In the past few weeks, the leaders of Turkey and Armenia exchanged public messages expressing interest in normalizing relations between the two countries. However, the statements were preliminary, vague, and did not indicate an ongoing political process or upcoming breakthrough. The prospects of Armenia-Turkey normalization have been raised periodically throughout the past 30 years, most notably in 2009 following the signing of the Zurich Protocols. Yet none of these attempts were successful. Does the current attempt stand a chance? What are the risks and benefits for each side? What are the possible roles of Russia, Azerbaijan, and other global and regional actors? Nigar Goksel and Philip Gamaghelyan discussed these and further questions in our latest webinar.

On the differences and similarities between current normalization attempts and the 2009 normalization process

– Philip Gamaghelyan

Over the past few weeks, we have all witnessed the exchange of messages between the leaders of Turkey and Armenia, signaling that another attempt toward normalization of relations between the two countries is in the works. Of course this is not the first attempt to normalize, and so far all previous attempts have failed. A question that comes to mind then, is how is the current context different from 2009? And does this attempt have more chances to succeed compared to those prior?

One change is obvious and most often discussed. In 2009, Turkey conditioned normalization with Armenia with progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) negotiations, which implicitly meant the withdrawal of Armenian forces from at least some of the regions surrounding NK. Unfortunately, we did not have any progress in negotiations. Instead, we had a war in 2020. After the recent war, this precondition is obsolete to a degree, as there is no Armenian military presence around NK. Considering that the initial public messages came from Ankara, presumably this precondition is no longer on the table.

But there are more subtle differences present as well. This time, communication was initiated by Turkey and Armenia, not by a third party as in past attempts. This suggests a genuine interest from the two sides.

The third difference is that all communications are now public. This is also a stark difference compared to past experiences in which all normalization attempts were preceded by long, closed-door, and classified negotiations. Although some may argue in favor of closed-door negotiations, all such attempts to date have failed, in part, because the public was not aware of the process. Thus a more open and transparent process might have a positive effect.

The flipside to this, and one of the reasons that everything is public, is that there is no direct contact between Yerevan and Ankara. This is unprecedented, as previously there has always been direct contact between the two. All former leaders of Armenia, LTP, Kocharyan, Sargsyan, met with their Turkish counterparts, and there was always mid-level contact as well. To my knowledge, currently there is no direct communication. The absence of the ability to check-in directly opens space in which the other’s messages may be misinterpreted. It also does not allow the parties to take this public conversation to the next level and move towards the establishment of diplomatic relations.

What are your thoughts about the differences between the current and past context?

– Nigar Goksel

For two reasons I thought that this time the process would be simpler. These reasons are still somewhat valid, but not as much as I had foreseen:

In 2009, Turkey expected a specific step from Armenia regarding the territories around NK – such as the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Karabakh’s adjacent regions. Since Azerbaijan took back these territories through war last year, and hearing Aliyev saying it could be useful for Armenia and Turkey to normalize relations, I initially thought this obstacle was lifted, that there were clear skies on this front.

The second reason concerns genocide recognitions. In 2009, I recollect, among many Armenians there was a suspicion that Turkey was pursuing normalization in order to stall genocide resolutions. For example, telling Washington that a U.S. presidential genocide recognition could disrupt positive momentum in the normalization of bilateral relations, or pointing to the prospective history commission as an alternative. So now, as the U.S. president has used the word genocide, I assumed that this suspicion regarding Turkish intentions would be gone.

So these were the two reasons I initially thought normalization would be simpler now. But I have come to understand that things are more complicated than this. Here are four reasons for this:

Azerbaijan and Turkey have become much closer in recent years, they have closed ranks. In 2009, Baku felt bypassed, they felt mistrust, and Russia was poised to take advantage of the souring of Turkey-Azerbaijan relations. So now there is a strong sense in Ankara to avoid a similar situation, meaning that they will not go behind Baku’s back or let any third party (be it Armenia, Russia, or Turkish domestic groups such as ultranationalists) drive a wedge between Ankara and Baku.

Second, domestic dynamics have changed – in ways that can be seen as favoring or disfavoring the normalization process. President Erdoğan has consolidated even more power since 2009. And the traditional or so-called ultra-nationalists are more empowered in the government and the state. From a positive outlook, this can be good if we consider that President Erdoğan expressed political will to normalize relations. And the nationalists will not try to score political points by trying to undermine the process. So we can look at it positively. But there are also other changes:

Foreign policy management has become more disjointed now, there can be differences between the security bureaucracy, foreign ministry, and various advisers to the president, there can be a disconnect between these. I see this discrepancy of positions in some other conflicts.

Another change is that the liberal civil society organizations that used to play a bridge-building role are weak, and other parts of the civil society are disengaged and/or uninformed about Turkey- Armenia issues. So it is hard to foresee who will be involved in the formation of public debate on the Turkish side.

