Turkey’s Nagorno-Karabakh Conundrum


Instead of an introduction

Turks involved in Turkish-Armenian dialogue initiatives often face indiscriminate criticism from a range of Turkish and Azerbaijani peers and acquaintances. The arguments usually are based on a form of reciprocity: “My great-grandmother was orphaned in Van by revolutionary Armenians; this side of the picture needs to be part of the debate,” “You should instead be talking about the recent ethnic cleansing of Azeris,” or “There is less freedom of speech in Armenia.”

My argument is that this is not about reciprocity. Turks coming to terms with the atrocities committed against innocent Armenians in the late years of the Ottoman Empire is an end in itself.  Turkey should provide utmost freedom of expression to those who want to explore this history, whether or not Armenia provides such freedom to its own citizens. Turkey should respect and restore the cultural heritage of the Armenian communities in Anatolia whether or not the Armenians do the same for Azeri or Turkish heritage. If it annoys Turkish nationals that Armenians speak more about Turkey’s democracy deficits than their own, then they should give them less to talk about by focusing on overcoming the deficits. Turkey’s benchmarks should be European standards, to be able to lift itself and its neighbors out of the grip of the past.


But in trying to maintain this outlook, I have been demotivated by the reaction of Armenian participants in Turkish-Armenian reconciliation platforms when I try to explain the effect of Karabakh both on hearts and minds, and on Ankara’s political expediency calculations. A look is shot at me across the room as if I am politically incorrect, or worse, a fascist: “This is not an issue Turks can be concerned with. Furthermore, Azerbaijanis started it, their ‘evacuation’ was not ethnic cleansing, it was a security measure. The status quo is fine, we need to all move on and look to the future.” Such articulation has stunned me in its familiarity with what I hear from Turkish nationalists about 1915. [i]


Trying to compare past tragedies or current policies is groundless and unconstructive, but I have come to realize that normalization in this region is a dialectic process. Try as we may, none of us can evolve alone; we need to evolve together, and it will not be overnight.


Karabakh math


In the past few years expectations that Turkey “normalize” relations with Armenia “unconditionally” — meaning open its land border and establish diplomatic relations without expecting any progress in the solution of the Karabakh conflict — have increasingly surfaced.


The argument goes that normalizing relations with Armenia will give Turkey leverage over Armenia, moderate Armenian hardline perspectives about Turks by breaking age-old stereotypes, and, since an open border will be viewed as an Armenian victory, empower the Armenian leadership in its domestic setting to make the necessary compromises to solve the Karabakh conflict. Turkey leveraging a closed border to pressure Armenia has not delivered results in 18 years and there is no reason to believe it will. Therefore, the only viable change in the region that could inject a positive dynamic, make Armenia less reliant on Russia, and score a victory for the West, is Turkey opening the border with Armenia. (Among a segment of Turks this argument is also supplemented by the assumption that Turkey can fend off genocide recognition if it opens the border with Armenia without further ado).


Intensification of Turkish-Armenian civil dialogue, the questioning of official narratives about Turkish historical benevolence, Turkey’s new foreign policy bent on normalizing relations with its neighbors, and Turkish-Armenian diplomatic initiatives that did not publically link to the Karabakh factor seem to have raised expectations about the viability of this prospect. Various voices in Turkey can also be heard advocating “unconditional normalization,” such as liberal intellectuals in Turkey who are inherently pitted against (ethnic) nationalists and the traditional Turkish state due to their human rights activism and record of challenging state taboos and ethnocentric conceptions, as well as their having been victim to state repression in the past.


While it is healthy to have diverse arguments about Ankara’s Karabakh consideration, or any other policy, there is a risk that false expectations be created. It is therefore worthwhile to assess why Ankara has kept its land border with Armenia closed.


