Turkey-Armenia Relations: All Eyes Now on Ankara
Turkey-Armenia Relations: All Eyes Now on Ankara
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Turkey-Armenia Relations: All Eyes Now on Ankara

On 12 January, the Constitutional Court of Armenia recognised the Turkey-Armenia protocols to establish diplomatic relations and develop bilateral relations to be in conformity with Armenian legislation. To make the protocols law, both Turkey and Armenia need to put them to a vote in their respective Parliaments.

All eyes are now on Turkey, where the protocols are currently being reviewed in the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, but there is little sign that they will leave those chambers. While the Armenian leadership is now one step closer to Parliamentary approval, Turkey’s leadership still needs to decide if it is really committed to the implementation of the protocols and Turkey-Armenia reconciliation.

Doubts have been steadily growing about Ankara’s willingness to abide by the commitments it made in August and October to establish diplomatic relations, open its long-closed border and establish bilateral commissions, including one on the historical dimension. According to Turkey, this is because Armenia has not made sufficient concessions to resolve the long standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.

Yet the linkage between Turkey-Armenia reconciliation and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution is not part of the protocols. It is not in the official texts, even though since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Baku in May, the Turkish leadership has publicly reverted to its traditional position, demanding Armenia withdrawal from some of the 13% of Azerbaijan territory it occupies before opening of the Turkey-Armenia border. This insistence has grown, as Azerbaijan has threatened to downgrade its relationship with Turkey if the border is opened before the Karabakh conflict is resolved. Azerbaijan already turned to Russia to sign a deal which will supply it with natural gas starting this month, while Azeri cheap gas is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Turkish treasury and is needed if the EU-supported Nabucco pipeline is ever to be built.

On the other hand, Turkey genuinely hoped that by moving forward with the protocols, it could encourage the United States, European Union and Russia to increase their efforts to resolve the long standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan within the context of ongoing talks mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In 2009 there were indeed more higher level meetings on Karabakh than ever before, but it is highly unlikely that Turkey can take the credit. Whether Ankara can have any influence on Baku, to encourage it to accept an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh that could eventually lead to full self-determination and independence, is also unlikely. But Erdoğan is most likely going to call for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in mediation during his current visit to Moscow. The Turkish government considers that it is now Russia’s turn to pressure Armenia into compromises and the start of a withdrawal of occupied territories.

Higher level Russian involvement is positive. But.even if Moscow does encourage Yerevan to make more compromises, such as it may when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visits Armenia this week, this is unlikely to be enough to secure agreement on the comprehensive Document on Basic Principles being promoted for years by the OSCE. In November 2008, when Russia put pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign an agreement, with the direct personal involvement of President Dmitry Medvedev, the best they could muster was the four point Moscow Declaration. This document, which committed the two sides to seek a political settlement and non-use of force, has actually done nothing to improve the situation on the ground, and cease fire violations have continued to increase.

Turkish officials also put much hope in facilitating conflict resolution through their own Caucasus Cooperation and Stability Platform, whose first high level meeting is expected in the next couple of months. But at this point it is unclear why a new international forum will succeed where the OSCE has failed for the past fifteen years. Ultimately, for there to be a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan, together with their respective societies, who need to accept a compromise which is difficult but highly beneficial to both.

Finally Turkish officials also claim that public opinion in the country is demanding Armenian withdrawal before border opening. This, in a country where the public is riveted by internal political crises, where one poll showed more than two-thirds of the population supported President Abdullah Gül’s initial visit to Yerevan, and the government is making progress on much more controversial domestic reforms, is a dubious justification for inaction and lack of leadership on the question. With 337 of the 550 seats in Parliament, the governing AKP can almost guarantee protocols passage.

So can the ruling party in Armenia. If President Serge Sarkissian plays his cards right – and there are anti-Turkish forces in Armenia that could derail the process there too – he will ensure that his Parliament passes the protocols several weeks before 24 April, commemorated as Armenian genocide day by many around the world. Even without any  concessions to the outside world on Nagorno-Karabakh, it will look as though Armenia honoured its side of the deal, while Turkey did not.

By insisting on linking Turkey-Armenia reconciliation and the resolution of the Azerbaijani-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ankara is doing little to make progress on either fronts. Luckily it is not too late to act and Turkey still has several weeks until mid-April to catch up with Armenia in putting the protocols into law.  But failure to do so will unravel the decade-long process of Turkey-Armenia reconciliation, essential for future stability in the South Caucasus, and tarnish Turkey’s image as a serious regional foreign policy actor – just at a the time when it is trying to develop its “peace and stability” efforts throughout its neighbourhood.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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