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Armenian-Turkish Relations at the Crossroads of Methodological Revision And Geopolitical Negligence


Standpoint of Armenia


Armenian-Turkish Relations at the Crossroads of Methodological Revision And Geopolitical Negligence

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan


Vahram Ter-Matevosyan

Head of the Department of Turkish Studies at the Institute of Eastern Studies, Armenian National Academy of Sciences.

The relations between Turkey and Armenia have been widely covered in academic literature. It has been approached from all possible perspectives and it seems no dimension is left out from the discussions. However, as long as there are no diplomatic relations established between the two countries and the border remains closed, no effort should be spared to understand existing and emerging predicaments and find ways to move forward. For that purpose, this piece raises a number of questions concerning a few established views and interpretations about Turkish-Armenian relations.

Since 1991, a number of concepts, terms, and approaches have dominated the field and have been widely used by both parties. The need to rethink some of them is important as it may help to revise the current discourse and to approach the problem from a different standpoint. Revisiting some of the recent developments in Turkey and the region is also important as it might help to assess the prospects of normalization of bilateral relations.

At the outset, it needs to be mentioned that contrary to established views the Republic of Turkey did not close the border with Armenia in April 1993 as a result of the military operation in Kelbajar. The border between Turkey and Armenia was never really open in the first place; instead, the border gates were open only for transferring the humanitarian aid from the West to Armenia and for the operation of the weekly Kars-Gyumri train, which had been crossing the Turkish-Armenian border since the days of the Soviet Union.  Additionally, between 1993 and 2002, some officials were able to travel through the border gates.

In light of this fact, one may argue that in December 1991, when Turkey recognized Armenia’s independence, Turkey had the chance both to open the border and to establish diplomatic relations. Back then, the conflict in Karabagh was not in its active stage and Turkey could open the border without reference to the situation in Karabagh.  But Turkey chose to do neither.  This is to suggest that Turkey’s attempts to connect the closing of the border with the events in Karabagh are manipulative, yet this interpretation is widely taken into consideration by analysts and politicians without much questioning its true intentions.

Establishing a link between the events in Karabagh and the closing of the border was aimed at emphasizing Turkey’s support to Azerbaijan and it is clear it had purely propagandistic and symbolic objectives. However, the narrative was put into circulation and even some Armenian politicians and experts started to employ the Turkish perspective when talking about the date and the reasons for closing the Turkish-Armenian border. The closing or opening of the border should be decoupled from the Karabagh conflict and be seen from purely bilateral perspectives.

The other issue that needs to be discussed has to do with the Zurich protocols and the methodological errors that were made during the 2008-2009 negotiations between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey. The Swiss facilitated negotiations led to the preparing and signing of two documents: the “Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey” and the “Protocol on Development of Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey.” These two documents, which jointly were named as Zurich protocols, have also been widely discussed. The opponents of the protocols criticized every single sentence and tried to undermine their credibility. Others were assuming that Turkey was not genuine in its efforts from the very beginning.

What was left out from the discussion, however, was a set of crucial questions: Why sign two protocols when the whole purpose of negotiations, at least for Armenia, was to establish diplomatic relations? And: Why put two separate issues – development of diplomatic relations and reconciliation – into one basket, creating much confusion and inherent problems? The decision to bring these two documents together was a methodological flaw that cost the entire process dearly.

The crux of the problem has to do with the fact that bringing together the process of normalization and reconciliation carried a risk that the two parties were not capable of overcoming. Likewise, one of the experienced Armenian diplomats, Rouben Shougarian, has recently discussed that problem in his newly published monograph on Armenian foreign policy. What we agree upon is that normalization of relations and the establishment of diplomatic relations between countries that have a disputed past and a troubled present requires a completely different toolbox and set of policy initiatives than the process of reconciliation. Underestimation of these significant differences had serious implications for the entire process.

When starting the negotiations, both parties had different and sometimes diametrically opposed expectations for the process. For the Armenian side, it was crucial that Turkey would continue the negotiations without any preconditions. The short-term goal for the Armenian side was to establish diplomatic relations with a hope to secure the opening of the border with Turkey, thereby removing the economic and communication blockade imposed on Armenia by Turkey. For the Turkish side, the objectives were quite different, as Turkey never concealed the true reasons for not establishing diplomatic relations and for not opening the border. Since 1991, the Turkish side has presented at least three reasons for not opening the border: Armenian Genocide claims and worldwide recognition campaigns should be ceased, the border disputes between Turkey and Armenia should be resolved once and for all, and the Karabagh conflict should be resolved. However, since 1993, the last reason started to dominate Turkey’s list of preconditions, effectively pushing the first two into the background. This short explanation alone was sufficient to understand that the two parties sought different objectives and hence pursued different strategies in attaining their goals. For the Armenian side, the normalization of relations came first, while for Turkey the conditions for the reconciliation process were much more crucial and significant. These different views were reflected in the two protocols and, instead of devising a short and plain document about the establishment of diplomatic relations, the parties took the most complex road by bringing together all the complications of their relations and putting them into two documents with multiple cross-references. Thus, the failure to disentangle normalization from reconciliation has deadlocked the entire process.

