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Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders
Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
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

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Senior Analyst, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

Contributors

Director of Communications & Outreach
Hugh_Pope
Senior Analyst, Turkey
nigargoksel