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Turkey and Armenia: Focusing on the possible, not hoping for the best
Turkey and Armenia: Focusing on the possible, not hoping for the best
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan

Turkey and Armenia: Focusing on the possible, not hoping for the best

Originally published in Today's Zaman

Last week's announcement that the Armenian parliament is suspending its consideration of the twin protocols signed by the Turkish and Armenian presidents in October 2009 is another blow to the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process.        
 
But it also may be an opportunity to focus on the possible, rather than hope for the best, in improving Turkish-Armenian relations.
The protocols aimed to establish diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia, recognize and open their mutual border and set up a joint historical commission. The last two steps cannot happen in the near future. So it is time for the leadership in Ankara and Yerevan to focus clearly on the first two. In the past 18 months high-level officials from both countries have met an extraordinary number of times. At a minimum, that relationship should now be formalized to benefit average citizens in need of basic consular services.

The Turkey-Armenia border was closed in 1993 when Armenian forces occupied districts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The hope last October was that an open border could gradually help encourage a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, buttressing the ongoing talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Growing contacts could lead to economic development and greater regional stability and a more balanced Turkish engagement in the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan, however, did not see it that way. In spring 2009, Baku's leadership began to appeal not only to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but also to the Turkish opposition to keep the border shut until its occupied territories were liberated. It threatened Turkey's preferential price for its Shah Deniz natural gas supplies and chances of greater volume to feed the planned Nabucco transit pipeline to Europe. In January of this year, for the first time, Azerbaijan provided significant amounts of gas to Russia. Popular mood against Turkey hardened in Baku, with official support and even puppets of Turkey's leaders being burned in some protests.

Turkish leaders decided that they could not ignore Azerbaijani pressure and with difficult negotiations going on concerning constitutional reform, they do not want to pick a fight over border opening with nationalists in the parliamentary opposition -- and within their own ruling party. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan made increasingly unambiguous statements that without progress on settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the border would not open, even though this was the strategy applied by Ankara since 1993 with little conflict resolution effect.

In the past several months Turkey did succeed in contributing to reinvigorating efforts to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group. Armenia and Azerbaijan are closer than ever to signing the agreement on basic principles that they have been considering since 2005. But they have not narrowed their differences on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. While there has been some movement on defining an “interim status” for the entity, Armenia insists that it should have the right to self determination including secession from Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan says that its territorial integrity cannot be violated.

The Armenian government also did little over the past several months to reaffirm its commitment to difficult aspects of the protocols. Rather it tried to distance itself from the establishment of a committee on the historical dimension “including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives.” For Armenians such a commission is generally perceived as a fundamental violation of their very national identity. They don't accept that “the genocide fact” can be discussed. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan made this most clear in an April interview to Der Spiegel criticizing the idea of a historical commission as “calling into question the fact of the genocide perpetrated against our people.”

Both the Armenian and Turkish leadership comes out of the past months weakened. Armenian President Sarksyan has been heavily criticized by his opposition for making too many concessions to the Turkish side, believing that the border could open despite Azerbaijan's firm opposition and losing a realistic chance in 2009 that US President Barack Obama would state that he recognized the mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians 1915 as genocide. The Armenian parliamentary decision is a victory for the more hard-line Armenian diaspora and a defeat of Armenian sovereign foreign policy making.

But with the freezing of the protocols, the Turkish leadership also lost a chance to stave off the international recognition of genocide, as few countries would move on recognition knowing that an inter-state body was looking into it. In the run-up to the centennial anniversary of the atrocities, international recognition of genocide is likely to gain pace.

The decade of confidence building that preceded the Turkey-Armenian protocol signing could now too be lost. Instead, the best step right now would be for Ankara and Yerevan to put aside the most difficult aspects of the protocols but move ahead with their less controversial parts. Despite current troubles, they could proceed with the establishment of diplomatic ties and recognition of their mutual border. These need no parliamentary approval, are purely about bilateral relations and are not linked to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey and Armenia have a mounting number of bilateral issues to address requiring simple consular services. There are up to 40,000 Armenian citizens living in Turkey, tens of thousands of Armenian tourists visit the Turkish Riviera every year and countless Turkish truck drivers and small businesses operate in Armenia. There are easy opportunities to develop many Turkey-Armenia activities even if the border remains closed. But currently none of these can get effective support from their home country.

