Historical Bitterness Still Overshadowing Turkey-Armenia Relations

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi, Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

In the middle of February, Armenian President Serge Sarkisian announced his decision to withdraw from parliament two Armenian-Turkish protocols that had been signed between the two countries in 2009, aimed to normalize relations between Yerevan and Ankara. The protocols were supposed to help the two countries reestablish diplomatic relations and open their border.

In another development, a few days ago, an official ceremony was organized in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, to commemorate what Armenia describes as the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. It seems that identity-based obstacles or lack of political will on the part of Turkish officials to normalize the “Armenian issue” and improve ties with Armenia have not been the main reasons behind the decision of the Armenian government to take these two measures. The reason, however, should be sought in identity-related issues of Armenia and domestic developments in that country.

Many analysts maintain that Turkey’s insistence that the killing of Armenians was not a massacre has been the main reason behind sudden decision taken by Armenia to stop the ratification of 2009 protocols with Ankara and hold the latest official ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the killing of the Armenians. Analysts belonging to this group are of the opinion that despite relative steps taken to improve relations between Turkey and Armenia in recent years, “the issue of the killing of Armenians” has turned into a security matter among political and cultural elites both in Turkey and Armenia. As a result, this issue has continuously overshadowed the relations between the two countries. Despite the above facts, Turkey has been trying in recent years to go on with a process, whose final goal is to normalize and desecuritize the “Armenian issue,” though Armenia has shown to be less willing in this regard.

The existing dispute in relations between Turkey and Armenia can be perhaps considered one of the most persistent cases of disputes between two countries at international level. Turkey was among the first countries to recognize the independence of Armenia after it regained its independence from the former Soviet Union. However, since the outset of its independence, relations between Turkey and Armenia have been full of tension and that tension reached its peak through the war between Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Despite this historical backdrop, many openings were seen in relations between Turkey and Armenia after the Justice and Development Party came to power in Ankara.

Efforts made to open up relations between Armenia and Turkey are mostly a function of normalization and desecuritization of “Armenia issue,” on the part of Turkey. This trend, in turn, emanated from another effort by Turkey to join the European Union and is a result of conditions set for Turkey in this regard. The gradual opening up of the general atmosphere to allow discussions that are related to or directly address this issue has been also playing a role. Within conditionality mechanism of the European Union (EU), some European states and institutions have considered denial of Armenians’ massacre as illegal. They have also specified that assuming the responsibility for the massacre of Armenians as genocide by Turkey and attending to Armenians’ claims, are preconditions for full accession of Turkey to the EU.

Opening the door to disputes related to the “Armenian issue” has been another major development witnessed in Turkey during recent years. One of the most important initiatives launched in this regard was a campaign which aimed to apologize for the massacre of Armenians during the World War I. The campaign was launched by a group of prominent Turkish intellectuals and was supported by a group of people as well. This is very important as the national identity, culture and oral traditions of Turkey have been all strongly inclined toward highlighting past honors and victories and forgetting bitter memories related to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A relatively new example of this issue was a statement issued last year by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In that statement, he took an unprecedented step by sympathizing with the victims of the Armenians massacre during World War II and under the Ottoman Empire, and while describing the aftermath of those massacres as inhumane, extended his condolences to the offspring of the victims.

At any rate, normalization and desecuritization of the “Armenian issue” in Turkey along with developments related to the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and pursuit of economic interests were major factors that prompted Turkey to try to beef up presence in Caucasus and take steps to mend fences with Armenia. The turning point in this development was a visit by Turkish then president to Armenia on September 6, 2008, using the opportunity provided by a World Cup preliminary match between Armenian and Turkish soccer squads. The visit aimed to find new channels for communication between the two countries. An agreement between Ankara and Yerevan for the establishment of a commission to promote dialogue on historical aspects of what happened in the last years of the Ottoman Empire aimed to restore mutual trust between the two countries. They also took further steps toward normalization of bilateral relations through the establishment of a Turkey-Armenia trade council, reaching an agreement on the mutual recognition of their common border on the basis of international law, and reopening of the common border.

Of course, the presence and influence of nationalist parties in Turkey in addition to the dispute over Karabakh and serious opposition of the Republic of Azerbaijan to any form of normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia before that dispute is settled have been among important factors that have slowed down the process of normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. The same reasons have been also behind withdrawal of the two aforementioned protocols form Armenian parliament by the country’s president. However, it seems that Turkey has eliminated a large part of identity-related obstacles to normalization of ties with Armenia, but the Armenian side has not been able to totally do away with political and identity-related obstacles that have barred improvement of relations with Turkey.

The government of Armenia has been facing staunch domestic opposition since the beginning of negotiations with Turkey. The opposition has even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidential election in Armenia and some opposition cabinet members left the government as a sign of protest. Even the signing of the protocols created a large gap between Yerevan and the powerful Armenian diaspora, which has conditioned any normalization of ties on the recognition of the genocide of Armenians and official apology of Turkey. The diaspora has also launched an extensive effort to establish the concept of “Armenian genocide” at global level. These developments are all signs of the effect that identity-related and historical issues have on the “issue of Armenians massacre” among Armenia’s elites and citizens alike. During recent months, the government of Armenia has been facing a spiraling crisis of legitimacy as opposition to its performance has been continuously on the rise. The opposition went as far as demanding early presidential election. All these issues have played an important role in prompting the Armenian government to organize such a glorious commemoration ceremony on the 100th occasion of the massacre of Armenians. It was also in response to Turkish government’s efforts to downplay this ceremony that the Armenian government made the unexpected decision to withdraw the two protocols it had signed with Ankara from the parliament.

It seems that the historical background of Turkey-Armenia relations is weighing on Yerevan more than Ankara. The identity-related and discourse-based developments that have taken place in Turkey during the past few years have already done away with a large part of identity-related obstacles and, to some extent, political barriers on the way of the normalization of the “Armenian massacre issue” and improvement of relations with Armenia. However, the “Armenian massacre issue” and instrumental political use of this issue by Armenian leaders still stands as a stumbling block on the way of full improvement of relations between the two countries.

Key Words: Turkey-Armenia Relations, Historical Bitterness, Serge Sarkisian, 2009 Protocols, Massacre of Armenians, Ottoman Empire, Identity-Based Obstacles, Political Will, Armenian Issue, European Union, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Karabakh, Crisis of Legitimacy, Commemoration Ceremony, Mofidi Ahmadi

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*Photo Credit: Valdai Club, ABC News

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