Turkish–Armenian Relations Doomed to Failure: Why Does History Repeat Itself in The 21st Century?

Dr. Ayla Gol*


Has anyone who is interested in Turkish and Armenian relations been really surprised that the most recent diplomatic attempts to normalise relations between Ankara and Yeravan reached stalemate again in January 2010? The answer is most probably a resounding ‘No’. As many Armenians and Turks predicted, the whole process of normalisation was ‘doomed to failure’ from the beginning. There are two residual issues since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: the legacy of history and the ‘genocide’ debate. Under the shadow of these structural constraints, the normalisation process cannot be understood only with reference to the AKP’s (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi-Justice and Development Party) new foreign policy orientations under the Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign ministry leadership 1. However, a critical engagement with this process will show how other internal and external factors contributed towards normalising relations between Turks and Armenians and why the decisions of both governments in Ankara and Yerevan were shaped and constrained by internal and external pressures. Some Armenians argue that the failure of normalizing relations between the two sides has intensified the feelings of distrust between both sides: Armenians are ‘bullied’ and ‘defeated’ while Turkish policy-makers continue reproducing aggressive and ‘threatening’ nationalist discourses 2. However, these rushed judgments dismissed the historical, political and economic context that brought the normalisation process. The internal and external factors that lead up to it can be found in the post-Cold War politics of the 1990s.

Political Context: the Border Issue 

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise Armenia as a new state when Yerevan declared itself an independent republic from the Soviet Union in November 1991. Ankara unexpectedly found itself sharing a 268 km long border with a new neighbour. Although no official diplomatic relations were established between the two governments, Turkey allowed the passage of humanitarian aid to Armenia through its territory.

Under the initiatives of Turgut Ozal, Armenia was invited to be a member of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation (BSEC) and the politics of inclusion were pursued in order to achieve new regional integration and stability in 1991. However, in the following two years Ankara decided to close its border with Armenia by sealing the Dogu Kapi (The East Gate – Akhourian in Armenian side) crossing in Kars, Turkey. The decision was taken in April 1993 as the Ankara’s response to firstly, the escalating conflict in Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan (the Karabakh issue) and secondly, Yerevan’s contradictory statements about not recognising its common border with Turkey. Moreover, the new Armenian Parliament declared in February 1991 that it no longer recognised the Turkish-Armenian border demarcated by the Treaty of Kars in 1920. For Ankara, this declaration indicated an expansionist policy on the part of Yerevan towards the so-called ‘Western Armenia’ in Anatolia. It was better to be safe than sorry when dealing with a historical arch-enemy.

With the closure of the Armenian-Turkish border in 1993, Turkey also imposed a trade embargo on Armenia and the railroad lines that travelled from Kars to Tbilisi in Georgia also stopped running. Hence, the Turkish-Armenian border closure had negative impacts on trade and tourism in the South Caucasus. Since that time, Turkey has not even allowed humanitarian aid over its borders to reach Armenia. In the international arena, Ankara’s decision was directly linked to Turkey’s ‘special relationship’ with Azerbaijan. The Turkish governments identified the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani land as the principal obstacle to political stability, economic development and regional cooperation. Despite this negative political context, economic factors triggered a new more positive direction in Turkish-Armenian relations.

Economic context: Trade and Business

Trade and business connections facilitated a new phase of engagement between Ankara and Yerevan. The Turkish Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) was established in May 1997 in Istanbul and Yerevan. While the TABDC encouraged better economic relations between Armenia and Turkey the first call for opening the border came from Mehmet Yilmaz, the President of Kars Chamber of Commerce to the Armenian- Turkish border. According to Yilmaz, this would only bring economic benefits for both Armenia and the eastern regions of Turkey.

The next step toward normalisation was the formation of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) in July 2001 which, consisted of six Turkish and four Armenian members. The TARC was initiated under the guidance of the U.S. Department of State. The chairman of the commission was an American diplomat, David Phillips. The commission aimed to improve relations between two countries and not to engage with historical issues. Undoubtedly, this evoked a great deal of criticism from many in the Armenian Diaspora and particularly from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaksutyun). According to these groups, the commission was jeopardising the ultimate Armenian cause of gaining international recognition of the ‘genocide’ in the name of ‘reconciliation’. In April 2004, the TARC announced that its activities would cease since it had completed making recommendations to both sides regarding Turkish-Armenian relations. The decision was made after heavy criticisms from ultra nationalists on both sides. It seems that this commission had no significant impact on the normalisation process. Nevertheless, it might have laid the ground for the US government’s future policies to put pressure on the Turkish government to resolve its Armenian question.

International context: Turkey under pressure from the EU and the USA 

While Turkey was an official candidate for EU membership in 1999, the pro-Islamic AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi– Justice and Development Party) came to power as a new actor in Turkish politics in 2002. Four political developments were particularly influential  on the process of normalising relations with Armenia:

First, the AKP initiated a subtle ‘strategic depth’ doctrine3. As formulated by Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was promoted to Foreign Minister in 2009 from the position of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, – strategic depth requires that Turkey’s onedimensional pro-Western policy must be transformed into multi-dimensional policies to reflect historical, cultural and religious characteristics. This implied the principle of ‘zero problem’ relations with Turkey’s neighbours and Armenia was the most obvious neighbour with which to implement this principle first. Accordingly, the AKP government signed two protocols to ‘normalise’ relations with Armenia in October 2009.