To address such basic practical matters, Turkey and Armenia should recognize their borders and establish diplomatic relations. Even in the current difficult diplomatic climate, the leaders of Turkey and Armenia can and should take these initial steps to ensure that their people can build up a prosperous future side-by-side and eventually come to terms with their shared traumatic history.

Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan campaigning for his political alliance “My Step” in his hometown Ijevan, about 20 kilometres from frontline trenches along the border with Azerbaijan. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan

With his party’s victory in the snap parliamentary elections and a new calm on the frontlines with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s leader Nikol Pashinyan and his team will have more space to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

BERKABER, Armenia – One of the windows in Sonya Matinyan’s home is filled in with bricks. The glass of the other is splintered by a rifle bullet. The roof has taken a few missile hits and leaking water has stained the ceilings in the interior. But, unusually, the 57-year-old Armenian is staying home this winter.

That’s because things are changing for the better in Berkaber, on Armenia’s north-eastern border with Azerbaijan. No gunfire has sounded here in the region of Tavush for almost two months, a welcome change from clashes that in the past two winters drove inhabitants into fortified cellars or to distant relatives’ homes. The quiet marks a rare lull in an area that has suffered conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the two countries drove out each other’s Azeri and Armenian minorities and Armenians seized the nearby region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts from Azerbaijani control.

Map of Armenia CRISISGROUP
The poll was one of the freest and fairest in the recent country’s history, most observers said.

The recent improvement is in large part thanks to Nikol Pashinyan, a once marginal former journalist who in April led demonstrations that swept aside the old Armenian leadership. He confirmed his primacy on 9 December, when his My Step political alliance won snap parliamentary elections. The former ruling Republican party failed even to pass the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The poll was one of the freest and fairest in the recent country’s history, most observers said.

The longest truce in almost fifteen years is also holding because the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to communicate without intermediaries in September. In mid-November, defence officials of both countries met to finalise restoring direct lines of communication between military units located along Armenia’s southern border with Nakhchivan, an autonomous exclave of Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”

The 9 December election concludes a period of transition since Armenia’s “velvet revolution” in April. The new ruling alliance has a disparate membership. Its backbone is a handful of people who stood next to Pashinyan in his small and once unimportant opposition party, Civil Contract. This group has been joined by other leaders of the street protests that led to the resignation of former president and subsequent prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan. Some members of Pashinyan’s team know the complexities of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from years of work in civil society organisations and meetings with Azerbaijani experts. 

The new parliament’s first session will convene in the coming weeks to endorse Pashinyan as prime minister. With a strong parliamentary majority, Pashinyan and his team will face fewer barriers to initiating new legislation and reforms. The public expects swift improvements in how ruling elites govern, an end to corruption and more incentives for small businesses. People, particularly those directly affected, also want to see progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Official negotiations have been dormant for several years.

“Maybe he doesn’t have a magic wand to fix everything at once”, says 47-year-old Armen Markaryan two weeks before the election. He came to listen to Pashinyan at a pre-election meeting with voters in the town of Ijevan, the main town in Tavush and only about 20 kilometres from the military trenches at the border with Azerbaijan. “But he has to change something so that we can live better and without war”, Armen said.

A Complex Peace Process

Pashinyan’s team has been publicly cautious about its plans regarding Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. Throughout the election campaign, the former ruling Republican Party attacked the Pashinyan alliance as “traitors” preparing a “criminal conspiracy” with Baku. They based their attacks less on what Pashinyan has said than on the young age of many members of his ruling team and their lack of personal connections to Nagorno-Karabakh and the war in this region in the 1990s – in contrast to previous Armenian leaders. Pashinyan’s entourage reject the accusations of selling out.

Official negotiations have been dormant for several years. An April 2016 flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh killed at least 200 soldiers and civilians on both sides, after which divisions deepened as the parties started making maximalist demands. Azerbaijan calls for the immediate return of the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, which have been under Armenian control since the early 1990s. Armenia, on the other hand, insists that the first step should be for Baku to grant independence to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Snow covers the slopes of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, close to Armenian frontline trenches on the state border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local officials say clashes over the past four years have denied villagers access to about 80 per cent of their farmland. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

The new ruling team in Armenia recognises that there is no easy way out of this impasse. “Everyone understands that a ‘reset’ is needed”, one of the newly elected parliamentarians of Pashinyan’s political alliance said, suggesting that both sides need to take steps to escape the years-long deadlock in talks. “But in order to launch such a reset, we must first reach a consensus within the party and the government”.

