BACKGROUND: On August 31, the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers announced they had agreed to sign two protocols on establishing diplomatic relations and on broader bilateral ties. This breathed new life into the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process, which had been ongoing for months, mediated by the Swiss Foreign Ministry. But it also opened wounds from last spring, when hard opposition both from Turkish public opinion and the Azerbaijani government and public forced the AKP government to halt the rapprochement. As was the case then, the main issue that Turkish opposition political parties and the Azerbaijani government oppose is the planned opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.
Last spring, the timing of the first protocol for April 2009 was planned to fall before April 24, Armenian Remembrance Day in the United States, but after the Turkish local elections of March 29. But as it happened, the electoral setback the AKP suffered in those elections made it more, not less vulnerable to tough opposition coming from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP), and in fact contributed to the postponement of the announcement of the concrete protocols.
The campaign initiated in Turkey by the Azerbaijani government was the other reason that forced the AKP to step back. Indeed, Azerbaijani parliamentarians visited Turkey to argue their case, appealing to Turkey not to open the border as long as Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territories continued. In a spectacular move, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev canceled a planned trip to Istanbul during the summit of the Alliance for Civilizations, in spite of repeated pleas for his attendance by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In an act of damage control, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then visited Baku and made clear in his address to the Azerbaijani Parliament that the Turkish-Armenian border will remain closed until a mutually acceptable solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is found. In effect, Turkey had reverted to its long-standing policy of linking its relationship to Armenia with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
During the summer of 2009, three important developments contributed to changing the regional atmosphere. Following the electoral setback, the AKP in May announced a broad cabinet shakeup. (See May 8 issue of the Turkey Analyst) The long-time architect of the AKP’s foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was appointed Foreign Minister. His elevation from being Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor cemented his influence over Turkish foreign policy. (See June 5 issue of the Turkey Analyst) Second, partly as a result of the same cabinet shakeup that included the appointment of a new Minister of Energy, Ankara became much more constructive on the Nabucco pipeline negotiations. (See May 22 issue of the Turkey Analyst). This contributed to the signing on July 13 of an Inter-Governmental Agreement on the Nabucco pipeline, in which Azerbaijani President Aliyev, significantly, did not participate, sending instead his energy minister. Almost immediately, Moscow went on a counter-offensive to this move, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visiting Ankara on August 6, where he managed to get a Turkish signature to a Protocol on the rival South Stream pipeline. (See August 17 issue of the Turkey Analyst)
It is in this complex and rapidly shifting geopolitical environment that the Protocols were announced on August 31, and introduced to the respective publics of the region. The plan appeared to be to allow for public debate of the Protocols, and to present them for ratification by parliament at the end of September. This again raised the political temperature, with acrimony concerning not so much the prospect of establishing diplomatic relations, but of opening the Turkish-Armenian border without progress on the Karabakh conflict.
IMPLICATIONS: The rationale for the rapprochement with Armenia is as clear today as it was in April. From Armenia’s perspective, the normalization of relations with Turkey will result in the revival of the Armenian economy which has been under a heavy burden, and the reduction of the gravest perceived threat to Armenia’s security. Although the border is closed, approximately 70,000 Armenians work in Turkey. Clearly, that number would grow if relations were normalized. More importantly, Armenia would be relieved of its regional isolation. The opening with Turkey would do a lot to counter the last decade’s tendency of depopulation and isolation of Armenia. Armenian nationalist and Diaspora organizations are nevertheless hostile to the rapprochement, since it includes the recognition by Armenia of Turkey’s territorial integrity and the current Armenian-Turkish border. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation last spring left the governing coalition precisely over this issue.
As for Turkey, such a rapprochement conforms with Davutoğlu’s “zero problem” approach to relations with Turkey’s neighbors. In fact, after successive rapprochements with formerly antagonistic neighbors including Greece and Syria, Turkey’s relationship with Armenia stand out as the one in need of attention. Secondly, the rapprochement with Armenia fits directly into Ankara’s relations with both the United States and the European Union, both of whom are putting pressure on the AKP government on the issue. American pressure in particular affects the AKP, since the Turkish-Armenian opening was President Barack Obama’s main justification for reneging on electoral promises to acknowledge the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians as genocide. Finally, the AKP sees the opening to Armenia as a way to reinvigorate its presence in the South Caucasus following the Russian invasion of Georgia last year.