From fall 1991 onwards throughout the course of the Nagorno Karabakh war, pressure from the Turkish public on Ankara to protect Azerbaijanis from Armenian advances was immense. Opposition parties cashed into public outrage, accusing the Turkish governments of the early ’90s of standing by impotently.[ii] Pictures of displaced Azeri families flooded the press, bringing protestors onto the streets across Anatolia. Armenian mobilization against Azerbaijan was viewed as misplaced revenge against Turkey for 1915, feeding into a sense among many Turks of being not only a “concerned party” but also a “responsible party.” This solidarity was ironically perpetuated by Armenian perceptions of the oneness of Turks and Azerbaijanis. Conceptions and maps of “Greater Armenia” advocated by Armenian nationalists also include provinces in Eastern Anatolia (“Western Armenia”), fueling a sense of shared threat of Armenian irredentism.


Turkey’s efforts to generate international intervention to end the war failed to yield results, stirring resentment in Turkey. Finally in April 1993 when Kelbajar — which lies outside of the disputed Karabakh enclave — fell to Armenian forces, Ankara cut off the ongoing negotiations with Armenia to establish diplomatic relations and open the joint border. While Karabakh’s break from Azerbaijan might have been grudgingly tolerated by Ankara, advances beyond that were seen as an act of aggression.


While joining the war on the side of Azerbaijan had been officially ruled out,[iii] depriving Armenia of an outlet that supposedly would provide economic livelihood as well as political legitimacy was the only available leverage Turkey had at its disposal. In Azerbaijan, Turkey’s solidarity was crucial, and to date Turkey’s solidarity by keeping the land border sealed is deemed critical for Azerbaijan’s national interests.


For almost two decades, these ethnic dividing lines have been entrenched further through the Turkish and Azerbaijani diasporas, which joined forces on a cluster of issues against Armenian diaspora groups. The results were benefits in energy and construction deals offered by the Azerbaijani side to Turkish counterparts, mutual public opinion sympathies, and regional strategic power play considerations. Dissecting Karabakh-related solidarity from other dimensions of the relationship is practically impossible.


With the situation on the ground between Armenia and Azerbaijan not having changed despite negotiations moderated by the Minsk Group, today Turkey continues to try to level the playing ground by bringing up the urgency of a solution in high-level international platforms and holding out the carrot of opening the land border with Armenia.[iv] Otherwise, it is assumed that Armenia would have no reason to compromise at the negotiating table with Azerbaijan. Moreover, if Turkey were to open its border now, it would strengthen Armenia’s hand at the expense of Azerbaijan and, by reducing the likelihood of an agreement between the two, would thereby increase the likelihood of Azerbaijan feeling the need to resort to war, and strike a blow to regional stability and prosperity. If Armenia agrees to the basic principles that have been negotiated by the Minsk Group, both Turkey and Azerbaijan can open their borders with Armenia, and a win-win dynamic will ensue. And if Armenia choses instead not to compromise, the losses Turkey will incur by the continuation of the deadlocked status quo are less than the risk of strategic and political fallout for a Turkish government opening the border unconditionally.


Despite Turkey’s new foreign policy priorities, the scale in terms of strategic and domestic political calculations has not tipped. While arguments for opening the border have increased, arguments against it have gained strength for various reasons, such as:


– Azerbaijan’s potential role in catapulting Turkey into an energy hub and providing economic opportunities for Turkish businessmen has increased.

– Baku has become more skillful in reaching out to and influencing Turkish public opinion, and effecting Ankara’s maneuver space indirectly.

– Ankara’s vocalized claim of standing by the victims in its neighborhood has grown stronger (articulated both for Palestinian causes and Azerbaijan, rather regularly).


The main driving force behind Turkey’s solving problems with its neighbors is to lift obstacles to the country becoming a regional power. However, without a solution to the Karabakh problem, Turkey can hardly increase its traction in the Caucasus. An open border between Turkey and Armenia in itself will not bring about an “open” region, regional stability, or economic opportunity. While Turkey assumes it can never compete with Russia over influence or strategic economic assets in Armenia, it is concerned by the prospect of also pushing Azerbaijan closer to Moscow by delinking Karabakh from the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.