In August, speaking at a rally to celebrate his first 100 days of his office, Pashinyan promised tens of thousands of people gathered in the centre of Yerevan to turn to them for support before any settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. The promise means that “Armenia will not make any sudden moves in the negotiation process any time soon”, said another newly elected parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s political alliance, suggesting that there will be no sudden change to its core demand on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.

Courting Azerbaijan

The new Armenian government will have to convince not only its own population, but also Azerbaijan, that a serious path to peace exists. For a number of years, the Azerbaijani government has called for substantial talks that will bring real change – by which it means the return of lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh seized by the Armenian side in the war with Azerbaijan in 1992-1994. Pashinyan would have to find a way to convince Baku that his government is ready to engage in good faith. Many on both sides doubt the other’s intentions and question whether a ceasefire can be maintained. The relative calm since September follows years of steadily increasing casualties along the frontlines and military build-ups in both countries.

There are signs of optimism on the Azerbaijani side too, however. Crisis Group’s interlocutors in Baku insist that Azerbaijan maintains the truce in the hope that the direct line of communication will pave the way for genuine negotiations with the new Armenian leadership. On 5 December, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers held their third meeting since Armenia’s April revolution. Talks between the leaders could follow.

While keeping the frontlines quiet is critical to achieving any ‘reset’ of peace talks, additional confidence-building measures would also help, including opening other lines of direct communication parallel to the military one. High-ranking Armenian officials told Crisis Group that establishing such links between humanitarian actors on both sides, for example, would be helpful. Representatives of Azerbaijan voiced similar ideas.

The new government in Armenia might also bring some fresh thinking on the conflict.

The two sides have already taken steps in this direction, using the military communication channel to discuss the possible release of an Armenian resident arrested in the country’s north-east state border area by Azerbaijani authorities since summer. On 5 December, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities stated that they were ready to consider releasing an Azerbaijani soldier detained in Stepanakert since the beginning of 2017. Such discussions should continue.

A More People-centred Approach

The new government in Armenia might also bring some fresh thinking on the conflict. According to one newly elected Armenian parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s party:  “We can change our approach. Instead of discussing only political demands, we could begin to focus more on people and their needs, from two sides”.

A high-ranking Armenian diplomat also told Crisis Group that he hopes that such a “people-oriented approach” would dominate the negotiation process. Opportunities to discuss concessions may arise, but “it is important to recognise that Nagorno-Karabakh is about the people, not just the conflict”.

The current ceasefire serves the interests of large numbers of people on both sides. 600,000 Azerbaijanis reside within fifteen kilometres of the Nagorno-Karabakh frontlines. Similarly, tens of thousands of people live near the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, including around 40,000 permanently residing close to military zones in Armenia’s Tavush region, where frontline trenches stretch for 230 kilometres through the mountains.

Men play backgammon in Chinari, an Armenian village at the foot of a mountain that separates Armenia and Azerbaijan. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

In places like Tavush, more communication could help the parties coordinate on demining civilian roads and farm plots close to the frontlines, even before issues at the core of the conflict are discussed. The same applies to Azerbaijani villages, including along the frontlines in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. The two sides could start by marking the minefields left over from the early 1990s war. They could then demine any land that has no strategic military value and hand it over to civilians.

New security guarantees would also allow frontline residents to return to work on agricultural plots close to military positions. In the past four years, skirmishes have forced farmers to abandon fields in at least six villages in Tavush, residents told Crisis Group. For many of them, agriculture is the only way to make ends meet.

“This year, for the first time, people began to go swimming in the reservoir”, said Berkaber resident Argam Arzumanyan. Before the war, his village was a favourite vacation spot for people from Armenia, Azerbaijan and even neighbouring Georgia. Now military fortifications start only 20m away from each side of the dam. The last time the villagers had the courage to go down to the water was back in 2004. This year, Argam says, “I looked at the people splashing around in the water and could not believe my eyes and asked myself: are we really starting to live without war again?”