At a time when Europe’s attention is mainly focused on the war between Russia and Ukraine, another conflict is still waiting to be resolved at the European borders. It is the Karabakh War, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, impacting the neighbouring countries - Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The latter’s role was decisive for Azerbaijan’s victory in the second Karabakh War (September 2020). Despite its heavy involvement in the conflict, Turkey is taking the perspective of normalisation with its Armenian neighbour and, in turn, Armenia is taking Turkey’s offer seriously. As a sign of both countries’ motivation toward this normalisation process, they each appointed an ambassador to start a new dialogue. Yet, a first attempt had already been made in 2009, within the framework of Protocolsthat remained unratified by both parliaments and, therefore, did not yield the expected results. Nevertheless, the fact that the current effort is taking place in a different context and the lesson learned in 2009 give reason to hope that the ongoing dialogue will give better results.
A second chance
It is often forgotten that Turkey was the first country to recognise Armenia, when it declared its independence after the USSR collapse. This recognition, though, was not followed by any diplomatic relations. The border had been very briefly opened, until 1993, during the Karabakh War, when Turkey – in solidarity with its Azerbaijani ally – decided to close it to isolate Armenia. Then, in 2009, during the heydays of Turkey's EU membership process, a serious attempt at normalisation with Armenia was undertaken. Indeed, in a calmer regional context and a less polarised national political setting, Ankara and Yerevan gave serious consideration to normalising their relations, in a dynamic, civil society envisaging a rapprochement between the two countries. A series of meetings between them, mediated by the West – notably Switzerland and the United States – were held within the framework of Protocols. Turkey and Armenia fell short of defining the significance and content of this normalisation but, at least, they discussed on the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the land border.
Still, the Protocols were not ratified, their validation requiring prior approval by both countries’ parliaments, and the expected normalisation did not occur. Surprisingly (in a way), it was neither the thorny question of genocide – claimed by Armenia but contested by Turkey – nor the demarcation of their common border that made such attempt fail. As a matter of fact, the obstacle was posed by Azerbaijan, a constant key element in the Turkish-Armenian relationships. Baku, feeling ‘betrayed’ and left out by Turkey, pushed Ankara to halt talks with Yerevan, out of fear that an open border would reduce its leverage over Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. Consequently, noting that Turkish public opinion was sensitive to Azerbaijan’s position (against a Turkish-Armenian agreement without a prior settlement of the Karabakh issue, in favour of Azerbaijan), Ankara had no choice but to forget about those protocols.
Although their attempt failed, the lesson learned from the Protocols allow us to look at the present normalisation attempt between Turkey and Armenia with more optimism, in the light of a new regional context where Azerbaijan’s position has changed.
A favourable, still complex framework
Azerbaijani victory in the Second Karabakh War impacted on the ongoing process of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. To a certain extent, Baku’s victory would even allow for a real normalisation between Yerevan and Ankara. Standing victorious on the battleground, indeed, Azerbaijan no longer seems to be against a possible normalisation between its two neighbours, since it no longer needs its strangling strategy to force Armenia to make concessions, regarding Karabakh and the adjacent territories that are now free.
For its part, Turkey also finds itself in a setting where it needs this normalisation with its Armenian neighbour, both for internal and external political reasons. Indeed, the country aims to overcome its condition of isolation, caused by the authoritarian phase resulting from a growing security concern in the region, especially in Syria. After improving its relations with the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (and perhaps Syria, in the medium term), Ankara is seeking to establish peaceful relationships with Armenia, which would improve its image on the international scene. In addition to economic benefits for regional trade, normalisation would also allow Erdogan’s government, criticised for its overly aggressive foreign policy by its opponents, to prove them wrong. The government may benefit from this normalisation in the 2023 elections.
Given such favourable context, how likely is this normalisation attempt to succeed, compared to the previous one?
Although chances are higher than in 2009, difficulties persist. Unlike the first attempt, the current one is receiving little support from a strong Turkish or Armenian civil society supposed to advocate for a rapprochement. In 2009, civil society from both sides was very active, which is hardly the case in the current process. As a result, one might think that this state-driven normalisation attempt is unlikely to succeed. While this is true, it appears that the fragility of the current process does not stem from a limited involvement of civil society but rather from the Armenian side. Certainly, Armenia’s traumatic post-war context could increase encirclement fears and possibly spoil the process. Another obstacle may arise from the Armenian diaspora, advocating for maintaining a harder line towards Turkey – at least on one crucial issue, that of genocide, which the normalisation process negotiators prefer not to mention in their discussions, for now. Furthermore, external actors who could potentially play a positive role have restricted room for manoeuvre: Russia, which supported the 2009 process, is now busy in Ukraine, while the EU has a reduced leverage on Turkey.
In a more favourable context, compared to that of 2009, the current normalisation process between Turkey and Armenia would have a better chance of succeeding, despite the obstacles that the Armenian diaspora may still represent. Nevertheless, one cannot expect a complete normalisation or reconciliation between the two countries. Either the negotiators appointed to manage the ongoing process and the ambassadors mandated to this purpose are aware of that. Moreover, the expected normalisation seems to be minimal, involving exchanges between ambassadors who will be posted in Ankara and Yerevan, along with a progressive opening of the land border. The most complex issues, such as the delineation of boundaries and consensus on the terms of genocide – which Turkey calls a tragedy for both sides in the war context – will be postponed to a later time.