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Wednesday June 29 2022

Turkish-Armenian thaw and Azerbaijan

23 December 2021 13:00 (UTC+04:00)
Turkish-Armenian thaw and Azerbaijan

By Orkhan Amashov

Perhaps at no point over the past 30 years, since the recognition of the newly-independent Republic of Armenia by Turkey in 1991, have the circumstances been so auspicious as to begin a lasting and sustainable normalisation of the relations between the two nations.

The present situation is a qualitatively new one, for it has been largely engendered by Azerbaijan’s military victory in last year’s war, by virtue of which, the Karabakh obstacle to the rapprochement seems to have been considerably curtailed, if not completely removed.

Many would argue that the early 90s and the period from 2007 to 2009 were the two historic junctures at which the hopes for a diplomatic thaw were high. Although there have been, and still are, numerous thorny issues exclusively on the Turkish-Armenian front that exert ponderous complexity upon the normalisation attempts, at the end of the day, it was the Karabakh subject, or to be more precise, the then-ongoing Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenia, that rendered the very onset of the rapprochement impossible in the past.

As a sign of goodwill, Ankara recurrently opened its land border with the Soviet Union from 1988, enabling EU shipments of grain to reach the earthquake-shaken Armenia. Turkey was the second country after the U.S. to recognise the newly-independent Armenia. There were some informal contacts between the governments of the two countries, and the sides were close to agreeing on some framework agreement. Despite this, Armenia’s illegal occupation of Azerbaijani territories rendered normalisation impossible and Turkey closed its eastern borders in a move of support for Baku in 1993.

The process that took place from 2007-09, facilitated by Switzerland, resulted in the signing of “Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” and “Protocol on the Development of Bilateral Relations”. In Armenia, these protocols were submitted to the Constitutional Court so as to ascertain their constitutionality. The court issued its interpretation in such a way that made the Turkish side declare that the published grounds of the decision “had preconditions and restrictive provisions impairing the letter and spirit of the Protocols”. In addition, Ankara maintained that the normalisation was to be tied with a breakthrough in the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Neither side ratified the protocols, with Armenia officially annulling them in 2018.

At present, however, the facts on the ground are different. The sides have already appointed special representatives (envoys). This means that there may be no need for third parties in negotiations. Turkey has appointed Serdar Kilic, top-notch and high-calibre diplomat, who previously served as a Turkish ambassador in the U.S., as its special representative, whereas deputy speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia, Ruben Rubinyan, will be the special representative of Yerevan.

Although the post-war resolution between Baku and Yerevan is still underway and has not reached its logical conclusion, there is no longer a necessity of linking the normalisation with a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which, as Azerbaijan has consistently and emphatically declared, is over. Furthermore, some of the basic defects of the Zurich process are not applicable to today’s situation. The impression given is that during 2007-09, Baku was not duly consulted from the very beginning, which caused some considerable consternation both in Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Now Ankara has officially declared that it will be consulting its strategic ally at each single stage, and all future steps will be mutually agreed upon with Baku. This creates a tripartite construct within which Turkey and Armenia are direct players, whereas Azerbaijan is a semi-direct actor. This, coupled with the prospects offered by the 3+3 (or 3+2, given Georgia’s reluctance) platform, could lay the foundations for a stable peace and connectivity in the wider region, which would ensure that, on this occasion, the normalisation efforts could transform into a future reconciliation.

The Zangazur corridor plan, the realisation of which is key to both Ankara and Baku's vision of the region, is a new dimension of the process. The corridor is a term that still sends shivers down the spines of most Armenians, some of whom view a sinister motive behind the project. For instance, Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasian Institute, believes the whole corridor concept is an ingenious scheme to take the Syunik province away from Armenia. In the same vein, Ruben Safrastyan, a former Armenian diplomat and scholar of Turkish studies, thinks that behind the joint Azerbaijani-Turkish proposal is a long-term objective of "Turkifying Syunik". Given the extent of the Armenian paranoia, it is vital that both Ankara and Baku exercise their powers of persuasion to the utmost, so as to convince the other side of the economic benefits of the Zangazur corridor.

The political will of the sides will be of immense importance. This is particularly important in the case of Armenia, which has long been hostage to the interests of its expatriate diaspora, and the toxic ambitions of the Kocharyan-Sargsyan tandem. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has survived the massive domestic political test and won the June elections, defeating the revenge-driven opposition. This new situation has provided him with tangible resources to change Yerevan’s official discourse and seek rapprochement on new grounds.

Pashinyan will need to revisit the normalisation policy pursued by the previous Armenian administrations, based on the requirement that the process should start without preconditions. Such an approach was calculated on the possibility of reopening joint borders and breaking free of the shackles imposed by this economically devastating isolation, and then pushing for certain conditions at a later stage.

Firstly, there is the issue of the mutual acceptance of internationally recognised borders and the territorial integrity of each side. Article 11 of the Armenian Declaration of Independence, adopted in 1990, refers to the Turkish province of Eastern Anatolia as "Western Armenia" and, as such, holds that the area is part of Armenia. Yerevan wants to open its borders and re-establish diplomatic ties without renouncing its claims on Turkish territory.

Secondly, Armenia does not want to relinquish its state policy of achieving worldwide recognition of the events of 1915 by everybody, including Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly proposed the creation of a joint commission comprising historians from Turkey and Armenia and international experts. Yerevan believes the so-called "Armenian genocide" is a historic fact, the validity of which is not subject to verification.

The existing Armenian view is that the Zurich protocols were not satisfactory, in light of the aforementioned subjects, and it is unclear to what extent Yerevan is ready to compromise on those two grounds in the context of the new effort.

The success of the new rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia will depend on a myriad of considerations. The present geopolitical conjecture is favourable to this normalisation, and therefore it is vital that momentum is efficiently utilised via drastic and quick measures. It is important that all those stakeholders, which extend beyond the negotiating sides and include a range of external actors, expedite the acceleration by supporting what is undoubtedly going to be a fragile and arduous process. The results achieved on the Baku-Yerevan front will have their own impact too.

The path to Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is not going to be a bed of roses. A challenging road lies ahead, replete with potholes and landslides. Pashinyan will need to resist the unhealthy influence and pressure of the Armenian diaspora and the Karabakh clan, which preach the “apocalyptic consequences" of the normalisation. A lot will also depend on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, who will be required to exert pressure on Yerevan, which should be considerable and effective, yet ultimately constructive in nature.

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