencing in achieving a transit agreement for Azerbaijani gas sales to Europe. Turkey’s ties with Armenia have also been greatly damaged. It remains unclear if the bilateral relationship can muddle along, or whether it will revert to pre-2008 levels.
Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and Russia have also suffered. With Washington, Ankara is frustrated with the Obama administration’s refusal to seriously try to achieve progress on Nagorno-Karabakh, and especially with its failure to prevent the genocide resolution passing in the House Foreign Relations Committee. With Moscow, Ankara had hoped for support in resolving the Karabakh conundrum; but as senior Turkish officials have stated, Moscow instead grew unhelpful, seconding the American view that the two processes should not be linked. This in turn led Ankara to doubt whether Moscow really wanted either of the two processes to see progress. Finally, Armenia’s weakened leadership is now highly unlikely to make concessions on Karabakh in the near future.
CONCLUSIONS: What lessons does the failure of the Turkish-Armenian normalization process hold for the future? Several are in order. First, the resilience of nationalist sentiment and traditional allegiances – such as that between Turkey and Azerbaijan –should not be underestimated. Second, Western and in particular American leaders cannot expect to ignore regional realities and strong-arm local leaders into compliance with their agendas without taking a long-term and serious interest in the deeper problems of the region.
Third, the unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus have once more showed their powerful role as an impediment to progress and stability in the entire wider Black Sea region. For a decade and a half, the Western powers have sought to achieve policy goals in the region by willfully circumnavigating these conflicts, rather than seriously working to resolve them. Ironically, relatively limited progress toward a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would likely have sufficed to allow the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process to go forward. Instead, that conflict was the key element that derailed the process.
In the final analysis, the failure of the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process has helped reiterate one useful conclusion. Should Western leaders truthfully seek to stabilize the Wider Black Sea region, they should know the place to start: A serious and long-term engagement to resolve rather than to freeze the region’s conflicts.
Svante E. Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".