Second, for Armenians, the independent Yerevan government was ‘landlocked’, with no direct connections to international markets and sea when its western (Turkish) and eastern (Azerbaijan) borders were closed. Trade and tourism through Georgian and Iranian routes were not only costly but also disadvantageous to Armenia’s economic development. The price for having ‘unfriendly’ relations with Turkey was heavy: Yerevan was excluded from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC); Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) oil and gas pipelines; and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad project.

Third, for the EU, a conflict-ridden South Caucasus and unstable Turkish-Armenian border is undesirable for European security. Turkey’s eastern border is at the crossroads of Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. Cross-border security threats such as drug trafficking from Afghanistan, human trafficking and illegal migration from Iraq and Iran, smuggling of nuclear materials and small arms from Central Asia have increased since 2001 and can easily find their way to Europe. Turkey’s borders with Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria are at the centre of all three major routes. From a European perspective, it is understandable why the European Commission, the European Union Council and the European Parliament all have vested interests in demand that Turkey open and control its border with Armenia.

Finally, during the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official visit to Washington in December 2009, President Barack Obama reaffirmed the US position on the following three key issues: Turkey should establish full diplomatic relations with Armenia; it should re-open the land border between the two countries; and the two protocols between Ankara and Yerevan governments should be ratified and implemented “without preconditions and within a reasonable time-frame.” 

Consequently, the normalisation process must be contextualized within the Ankara-Brussels-Washington triangle. Neither the AKP leadership nor its counterpart in Yerevan could lead this initiative voluntarily and independently from external key actors, namely the USA and the EU. Moreover, these external factors indicate that the AKP leaders were formulating new Turkish foreign policy directions as a rationally calculated response to changing regional and global dynamics. According to rational choice theory, both leaders would aim to maximize their benefits and avoid the problems of the past impeding their development into the 21st century. Nevertheless, the role of historical and ideological obstacles could not be easily discarded.

“The failure of Turkish- Armenian rapprochement causes scholars of IR to re-consider the basic assumptions of ‘realism’ and question the validity of rational choice theory. “

A Historical Role in the 21st Century

The failure of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement causes scholars of IR to reconsider the basic assumptions of ‘realism’ and question the validity of rational choice theory. As discussed above, the current failure is historically embedded in highly politicized and securitized issues, which are thus less susceptible to change on the basis of a rational assessment of common economic, social and political interests. In the current status quo, neither side is a winner. Turkey’s isolation of Armenia has alienated Yerevan further by excluding Armenia from main oil and gas routes in the South Caucasus and has disqualifying Ankara as a mediator over the Karabakh issue. Under pressure from the EU and the USA, any Turkish government, whether pro-Islamic or staunchly secularist, would be left with no option but to opt for a policy shift. The AKP policies were based on

The AKP has to play its cards more ‘rationally’ and strategically at the next round without jeopardising Turkey’s secular identity. Both Islamists and secularists will realise that Turkey has a duty to perform the historic role of providing an Islamic version of modern Christian Democratic politics and thus to prove that ‘Muslim democracy’ is not an oxymoron.

rationalism and pragmatism as realist IR theories would argue but these policies failed to sustain their ‘realism’ under the pressure of historical and ideological concerns, as constructivism predicts. Furthermore, the AKP government found itself in an even deeper security dilemma as both the Armenian and Kurdish questions are now part of its EU membership negotiations. Turkey can no longer maintain these issues as part of its own internal affairs. More importantly, domestic politics is not a safe ground on which to sustain the AKP initiatives to change foreign policy directions because of the constant pressure from the Turkish secular establishment. The AKP has to play its cards more ‘rationally’ and strategically at the next round without jeopardising Turkey’s secular identity. Both Islamists and secularists will realise that Turkey has a duty to perform the historic role of providing an Islamic version of modern Christian Democratic politics and thus to prove that ‘Muslim democracy’ is not an oxymoron. Only a fully democratic Turkey can promote regional security and stability at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus in the 21st century.

“While this article was went to the press the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives passed the endorsement of the Armenian ‘genocide’ resolution on 4 March 2010 and Ankara condemned this and recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations. Ankara feels the Obama administration has left Turkey alone and this might put strains on the Turkish-American as well as Armenian relations.”


* Lecturer in Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University; and Visiting Scholar, Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge. Email: ayg@aber.ac.uk

1. Svante E. Cornell and M.K. Kaya, ‘Normalizing Turkish-Armenian Ties: Will Davutoglu’s Gamble Pay off?’ Turkey Analyst, vol. 2:16, 2009. See http:// www.silkroadstudies.org/new/inside/ turkey/2009/090914B.html
2. Armine Ghazaryan, Psyhocological Pecularities of ‘Normalising’ Turkish-Armenian Relations, Yerevan: Armenian Center for National and International Studies, 2009; Ara Papian, Open Letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu, Washington: Modus Vivendi Center, 2009.
3. Ahmed Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu, Istanbul, 2007.

4. Vladimir Socor, ‘Turkey, Azerbaijan Re- Synchronize Conflict Resolution and Border Opening’, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6, 2009. <http://www.jamestown.org/ r e g i o n s / t u r k e y t e s t / s i n g l e /  no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news% 5 D = 3 5 8 2 7 & t x _ t t n e w s %5 B b a c k P i d% 5D=408&cHash=88048a1cc2>

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