Turkey has reaped benefits from Baku by leveraging the “sacrifice” it makes by keeping its border with Armenia closed. As long as the Karabakh deadlock continues, the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is closed, and risk of war between these two countries exists. The economic or security gains of an open Turkish-Armenian border cannot compensate for the economic, political, and strategic blow that Azerbaijan’s reaction would incur.


Furthermore, increased familiarity with Armenian positions has also made it known to Turkish observers that an open border with Turkey is not going to inhibit the drive for genocide recognition among Armenians worldwide (nor should it, arguably). With these reasons, coupled with the consideration of domestic political fallout, the costs outweigh the benefits.


Nevertheless, many holding official seats in Ankara arguably seek a “face saving” change that can give Ankara reason to normalize relations with Armenia, otherwise opening the border without any compromise on the Armenian side would amount to acknowledgement of a failed policy for 18 years.  Moreover, having recently reaffirmed at the highest level that the border with Armenia will not open if nothing changes on the Karabakh deadlock, reversing this policy is ever more complicated.


In short, Ankara does not have incentive to delink full normalization of relations with Armenia from progress in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Given this situation, pressuring Turkey to open its border with Armenia only exacerbates the problem by inciting a backlash.

Sweeping Karabakh under the rug


Armenia categorically dismisses any Turkish role in the Karabakh dispute. Ankara supposedly ceded to this demand during the most recent bilateral diplomatic initiative in 2009, by maintaining what was referred to as “constructive ambiguity” regarding whether a step towards resolution of the Karabakh conflict was a condition to normalization with Armenia. Though the protocols did not mention Karabakh, over time it became increasingly obvious (and was stated openly by various Turkish authorities while simultaneously being denied by Yerevan authorities), that the ratification of the protocols would be indexed by Ankara to progress on the Karabakh negotiations front.[v] In other words, the two processes would be “synchronized,” supposedly creating a win-win dynamic: empower the Armenian leadership with the victory of an open border with Turkey, and ensure that Azerbaijan was not abandoned with its losses. Arguably, Ankara overestimated its hand (or the maneuvering space of the Armenian leadership) by considering it could deliver victory on these two fronts at once. In October 2009 at the signing ceremony of the protocols, the disjoint surfaced. Though the protocols were signed, their ratification is off the agenda and the process has stalled. Meanwhile, Ankara’s ambiguity regarding the relevance of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution struck a blow to the trust of Yerevan and Baku alike.


In the Turkish-Armenian civil society reconciliation sphere, projects and discussions are almost always designed in a way as to exclude analytical assessment of the Azerbaijan/Karabakh factor, whereas the Karabakh deadlock is the main consideration for holding up the official normalization process.


Participants selected from the Turkish side are regularly of the relative minority who share their Armenian counterparts’ criticism that Ankara’s policy has been “taken hostage” by Baku. They are in this sense often out of touch with the “Turkish street” and with Ankara’s strategists. From an ideological and professional perspective, this divide in Turkey is understandable. And it is also more convenient to plug Turkish liberals of this conviction into Turkish-Armenian dialogue projects: it is hard enough to talk about sensitive Turkish-Armenian history without having to deal with additional controversy. Having Turkish and Armenian counterparts united in their criticism of Baku and Ankara may have aided dialogue in the first decade of increased civil society exchanges; however, that may no longer be necessary or constructive.


Openly addressing the concerns of a wider Turkish audience and taking into account Turkey’s strategic conundrum will help adjust expectations in Armenia that Ankara can be pressured into disregarding Azerbaijan. This should be taken into account not only in the “Phase 2.0” of civil society exchanges but also in rhetoric of official Ankara. For informed debate about their options, it should be clear to both Baku and Yerevan what level of progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations would satisfy Ankara’s concerns. Lack of transparency on this issue merely leaves the field open to speculation and conspiracy theories.




