Armenia and Turkey: Opening Minds, Opening Borders
Armenia and Turkey: Opening Minds, Opening Borders
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Armenia and Turkey: Opening Minds, Opening Borders

President Barack Obama trod a fine moral line this month between his past campaign promises to use the word "genocide" to describe the World War I massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and his present opportunity to nurture normalization between Armenia and Turkey. But his compromise was no capitulation to the realpolitik of US-Turkish strategic interests, as some Armenians may suspect and some Turks may hope. It is actually a challenge to both parties to move beyond the stalemates of history.  
The opportunity could hardly be better. After a decade of civil society outreach and growing official engagement, Armenia and Turkey jointly announced on Wednesday a Swiss-mediated deal to establish diplomatic relations and open borders. The two sides will also set up a bilateral commission to study what Armenians commemorate each April 24 as the beginning of a genocide against their people by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, and what Turkey says were forced relocations, uprisings and massacres during the chaos of World War I.

Before implementing the deal, however, Turkey is now seeking an Armenian commitment to withdraw from territory in Azerbaijan that ethnic Armenian forces occupied in the 1992-94 Nagorno-Karabakh war. But Ankara would be ill-advised to hold up rapprochement with Yerevan because of protests from its ally, Azerbaijan. In fact, normalizing relations with Armenia is the best way for Turkey to help its ethnic and linguistic Azerbaijani cousins. It would make Armenia feel more secure, making it perhaps also more open to a compromise over Nagorno-Karabakh. The border closure these past 16 years has done nothing to force a settlement over the contested region. The fragility of the 1994 cease-fire truce makes a new way forward imperative. Armenian normalization with Turkey will not be sustainable in the long run, though, unless Yerevan and Baku agree to the ongoing international Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, leading to Armenian troop withdrawals.

It is this complex situation that explains Mr. Obama's diplomatic language. In this year's April 24 memorial statement, the US president chose not to use the word "genocide" to describe the events of 1915, preferring the Armenian term "Mets Yeghern," meaning "Great Man-made Catastrophe." The Turks resent the term genocide partly because they want their view of the events to be taken into account and partly because the term genocide has potential legal implications involving possible demands for reparations and compensation. The Swiss-brokered deal will include an Armenian recognition of Turkey's borders, banishing the shadow of long-lingering territorial claims.

Armenians have a point when they argue that the past decade of international resolutions and statements recognizing the Armenian genocide have forced Turkey to end its blanket denial of Ottoman wrongdoing. But such outside pressures have got no closer to making Turkey accept the term genocide itself, especially when the bills before Congress and other parliaments are clearly the result of domestic political calculations rather than high-minded deliberation. On the Armenian question, many Turks, including government officials now publicly express regret over the loss of Armenian life. After more than eight decades of silence, when any open discussion of what happened in 1915 was considered taboo, the Turkish public is digesting an onrush of new facts and opinions about those past events.

The past decade has seen much convergence between Turks and Armenians in understanding the history of 1915 as academic exchanges have grown and information become widely available. A 2005 conference on the Armenian issue by the front ranks of the Turkish intelligentsia demonstrated that the country's academic and cultural elite wants to do away with the old nationalist defensiveness. In the east of Turkey, efforts have begun to preserve the surviving Armenian heritage. Far from worsening Turkish-Armenian relations, the murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 by a shadowy nationalist gang triggered a march of 100,000 people in ?stanbul carrying signs saying "We Are All Armenians."

Opinion polls show two-thirds of Turks supported President Abdullah Gül's decision in September to accept his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarksyan's invitation for a World Cup qualifier soccer match and to become the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia. Then in December, 200 leading Turkish intellectuals began a signature campaign to apologize for what they called the "Great Catastrophe" of the Armenians. Nearly 30,000 people have signed it so far.

Overall, Turkey's efforts with Armenia also fit into decade-long efforts to improve ties with other neighboring countries. Ankara has successfully normalized its once tense relations with Syria, Greece and Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara also tried its best to bring about a reconciliation between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

New trends are visible in Armenia, too. As pride and security in the new Armenian statehood grows, genocide recognition no longer overrides all other national interests. Issues such as the need for more economic opportunities, a broader-based regional strategy and an open Turkish border that can be a direct gateway to the West are taking center stage. Armenians increasingly spend their vacation in Turkish resorts.

Change is also evident in the diaspora, which outnumbers the population in Armenia and has a strong influence on Yerevan. The Armenian community in France led an international campaign, joined by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and more than 100 public intellectuals, to say "Thank You" for the Turkish apology efforts. Armenian-French intellectuals are increasingly seeking to reconnect with their heritage by cultivating their links to Turkey and Turks and visiting Istanbul.

As President Obama has recognized, it is this trend of convergence that offers the best chance in decades to open the borders between these two states, moving beyond nearly a century in which Turks and Armenians have been held hostage to frozen conflicts, nationalist confrontation and the ghosts of the past.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.