Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkish-Armenian Relations: Which Should be Solved First?


Before the June 2011 parliamentary elections in Turkey there was some hope that Turkish-Armenian relations might improve in the short-term. It seemed that after the elections Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party would not be under the threat of instantly losing the support of voters due to opposition criticism, so its leadership could ratify the protocols signed in 2009. Such a move, followed by opening the Turkish-Armenian border, would have changed the regional situation radically, opening the way for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and regional cooperation in the South Caucasus.

The Turkish opposition and Azerbaijan’s government, which have been opposing the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, do not believe that Armenia may become more willing to make concessions if the Turkish-Armenian border is opened. Such thinking does not take into account that Armenia’s excessive dependence on Russia is the main issue requiring a solution. The possibility of transportation across Turkish territory would have reduced Armenia’s dependence on Russia. Furthermore, an opened border would have relieved the economic hardship that Armenia’s population is experiencing; thus, mutual trust would have been promoted. An improved economic situation resulting in reduced internal political tension in Armenia, together with an opportunity to maneuver more independently from Russia, could have stimulated President Serzh Sargsyan and the ruling coalition to be more flexible on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Such a scenario seems quite realistic, as strong internal opposition questioning Sargsyan’s legitimacy already persuaded him to seek international support and financial assistance. In 2008-2009, during the period of rapprochement with Turkey, Sargsyan enjoyed the image of a politician trying to overcome a decades-long enmity. Quite significantly, although ratification of the protocols by Armenia’s National Assembly was suspended in 2010, Sargsyan has not withdrawn his signature despite the opposition urging him to do so.

At the same time, it would be very naïve to consider Sargsyan a politician with truly progressive views. His approach is rather opportunistic; the readiness to make some concessions showed previously was aimed mainly at getting international support. As there has been no progress in relations with Turkey (instead, failed negotiations in Kazan, new militaristic threats made by Azerbaijani officials, and Erdogan’s harsh reaction to Sargsyan’s remark made at an Armenian youth camp have only made the situation worse), while the opposition continues demanding early elections, Sargsyan will be motivated to use more hardcore nationalist rhetoric. The 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence in September seems a convenient starting point for that. It should also be remembered that sensitive issues such as Turkish-Armenian relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are unlikely to progress in pre-election periods. Campaigning for the May 2012 parliamentary elections will begin in a few weeks, which will be followed by the presidential campaign for the February 2013 elections. Political expediency will also induce both government and opposition to use sentiments in competition for a more “patriotic” image while moving towards 2015 – the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Unfortunately, in the near future the global economic crisis may remain the strongest preventive factor in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It prompts the US and EU to keep Azerbaijan under pressure, in order not to permit large-scale fighting that would be followed by a sharp rise in the price of oil. But in order to break the status quo and reach an agreement, one of the sides has to make the first concession, and Armenia may not be persuaded to do so, as Russia counterbalances any international pressure. As I noted before, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may not be solved by negotiations as long as the mediators have their different stakes in the issue. That is why the recent developments have been so depressing, with diminishing chances to move towards normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.

I foresee the counterargument that Turkey is not a side of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, Turkey openly declared its support for Azerbaijan and mentioned the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution as a precondition for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, connecting two issues. Therefore, a concession and progress on one of the issues would help solve the other, and vice versa. Armenia will not have to make concessions, as long as Russia agrees with that. For Azerbaijan, making a concession first is too difficult, as control over parts of its territory is at stake. Turkey faces the least obstacles for taking the first step and, again, a move strengthening Armenia’s safety and reducing dependence on Russia could change Armenia’s attitude.

However, as hopes for opening the Turkish-Armenian border and other possibilities of reducing tension in the region seem too idealistic now, keeping the status quo may be the lesser evil. The possibility of renewed fighting aside, repeated threats to use force and the armaments race are enough to provoke the realization that the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and regional cooperation in the South Caucasus may be impossible. As the well-informed Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer recently told RFE/RL, “If Russia has to station its peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone, that will be good for Russia – [it] has wanted that since 1994.”

Overcoming the traditional way of thinking is necessary for changing the status quo in the Armenian-Azerbaijani-Turkish triangle. In the foreseeable future, Turkey will remain the only party involved capable of making a decisive move, as it is the most democratic, most developed, and least dependent on foreign powers. The next few months will show whether there is still room for hope, or if closed borders and dividing lines may remain in the region, perhaps for decades.

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