Debating Turkish-Armenian history with a critical mind, less ethnic stereotyping in the press, cultural exchanges and NGO projects, mutual visits and the like have countless benefits.[vi] They do not, however, tip the balances of political calculus in terms of Ankara lifting the Nagorno-Karabakh conditionality. Rapprochement will fall short of “normalization” if the Nagorno-Karabakh conundrum — with both its tactical and emotional dimensions — is swept under the rug.


Though Turkish liberal intellectuals are taking the lead, as they should, the budding trend of acknowledgement and empathy in Turkey will be limited in its ability to spread to a critical mass, and thus limited in its effect on Turkish policymaking, if it cannot spur the development of more liberal thought among Armenian counterparts.


To build lasting mutual trust on a wider level that can translate into “normal relations,” Turkish and Armenian intellectuals will need to unite around positive democratic values and principles, such as in support for pluralism and freedom to challenge nationalist narratives, and not against a third party, creating new stereotypes.


Less Armenian hostility against Turks is also good for Azerbaijan, particularly if — given the attributed sameness — it can lead to more Armenians able to conceive living with Azerbaijanis again. Rather than alienating Turks who are working to forge dialogue, Azerbaijani counterparts should try to understand both the deeper significance of these efforts for Turkey, and the potential it can unleash for the region.  That being said, the potential of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation to transform the Caucasus will depend on whether it can trigger new intellectual and political paradigms in Armenia — and eventually filter into the debate about Karabakh, too.


The challenge today is to channel the momentum of Turkish-Armenian civil dialogue in such a way that it contributes to the breakdown of ethnic stereotypes, maturation of democracy, and evolution of identity conceptions in Armenia and eventually Azerbaijan, too. This requires long-term, smartly targeted intellectual investment, abandoning the feel-good quick fixes that promise overnight change, but do not deliver.  The peoples of the Caucasus — being the knot that it is — will drag each other down until they can all look at their own dark pages critically.



[i] The participant Turkish seasoned reconciliation enthusiasts usually either roll their eyes because they are tired of hearing the Azerbaijan factor in Turkey, or brace themselves for expected tension in the room.

[ii] Texts from the Turkish press of the time are available in the MA thesis of Yakup Hurç titled “The Karabag Policy of Turkey.” Department of History Institute of Social Science University of Kahramanmaraş Sütçü Imam, 2008.

[iii] The reasons of ruling out military intervention are elaborated in detail in Svante Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, in Turkey: Azerbaijan’s Only Ally, Department of East European Studies, no. 46, Uppsala University, 1999.

[iv] The latter by now has a mostly symbolic meaning. Though the land border is closed, there are flights twice a week between Istanbul and Yerevan, visas can be obtained upon arrival by both countries’ citizens, and land transportation, including trade, is conducted primarily via Georgia.

[v] Nigar Goksel, The Rubik’s Cube of Turkey-Armenia Relations, UNISCI, May 2010.

[vi] For an analysis of Turkey’s genocide debate as well as a manual of NGOs that work on rapproachment, see http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=322&debate_ID=2


Leave a Comment

What are your thoughts on the subject?



11 Jul 2011

Sorry, but this is a quite one-sided article, and many facts aren't taken into consederation ....

Christina Carabini

26 Jun 2011

However those diplomatic efforts to normalise the relations initiated by Armenia have faltered since Turkey almost immediately made clear they would not be ratified until there was a solution to the Karabakh conflict that was acceptable to Azerbaijan and Armenia then said it would not pursue ratification if Turkey was not going to. .Turkey recognised the state of Armenia soon after its 1991 independence but failed to establish formal diplomatic relations. Issues came to a head in 1993 when Turkey sided with its ally over the by closing its borders with Armenia.

Phil Gamaghelyan

2 Jun 2011

Thanks, Nigar, for raising a critical point. I fully agree that with stubbornly repeating 'Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are not related', we do not make them unrelated. It gives an impression of us all sticking our heads into the sand and refusing to see the obvious. While I can understand politicians using this on the level of official rhetoric, it is absolutely necessary to start discussing this interrelationship and ways forward considering it on expert and Track II level. Phil