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Turkey and Armenia Vow to Heal Past Wounds
Turkey and Armenia Vow to Heal Past Wounds

Turkey and Armenia Vow to Heal Past Wounds

It’s been a long time coming, but Turkey and Armenia’s vow on 31 August to establish diplomatic relations, open their long-closed border and begin to talk seriously about the past is excellent news. As laid out in our report Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds, Opening Borders, normalisation between Turkey and Armenia will benefit not just the bilateral relationship. If successful, it could win back for Turkey and its AKP government much of their recently faded prestige as domestic reformers, as regional peace-makers and as a country seriously intending to push forward with its accession process to the European Union.

The brief joint announcement from Ankara, Yerevan and the Swiss mediators in Bern said that two protocols had been initialled on the establishment of diplomatic relations and the development of bilateral relations. The two sides committed to seeing the protocols through to parliamentary ratifications within six weeks — that is, two days before a 14 October World Cup qualifier match between Armenia and Turkey due to be played in the western Turkish provincial city of Bursa. Turkey hopes that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian will accept its invitation to attend, just as Turkish President Abdullah Gül initiated the current process by attending the first round match in Yerevan in September 2008.

Texts of the two protocols circulating in Turkey and Armenia set out a fully rounded and reasonable plan. In a “Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” the two sides promised to establish diplomatic relations on the first day of the first month after ratification; to exchange diplomatic missions; to reopen the border within two months of ratification; and to mutually recognize the existing border. In a “Protocol on Development of Relations” — to go into effect simultaneously with the diplomatic opening — the two sides promised to promote cooperation in all areas from energy infrastructure to tourism; to set up a mechanism of regular foreign ministry consultations, including a main intergovernmental commission and seven sub-commissions; to act jointly to preserve the cultural heritage of both sides; and to establish consular cooperation. The protocols are accompanied by a detailed timetable, in which all steps and commissions would be fully implemented and in motion within four months.

On the vexed question of how to describe the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians in the First World War – widely known as the Armenian genocide, a label rejected by Turkey – the “Protocol on Development of Relations” agreed to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension 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.” The timetable adds that this dialogue will be conducted under the aegis of the main intergovernmental commission in a “sub-commission on the historical dimension … in which Armenian, Turkish as well as Swiss and other international experts shall take part.”

In short, Turkey and Armenia have taken a brave and statesmanlike step. Both will win if it succeeds. Armenia will overcome the sense that it is surrounded and under siege, will open a new commercial and psychological gateway westward to Europe, will be able to look better after the interests of the many tens of thousands of Armenians working in Turkey, will be able to market its electricity surplus and have easier access to the many Armenian cultural and religious sites in eastern Turkey. For Turkey, the gains are just as significant: the ability to show European and Western partners that it is working toward closure with Armenians on the contested matter of the First World War massacres; to add a new plank in its efforts to bring stability, prosperity and cooperation through relations with all three of its Caucasus neighbours; and, finally, to achieve the satisfaction of full and public Armenian recognition of its borders.

The 31 August step towards normalisation was originally expected in April, but Turkey backed away from the deal. All that could be announced on 22 April 2009 was a vague road map. This hesitation was apparently due to pressure from Azerbaijan — a major supplier of cheap gas to Turkey, and with which Turkey shares close linguistic ties — and continued nationalist opposition to compromise with Armenia inside the Turkish political system. This coincided with a period in Turkey in which reforms towards EU accession had virtually halted; in which Prime Minister Erdoğan appeared disengaged with EU ambitions and to be pursuing alternatives in Russia and the Middle East; and in which Turkey appeared to be taking sides in Middle Eastern issues, with notably harsh criticism of Israel. Turkey also appeared to side fully with Azerbaijan against Armenia, and it remains unclear what will happen to Erdoğan’s 14 May promise to the Azerbaijani National Assembly that there would be no opening of the Armenia-Turkey border until there is an Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territory.

The news that normalisation with Armenia is back on track, therefore, is a signal that Turkey may be changing direction again. In the past few months, Turkey and the AKP leadership have also begun to push hard for progress on two other difficult dossiers, coming to terms with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and firmly setting out a framework of reconciliation with its own substantial Kurdish community. Progress towards Turkey-Armenia normalisation has also been helped by the unusual way that the US and Russia appear to have been working separately toward a similar compromise outcome, and pushing more actively for progress toward a settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.

The fact that Turkey is now leaning back towards a reconciliation with Armenia will do much to clear doubts about the country’s posture and the priorities of Prime Minister Erdoğan. It will also do proper credit to the polls that showed 70 per cent of the Turkish population supported President Gül’s gesture of visiting Armenia for last September’s first round football match, and the great strides Turkey’s intellectual and political elites have taken in the past decade to dismiss the old-fashioned narrative of nationalist denial towards the catastrophic Armenian massacres of 1915. Normalisation with Armenia will also give real substance to new Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s stated goals of “zero problems” and “peace in the neighbourhood”.

However, while reconciliation with Armenia will rightly attract great positive attention in Europe, the next test will not be long in coming. Turkey has to find a way to expedite a solution to the long-running Cyprus solution in the next several months, or see its EU accession process effectively grind to a halt.