The interweaving of statements that preceded the April 24th anniversary contributed, once again, to clarify both the nature and the scope of the dispute related to recognition of the Armenian genocide. As a matter of fact, the political and diplomatic dimensions of the dispute have clearly overtaken its historical essence. This consideration appears to be evident whether looking at the dispute from the domestic Turkish and Armenian political perspectives or, rather, from the broader perspective of Ankara's and Yerevan's international relations.
Bearing this in mind, it seems to be naive - or even specious – to assume that the dispute might be resolved by resorting to a joint commission of historians, as traditionally proposed by the Turkish authorities. For the same reasons, however, it seems equally naive to believe that Ankara might recognize the genocidal nature of the events following April 1915 merely as a response to external pressures, as well as outside to a clear and broader agreement on the possible consequences of the recognition itself. Therefore, until the push towards Turkish-Armenian reconciliation will insist on these levels it is highly unlikely to succeed. In contrast – as already exposed by Hrant Dink – such pressures risk deepening the historical burden and widening the gap between the parties.
Equally misleading is to assume that the genocide dispute is relegated – or liable to be relegated – to the bilateral relations between Ankara and Yerevan. Although it plays a key role on the path leading to the reconciliation of the two peoples and to the normalization of relations between the two states, the thorny genocide dispute is only one aspect of the broader Turkish-Armenian issue. The latter is so rooted in the Caucasian regional dimension that it appears no longer solvable by moving from a bilateral initiative or approach. It is therefore highly unlikely to proceed smoothly on the Turkish-Armenian normalization path without concrete steps towards the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan – which, back in 1993, triggered Ankara's decision to close the border in retaliation to Armenian aggression.
The dynamics leading to the the failure of the 2009 Zurich Protocols – the most advanced normalization attempt made by Ankara and Yerevan to date – clearly showed such a trend. The failure was not just the result of the difficulties faced by the Turkish and Armenian governments in pushing respective parliaments and constituencies to “digest” the inevitable compromise. It was, rather, the harsh Azerbaijani reaction to the exclusion from negotiations directly affecting its national interests, causing the premature interruption of the normalization process. Therefore, the Zurich process demonstrated that Baku can not be sidelined by any initiative having ambitions of success.
The Protocols saga highlighted another key trend liable to have important consequences on the fate of the Turkish-Armenian issue. The Protocols brought the most serious challenge ever faced by the Turkish-Azerbaijani relations and the alliance which came out of the storm was actually very different from the one it used to be. On the one hand, the saga provided the image of an alliance based upon strong and pragmatic interests, rather than on the fancy narrative of ethno-linguistic kinship. On the other hand, and most importantly, Turkish-Azerbaijani relations clearly underwent a phase of strong internal balancing, as Baku demonstrated to benefit from a growing bargaining and retaliation power, built thanks to a shrewd and effective energy policy and foreign investment strategy. Already formulated in the nineties, the theory of a Turkish Caucasian policy "prisoner" of relations with Azerbaijan is not a novelty. Yet the constraints on Ankara's freedom of action generated by the alliance with Baku are today much stricter than in the past.
Therefore, not only the fate of the Zurich Protocols showed that there can be no solution to the Turkish-Armenian issue outside Azerbaijan’s involvement. At the same time – and with the most significant long-term consequences – it also showed that Turkey has become an essential pillar of the Armenian isolation strategy pursued by Baku. A strategy that, given the persistent impossibility of achieving a negotiated settlement of the Karabakh conflict, aims to capitalize on the exclusion of Yerevan from the major Caucasian cooperation and infrastructure projects, deepening the already dire consequences of the closure of the country’s eastern and western borders.
In conclusion, giving due consideration to both the politico-diplomatic and regional dimensions of the fracture between Ankara and Yerevan appears to be essential in order to promote the process of reconciliation and normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties – simultaneously facilitating the emergence of a shared vision of the 1915 events. On the contrary, neglecting them is likely to deepen such a rift, favoring a typical lose-lose game, i.e. a regional "spiral of insecurity" from which none of the involved actors - from Turkey to Armenia, from Azerbaijan to the European Union - has anything to gain.
Carlo Frappi, Research fellow at Venice Ca' Foscari University and ISPI Associate Research Fellow