Ankara-Yerevan: Armenian fear of competition and diplomatic mini-steps
By Orkhan Amashov
Over the past two months, some of the news from the Turkish-Armenian normalisation front has been of a nature that revealed the plethora of deeply-entrenched, but ultimately obsolete, inner anxieties shaping the South Caucasian nation. A poltergeist that stubbornly refuses to be exorcised has again cluttered the minds of a significant proportion of the Armenian population, as could be ascertained from a digest of the country's local media, preaching the old fiction that any rapprochement would lead to the absorption of this denuded tiny country into a vast and continuously expanding Türkiye.
The worry that has long been part and parcel of the opposition’s rhetoric, particularly that of former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, is vividly noticeable: Yerevan risks becoming a province of Türkiye. Now that in early July, the sides agreed to enable third-country citizens to cross the land border and commence air cargo logistics between the countries, and deeper forms of normalisation measures are being envisaged, some arguments of a realistic economic nature have been voiced to counteract the process.
Most of the concerns boil down to the fear of being unable to compete with the Turkish market once the land border is open and trading is in full swing. Agriculture is at the forefront. The fear is that the inundation of far more competitive, superior quality and cheap Turkish products may “kill Armenian farms”.
On a different note, the prospective Turkish presence has spurred fears of a rise in property prices, paving the way, as some local residents of the bordering village of Margara suggested in an interview with Eurasianet, to the Turkification of certain parts of Armenia. The rationale is simple: Turks will move en-masse and offer better deals, and, in a short span of time, the demographics will change.
It may appear churlish to dismiss these concerns as nonsensical and overdramatic as, in practical terms, the aforementioned eventualities cannot be overruled, if taken as separate cases. Yet, what matters a great deal is an appreciation of the full extent of the normalisation and its realistic implications, rather than unfounded fears of being absorbed, compounded by a lack of assertiveness and self-belief.
It should also be noted that the present process is mostly focused on bringing relations between the two countries to a bare minimum of diplomacy so as to be able to progress further. Currently, the focus is on putting the necessary infrastructure in place in order to ease the future border crossing. Plus, it is yet to be agreed in bilateral talks, for instance, which customs duties will be levied on imports and how liberal the regulations will be regarding real estate purchases.
In the face of an incessantly peddled Turkish takeover scenario, it is incumbent upon the Armenian government to make a convincing case for the normalisation, focusing on its full extent, beyond fragmentary observations. In January of this year, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan acknowledged that, in some economic sectors, Armenian goods may lose their competitiveness, but the opening of the border will usher in new opportunities, hitherto unknown. However, Yerevan has a lot to do in the department of convincing the populace of the critical desirability of the normalisation.
In the meantime, on the diplomatic front, there have been some tangible, yet limited, developments. July was a positive month in this vein. In addition to certain understandings, there was the inaugural telephonic conversation between Turkish President Erdogan and the Armenian PM on 11 July, whereby the two leaders congratulated each other on their respective religious holidays and emphasised a mutual desire to follow the current trajectory.
It also seems that the Special Envoys designated to oversee the process, Serdar Kilic and Ruben Rubinyan, Ankara’s and Yerevant’s appointees respectively, have developed a cordial and effective rapport, with one Turkish diplomatic source candidly suggesting, as the Middle East Eye news agency reports, that the two have held hundreds of phone conversations in the most amicable fashion.
Both sides appear to agree that this is not a time for engendering extremely high and currently impracticable expectations, but to instigate some confidence-building measures, agreeing on technicalities and ensuring that diplomatic relations are resumed soon. Any reference to the alleged events of 1915 has so far been absent during the negotiations, which is a positive development. Yet, it is understood by Ankara that there will be no issue regarding clear recognition of each other’s territorial integrity, as Armenia has already expressed its readiness to officially renounce any claim on sovereign Turkish territory.
Baku is not an official party to the discussions, but Ankara has repeatedly reiterated that Azerbaijan is its red line. It remains to be seen as to what extent the Zangazur corridor is actively incorporated into the process, as the megaproject in question is one of the key contemporary geopolitical objectives of President Aliyev who is in full accord with President Erdogan.
In terms of confidence-building and upgrading talks to a deeper level, the Turkish side actively promotes the idea of hosting the next round of talks either in Ankara or Yerevan on a bilateral basis, without involving third parties. The conclusive Armenian view perspective has so far not been made unequivocally clear.
Overall, we can observe that these are small, yet critical, moves, replete with trepidation. This normalisation has more than a meagre chance to be a success story. A surfeit of pluck and courage to take tough, perhaps immediately unpopular - from Armenia's perception - decisions are needed to ensure that the whole process does not become stillborn as a tasteless charade of rigmaroles or a tower of failings. Augmented rapprochement with far-fetching consequences will follow only thenceforth.
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