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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe and Central Asia > Turkey-Cyprus > Turkey > Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders

Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders

Europe Report N°199 4 May 2009

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Turkey and Armenia are close to settling a dispute that has long roiled Caucasus politics, isolated Armenia and cast a shadow over Turkey’s European Union (EU) ambition. For a decade and a half, relations have been poisoned by disagreement about issues including how to address a common past and compensate for crimes, territorial disputes, distrust bred in Soviet times and Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani land. But recently, progressively intense official engagement, civil society interaction and public opinion change have transformed the relationship, bringing both sides to the brink of an historic agreement to open borders, establish diplomatic ties and begin joint work on reconciliation. They should seize this opportunity to normalise. The politicised debate whether to recognise as genocide the destruction of much of the Ottoman Armenian population and the stalemated Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh should not halt momentum. The U.S., EU, Russia and others should maintain support for reconciliation and avoid harming it with statements about history at a critical and promising time.

Turks’ and Armenians’ once uncompromising, bipolar views of history are significantly converging, showing that the deep traumas can be healed. Most importantly, the advance in bilateral relations demonstrates that a desire for reconciliation can overcome old enmities and closed borders. Given the heritage and culture shared by Armenians and Turks, there is every reason to hope that normalisation of relations between the two countries can be achieved and sustained.

Internal divisions persist on both sides. Armenia does not make normalisation conditional on Turkey’s formal recognition as genocide of the 1915 forced relocation and massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. But it must take into account the views of Armenians scattered throughout the global diaspora, which is twice as large as the population of Armenia itself and has long had hardline representatives. New trends in that diaspora, however, have softened and to some degree removed demands that Turkey surrender territory in its north east, where Armenians were a substantial minority before 1915.

Over the past decade, Turkey has moved far from its former blanket denial of any Ottoman wrongdoing. Important parts of the ruling AK Party, bureaucracy, business communities on the Armenian border and liberal elite in western cities support normalisation with Armenia and some expression of contritition. Traditional hardliners, including Turkic nationalists and part of the security services, oppose compromise, especially as international genocide recognition continues and in the absence of Armenian troop withdrawals from substantial areas they occupy of Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan. These divisions surfaced in events surrounding the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007. That the new tendencies are gaining ground, however, was shown by the extraordinary outpouring of solidarity with Armenians during the Dink funeral in Istanbul and a campaign by Turkish intellectuals to apologise to Armenians for the “Great Catastrophe” of 1915.

The unresolved Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh still risks undermining full adoption and implementation of the potential package deal between Turkey and Armenia on recognition, borders and establishment of bilateral commissions to deal with multiple issues, including the historical dimension of their relations. Azerbaijan has strong links to Turkey based on energy cooperation and the Turkic countries’ shared linguistic and cultural origins. Ethnic Armenian forces’ rapid advance into Azerbaijan in 1993 scuttled plans to open diplomatic ties and caused Turkey to close the railway line that was then the only transport link between the two countries. For years, Turkey conditioned any improvement in bilateral relations on Armenian troop withdrawals. Baku threatens that if this condition is lifted, it will restrict Turkey’s participation in the expansion of Azerbaijani energy exports. While Azerbaijani attitudes remain a constraint, significant elements in Turkey agree it is time for a new approach. Bilateral détente with Armenia ultimately could help Baku recover territory better than the current stalemate.

Outside powers have important interests and roles. The U.S. has long fostered Armenia-Turkey reconciliation, seeking thereby to consolidate the independence of all three former Soviet republics in the south Caucasus and to support east-west transit corridors and energy pipelines from the Caspian Sea. Washington was notable in its backing of efforts that kick-started civil society dialogue between Turkey and Armenia. The Obama administration is working hard at repairing the damage done to U.S. relations with Turkey by the war in Iraq. Although Obama repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to formally recognise the 1915 forced relocation and massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide, he should continue to steer the prudent middle course he has adopted as president. The U.S. Congress, which has a draft resolution before it, should do the same. At this sensitive moment of Turkish-Armenian convergence, statements that focus on the genocide term, either to deny or recognise it, would either enrage Armenians or unleash a nationalist Turkish reaction that would damage U.S.-Turkish ties and set back Turkey-Armenia reconciliation for years.

U.S. support for Turkey-Armenia reconciliation appears to be mirrored in Moscow. Russian companies have acquired many of Armenia’s railways, pipelines and energy utilities and seek to develop them; Russian-Turkish relations are good; and Moscow is looking for ways to mitigate the regional strains produced by its war with Georgia in August 2008. If sustained, the coincidence of U.S.-Russian interests would offer a hopeful sign for greater security and prosperity in the South Caucasus after years of division and conflict. All sides – chiefly Armenia and Turkey but potentially Azerbaijan as well – will gain in economic strength and national security if borders are opened and trade normalised.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Government of Turkey:

1.  Agree, ratify and implement a normalisation package including the opening of borders, establishment of diplomatic relations and bilateral commissions; continue to prepare public opinion for reconciliation; cultivate a pro-settlement constituency among Armenians; and avoid threatening or penalising Armenia for outside factors like resolutions or statements in third countries recognising a genocide.

2.  Avoid sacrificing implementation of the normalisation package to demands for immediate resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied territories in Azerbaijan; and seek opportunities to show Baku that by easing Yerevan’s fears of encirclement, normalised Turkey-Armenia relations may ultimately speed up such an Armenian withdrawal.

3.  Make goodwill towards Armenia clear through gestures such as joint work on preserving the ancient ruins of Ani, stating explicitly that Turkey will recognise and protect Armenian historical and religious heritage throughout the country.

4.  Encourage universities and institutes to pursue broader research on matters pertaining to the events of 1915, preferably with the engagement of Armenian and third-party scholars; modernise history books and remove all prejudice from them; and increase funding for cataloguing and management of the Ottoman-era archives.

To the Government of Armenia:

5.  Agree, ratify, and implement a normalisation package including the opening of borders, establishment of diplomatic relations and bilateral commissions; continue to prepare public opinion for reconciliation; and avoid statements or international actions relating to genocide recognition that could inflame Turkish public opinion against the current process.

6.  Agree together with Azerbaijan to the OSCE Minsk Group basic principles on a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement; then start withdrawals from Armenian-occupied territories in Azerbaijan; and pursue peace with Azerbaijan in full consciousness that only in this way can normalisation with Turkey be consolidated.

7.  Make clear that Armenia has no territorial claim on Turkey by explicitly recognising its territorial integrity within the borders laid out in the 1921 Treaty of Kars.

8.  Encourage universities and institutes to pursue more research on matters relating to the events of 1915, preferably with the engagement of Turkish and third-party scholars; modernise history books and remove all prejudice from them; and organise the cataloguing of known Armenian archives pertaining to the events in and around 1915 wherever they may be located.

To the United States, Russia and the European Union and its Member States:

9.  Avoid legislation, statements and actions that might inflame public opinion on either side and so could upset the momentum towards Turkey-Armenia normalisation and reconciliation.

10.  Raise the seniority and intensify the engagement of the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group until Armenia and Azerbaijan reach final agreement on Minsk Group basic principles for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

11.  Back up Turkey-Armenia reconciliation with projects to encourage region-wide interaction, heritage preservation and confidence building; and support as requested any new bilateral historical commission or sub-commission, development of archive management and independent Turkish- or Armenian-led scholarly endeavours to research into aspects of the 1915 events.

Istanbul/Yerevan/Baku/Brussels, 14 April 2009

 
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