Third, Turkey-Russia relations have changed, and Turkey-West and West-Russia relations have worsened. Turkey and Russia have dealt with each other in many other theatres. Russia has leverages that are existential to Turkey in other geographies such as Syria. So Turkey is going to be very sensitive about not instigating Russian pushback in the South Caucasus.

Fourth, a difference from 2009 is that Ankara does not seem to expect everything to happen at once, culminating in ceremony, but rather acknowledging now that steps build gradually, ensuring potential spoilers aren’t irritated. And I can understand how this may cause trust problems and exhaust patience.

The Benefits and Risks of Normalization

– Philip Gamaghelyan

The most often discussed benefits for Armenia in normalization include the economic benefits of opening roads to Turkey. Yet there is more to it than that. It is not only about opening roads with Turkey, but also roads to the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. Similarly for Turkey, this does not only mean an open border with Armenia, but also a road to Central Asia and other regions. So there is an economic rationale to it for both sides.

There is also a political benefit to Armenia. Opening the roads means reinvigorating relations with the West and East, it also means diversifying foreign policy and becoming more integrated in world structures.

There is also the intangible benefit of trust building. The two societies have been isolated from each other for nearly 100 years, following a violent history. The opening of air travel in the early 2000s significantly impacted the relations between the societies and helped challenge many stereotypes. The previously unknown, stereotypical enemy became a regular person. Yet air travel was limited to a small number of people. Opening a land border will foster day-to-day interactions which will help to build trust.

It is not an accident, however, that contexts conducive to normalization are not present constantly, they arise every ten-to-fifteen years or so. The first attempt to normalize began after Armenia gained independence in the early 1990s, yet it failed in 1993 during the First Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the 2000s, a closed-door process resulted in limited success, such as the opening of air travel, but stopped short of establishing diplomatic relations or opening the border. The 2009 attempt has already been discussed here. Twelve years later – we have this current one. The openings usually take place when there is a new incoming government in Armenia. This time is not an exception. Pashinyan won his second elections, following defeat in a war, which indicates popular mandate to normalize.

And yet previous attempts to normalize shared something in common. Apart from failing, the openings that allowed work towards normalization were all short-lived. Normalization is not a politically popular phenomenon. It is not perceived well and is a hard sell for any government. This window is likely to close for the Armenian leadership with the first crisis.

The crisis can be internal, such as economic, or it can be triggered externally, for example by harsh rhetoric coming from Ankara. The initial, and now recent, messages from Turkey have been shifting. Initial messages were more positive while, to me, the recent ones seem harsher and appear to imply more preconditions. At least they are presented as such in Armenian media. So the messages can be misinterpreted.

This leads me to the next question: what is it that they are trying to say publicly?

The Armenian side espouses normalization with Turkey “without preconditions.” This is the same message that has been reiterated throughout time by previous Armenian leaders, so there is continuity in language. The “absence of preconditions” is, of course, in itself a condition and means a couple of things. From the Armenian side, it means that Armenia does not condition the normalization by recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey. This is a big deal for both the Armenian public and the Diaspora and an important step that successive governments have taken. On the flipside, Armenia’s expectation from the Turkish side is that it will not tie normalization to the Armenian-Azerbaijani process, which is on much harder track, and where the enmity proceeds without a visible prospect of a solution.

– Nigar Goksel

One key message that seems to be lost is that Ankara emphasized that it respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Armenia and is not a threat to it. Turkey also seems intent to advocate for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity at the same time that it seeks to normalize relations with Armenia. It also expects its own territorial integrity to be acknowledged. I don’t think this is put forth as a precondition, but rather a message that normalization can’t drive a wedge between Turkey and Azerbaijan. And I don’t think this message is necessarily only directed towards Yerevan. These messages are also directed to Baku, Moscow, and domestically to nationalists. I may be reading into the wording too much, but I think there is an intentional crafting of the messages meant to:

–        Not whet the appetite of Russians who in 2009 saw an opportunity to capitalize on Turkey-Azerbaijan relations souring.

–        Nor play into the hands of domestic groups who saw the problems with Azerbaijan as an opportunity to weaken Erdoğan.

The 2009 attempt – in which Azerbaijan mobilized Turkish nationalists to advocate against the Armenia normalization policy of Turkish leadership, and Russia resolved to take advantage of the situation by driving wedge between Turkey and Azerbaijan – left scars not only for Armenia but also Turkey. So the message from Ankara is, “we want normalization with Armenia, but no one can or should see this as an opportunity to weaken Turkey in the region, or weaken the Turkish government domestically”

Adding to this, Ankara tries to put forth a positive prospect of regional integration. “Let’s focus on regional integration, because it is in the interests of Armenia and Turkey, and it is sellable to all others”.

I think Ankara’s position may be based on the understanding that this process will collapse if either Baku or Moscow decide it is hurting their interests, and turn it into a domestic or regional turf struggle for Ankara.