This important dimension should be taken into account in all future initiatives that will bring the leaders of the two nations to the negotiation table. The reasons for the lack of official relations between Turkey and Armenia have different facets and layers. Some of the existing problems may be addressed through official documents, some may be solved through mere contacts between two nations and by better knowing each other, and some may remain unsolvable for some time to come. Hence, Turkish-Armenian relations should be separated from Turkey-Armenia relations. The officials from both countries should retake the hard and arduous road of normalization of official relations, and leave the reconciliation process to the scholars, artists, and civil society members of the two nations. The states can facilitate the reconciliation but, given the sensitive nature of relations, should not direct the process. The lessons of the Zurich protocols should not be ignored.

Geopolitical dynamics should also be constantly revisited when the future of Armenia-Turkey relations are discussed. Although it seems that the relations between Turkey and Armenia have been exclusively a bilateral issue, there is little doubt that certain countries keep having an impact on the process. The influence of these countries sometime is visible, whereas more often it remains almost intangible. Azerbaijan and Turkey keep working closely on multiple of issues related to Turkey’s relations with Armenia, the Armenian Genocide, Diaspora as well as on problems related to the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. There have been reports that Azerbaijan was able to demonstrate resistance to a number of initiatives aimed to advance the relations between Armenia and Turkey or between two societies. These claims have not been substantiated with credible evidence, but there have been a significant number of discussions to that effect. Turkey, in turn, keeps referring to Azerbaijan and its concerns regarding the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh as important preconditions to expect any progress in the relations between Armenia and Turkey. It remains a big question though, how tangible is the actual influence of Azerbaijan on the relations between Armenia and Turkey? Notwithstanding the rhetoric according to the logic of the much-acclaimed “one nation, two states” formula, on number of occasions the Turkish leaders have been ambivalent about Azerbaijan and its actual role in the equation. Turkey has been pursuing its own foreign policy with South Caucasian states. Turkey has been able to develop deep and comprehensive relations with Georgia and Azerbaijan which often were referred to as strategic cooperation. In doing so, Turkey sought the approval of no country although it could coordinate certain political and geostrategic projects with the US or Israel. Therefore, Turkey’s refusal to normalize relations with Armenia should be seen solely from Turkish perspective without a need to drag Azerbaijan into the picture.  Based on this, it can be argued with certainty, that Turkish ruling establishment and especially its foreign policy architects abused the speculations of the influence that Azerbaijan had on building bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey. In public statements the Turkish ruling party has overestimated, hence inflated the actual weight of Azerbaijani demands concerning Turkey’s relations with Armenia. European diplomats, who were part of the Zurich process, mentioned on number of occasions that they found Turkish backpedaling based on Azerbaijani resentment as insincere and contrary to the spirit of the negotiations. Some Turkish diplomats also alluded to that fact that Azerbaijan’s leadership knew quite well all the details of the negotiation process between Armenia and Turkey as they were informed on a regular basis. Those who kept the Azerbaijani leadership updated recall no visible resentment against the process because, as they have told the Azerbaijan’s leadership, the normalization of the relations between Armenia and Turkey would positively affect the Karabakh problem also.

Second tier of countries, which can both positively and negatively influence the normalization process between Armenia and Turkey, include Russia, USA, France, Germany, Georgia and the EU as an organization. Between 2005 and 2009, a number of countries were engaged in the process, which was coined “Football diplomacy”. The USA had a leading role in it and with Obama’s election to the presidency the process received additional drive. When the negotiations were leading towards the signing of the protocols, a number of other countries came forward to support it including Switzerland, which has been hosting and facilitating the negotiation process from early on, Russia, USA, France, EU etc. After the signing ceremony of the protocols was over, it was time to act and really support the parties to ratify them and move to implementation. It was exactly at that time that, albeit for different reasons, both Armenia and Turkey needed external support. Thus, the countries, which were present during the signing ceremony, left the process early enough, assuming that both parties would stay committed to the mutual agreements, time and efforts they spent on the process and move on. However, it turned out to be quite a long and tenuous road, which left the normalization process in disarray, with no positive developments in sight. Therefore, the normalization prospects between Armenia and Turkey need unconditional support from global and emerging powers, international organizations, think-tanks etc.

On the other hand, nowadays the international system goes through a challenging period of thorough revision. The primary actors, who might be interested in establishing diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, are dealing with problems elsewhere, which are different in scope and urgency. Hence, Armenia-Turkey relations are pushed to the backstage of the international relations with no prospects bringing it back to the forefront. Tellingly, Turkey also goes through a challenging period where its future is determined for next years if not decades. With the expanding tide of censorship, suppression of free speech and jailing of journalists, left wing and liberal intellectuals, the number of supporters of the Armenian cause is drastically decreasing. Winning over new supporters is becoming a daunting task for those who care about the normalization, hence, the Turkish leadership does not feel the urgency to deal with Armenia and the Armenian question.  


This presentation was part of the colloquium "Which Future for the Armenian-Turkish Dialogue? Balancing memorial issues and international relations" that took place in Yerevan on 17 February 2017. The colloquium was organized by Yerkir Europe in partnership with the French Embassy in Armenia, the French University in Armenia (UFAR) and the Fonds d'Alembert project of the Institut Français.




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