The problem from Ankara’s vantage point, of course, is that the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border was the main concrete way in which Turkey supported Azerbaijan following the 1992-93 Armenian occupation of close to a fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory and the ensuing ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from their homes. As such, as long as the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is unresolved and Azerbaijani internally displaced persons are unable to return to their homes, Turkish policy towards Armenia cannot be dissociated from its relations with Azerbaijan. Whether one likes it or not, this implies that Turkish moves toward Armenia cannot avoid affecting its relations with the several times larger, richer, energy-endowed, and more strategically located Azerbaijan, which on top of everything is a brotherly Turkic country. Indeed, Azerbaijani as well as Turkish leaders have adopted the phrase “one nation, two states” to indicate their closeness. In that context, an opening to Armenia that is generally perceived as detrimental to Azerbaijan is explosive stuff in Turkish domestic politics, let alone in Ankara’s relationship with Baku.
This conundrum is replicated in the AKP government’s recent statements, which are contradictory. On the one hand, at least judging by the available draft text, the government in signing the protocol effectively commits to opening the Turkish-Armenian border within two months of ratification. Indeed, Davutoğlu himself publicly suggested the border could open by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Davutoğlu and other officials have stated that no move hurting the interests of Azerbaijan will be taken, including explicit references to the border opening.
The only way these conflicting statements can be reconciled is if the parallel process of conflict resolution between Armenia and Azerbaijan reaches concrete goals. Indeed, the AKP’s only hope to calm both its domestic opposition and Azerbaijan lies in the anticipated conclusion of a preliminary deal between Baku and Yerevan envisaging the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the five occupied provinces of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno Karabakh itself. If that were to happen, the AKP would come off as a winner, and could take credit for contributing to this important process.
CONCLUSIONS: In its laudable attempts to reduce tensions with its neighbors and to gain a greater influence in the South Caucasus, the AKP government appears to have made itself dependent on forces that it cannot control. Indeed, negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have gone on for a decade and a half without reaching concrete results. Even if recent months appear to have seen greater progress toward an agreement in principle on a process of resolution to the conflict, it is far too early to assume that such an agreement on principle is about to be signed. As earlier attempts have shown, there is much that could derail the process at the last minute.
By apparently indexing its hopes on that prospect, Ankara is taking a significant risk. Should presidents Sarkisian and Aliyev fail to reach an agreement on principle in coming weeks, the AKP will be forced either to renege on its commitment to normalize ties with Armenia, or to fulfill them but causing a breakdown in its relations with Azerbaijan – itself hardly consistent with a zero-problem policy with its neighbors. In either situation, Ankara loses – and the sole winner in geopolitical terms would be Moscow, which has long courted Azerbaijan and seems to feel that it is on the verge of ‘capturing’ Baku from the West, just as it ‘captured’ Uzbekistan in 2005. Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is considerably more stable, but may be reaching the limits of its balancing capacity.
Two conclusions can be drawn from Ankara’s delicate balancing. The first is the urgency for Western, in particular American, activity to support a possible agreement on principle between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In spite of much disillusionment in earlier negotiations, the alignment of stars appears of a different order now, more conducive to progress. And in that sense, Turkish activism could be the key ingredient to achieving success on both fronts. A second and unrelated conclusion is that the Turkish parliament’s role in this process should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is very doubtful if the AKP, despite its large majority in parliament, could get the votes for an opening of the Armenian border without progress on Nagorno Karabakh. Indeed, strong voiced within the party are in strong disagreement with the leadership. In this sense, the situation is reminiscent of the 2003 vote on the Iraq war. Back then, the party leadership allowed members to vote freely according to their conscience, thereby avoiding having to enforce party discipline on an unwilling parliamentary group – and giving itself an exit strategy. Once again, the Turkish parliament could fulfill much the same function should Davutoğlu’s gamble not pay off.
Svante E. Cornell is Research Director of the CACI&SRSP Joint Center and Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst. M.K. Kaya is a contributing editor.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. 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".