Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders
Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Report 199 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders

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.

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Executive Summary

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.

Istanbul/Yerevan/Baku/Brussels, 14 April 2009

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

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