Not only the appeasement of other actors, but different reasons also converge which could explain why the transport and communication focus was chosen. Ankara would want the West to be on board too. Even if in the immediate term they seem excluded from the regional schemes, there are longer term benefits to them embracing integration in this region.

Just like Ankara needs to see the scars that Armenia carries from the 2009 normalization attempt, there are also scars for Ankara that influence the crafting of their current messaging.

– Philip Gamaghelyan

To summarize what we discussed so far:

–        The 2009 scars are serious for both sides. A lot of political capital was invested into this and it was a grand public failure. The conditions and red lines of the sides should be more explicit now.

–        The second point is that the interests of third parties need to be considered moving forward, but only to the degree when bilateral relations are at stake.

–        To do all of that, I would think in the current state there is a need for direct contact, as it won’t otherwise be possible to move forward from what is now only a rhetorical exercise.

– Nigar Goksel

Turkey has extreme disagreements with Greece about history and about Cyprus, but it doesn’t mean they cut off diplomatic ties. You can have direct contact, and you can argue your differences or work on regional cooperation. Having diplomatic relations does not mean there is agreement on every issue, or even most issues.

The sides should also be aware of what can trigger certain segments of society in both countries. Turkish constituencies can be triggered by Armenians joining anti-Turkey campaigns, Genocide recognition demands, land claims, etc. On the other hand, the Armenian side can be triggered by the rhetoric surrounding the Karabakh issue. We need to brace for certain voices to be focused on such issues, they will most likely continue and be unpleasant for either side, but this should not derail diplomatic efforts which are based on mutual interests.

Further, Russia has the upper hand in the region now and has leverage on Turkey and Armenia. Given that the West doesn’t have the political will to counterbalance Russia, there is an expectation in Ankara that for normalization to proceed Russia would have to play a supporting role.

Regarding the possibility to normalize relations without Genocide recognition

– Philip Gamaghelyan

We have a question from the audience regarding whether Armenia should even consider normalization in the absence of Genocide recognition by Turkey and when Turkey remains a threat.

I will agree with the person asking the question in that Turkey has been hostile to Armenia and is a real and not an imaginary threat. The question is then what is better in this situation: closed borders and the absence of communication, or diplomatic relations and direct contacts. For me, and perhaps because I come from a conflict resolution background, the answer is clearly the second. The enmity should not preclude the establishment of diplomatic relations. To the contrary, the sides absolutely need direct contact when there is enmity. Throughout history, nations had wars but also had direct relations to sort out day-by-day problems, and so help their populations. Moreover, direct contact allows sides to eventually negotiate agreements. In the 90s, despite the war, there was direct contact between Azerbaijan and Armenia. I see a big benefit in direct contact and no benefit to its absence, when third parties can take advantage of the situation.

In the bigger picture direct contact and economic interactions make confrontations less likely. Being in one alliance mitigated the Turkey-Greece conflict in recent years from becoming militarized.

– Nigar Goksel

Not knowing each other at all is the force behind this fear of each other. Having relations is the only way to deal with different perceptions. I think it’s all three encapsulated in one, the Turkish messaging is aimed to say: Azerbaijan, don’t worry we respect your territorial integrity; Armenia, don’t worry we respect your territorial integrity, and we expect the same about our territorial integrity. I think all three were equally important.

– Philip Gamaghelyan

We have another question, this time about political polarization in Armenia and its impact on the normalization. The polarization, which is rather new and unprecedented, won’t make the process easy. Public pressure to not compromise with Turkey on anything is still there. Where I see an opening is that Pashinyan won the recent election overtly, implicitly campaigning on normalization. Consequently, he has the short-term public support and legitimacy to go for it. But it is not a blank check to normalize at any cost. The normalization should proceed on conditions that are beneficial or at least acceptable for the Armenian people. Understanding what the actual preconditions are is extremely important in deciding whether the Armenian government is able to proceed. If some red lines are crossed, the process becomes dangerous for a government internally, but also can worsen the security rather than help it.

In Regards to Russia

– Philip Gamaghelyan

We have a new question on the role of Russia in the process: the foreign minister Lavrov recently came out publicly in support of the normalization, and highlighted the important role Russia played in advancing the 2009 attempt as well. So far what’s visible is Russia’s public messaging in support of the process.

– Nigar Goksel

There is recognition in Ankara that nothing is going to proceed against Russia’s will. If Russia needs to have a sense of control and ownership, then it has to be so.

– Philip Gamaghelyan

To conclude, direct contact between two sides is important if the process is to move to the next stage. At the same time, regional dynamics, as well as bilateral Turkey-Russia, Turkey-Azerbaijan, Armenia-Russia, and other relevant dynamics, need to be considered and analyzed. Unfortunately, the chance for failure currently is bigger than the chance of success.

Nigar, I invite you to join us in a few months, perhaps with colleagues also from Russia and Azerbaijan, to continue this conversation.