When German Capt. Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke visited the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, he called Armenians “Christian Turks,” as the only difference between the two nations he observed was their religion. Despite such a deep cultural connection, the two nations have had a rocky past in terms of diplomatic relations, but recent developments indicate a glimmer of hope about a better future for both nations, as leaders have been expressing willingness to finally normalize ties.
The restoration of diplomatic relations between the two neighbors may have a transformative regional impact despite existing challenges, but the leaders of both countries need to seize the momentum to ensure that the opportunity is not missed, as it can have positive economic repercussions for both countries and the region, according to experts.
Diplomatic and economic ties between the two neighbors, which share a 311-kilometer-long (193-mile-long) border, and a long history of coexistence and common culture, have been frozen since 1993.
Relations between Armenia and Turkey have historically been complicated. Turkey’s position on the 1915 events is that Armenians lost their lives in eastern Anatolia after some sided with the invading Russians and revolted against Ottoman forces. The subsequent relocation of Armenians resulted in numerous casualties, with massacres by militaries and militia groups from both sides increasing the death toll.
Turkey objects to the presentation of the incidents as "genocide" but describes the 1915 events as a tragedy in which both sides suffered casualties.
Recently though, following the establishment of the cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Karabakh, formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, the leaders of both countries expressed determination to normalize relations and have appointed special envoys to hold diplomatic talks.
According to Talha Köse, an associate professor at Ibn Haldun University who specializes in peace and conflict studies, the time is right to take action and establish diplomatic relations, which may have wider implications for the region.
Noting that the previous attempt to restore ties in 2009 was stalled due to a number of reasons, Köse said the ongoing efforts are taking place in a much different atmosphere. For one, the process is being coordinated with Azerbaijan, whereas in the previous attempt, Azerbaijan and Armenia were involved in a dispute about the occupation of Karabakh and the ambiguity regarding the demarcation of borders. Turkey and Azerbaijan not only share a common language but also refer to themselves as “one nation, two states.” Ankara also signed the Shusha Declaration with Baku after Azerbaijan’s victory in Karabakh. The declaration pledges joint military action in face of foreign threats, restructuring and modernization of their armed forces while establishing new transportation routes in the region. Thus, the problems between Azerbaijan and Armenia had impacted the previous efforts to establish diplomatic relations over a decade ago.
“It is high time that concrete steps are taken before it’s too late because different governments may have different perspectives about the issue at stake,” Köse said, adding that it is not always possible to have the West and Russia be in a mood to support normalization of relations.
“The actors supporting this normalization process need to take some steps that will further bolster the process,” the professor said, adding that if one of the existing actors is out of the equation, actors with a negative stance may replace them and the process might rewind.
During the 44-day conflict, which ended in a truce on Nov. 10, 2021, Azerbaijan liberated several cities and nearly 300 settlements and villages in Karabakh from a nearly three-decade occupation. Following the Karabakh crisis, Azerbaijan said it would try to fix relations with Armenia, sending a five-point proposal to renew ties.
“In the previous attempt, Turkey had wanted to coordinate the process with Azerbaijan, but it was not possible back then, whereas now it is simultaneously coordinated with Baku,” Köse said, adding that Turkey and Azerbaijan have further strengthened their security cooperation.
According to Kristin Cavoukian, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in state-diaspora relations, the former Soviet Union and the South Caucasus region, the normalization of Turkey-Armenia ties has always been interconnected with Armenia-Azerbaijan relations.
“Without Turkey’s very active involvement in last year’s war on the side of Azerbaijan, it is hard to imagine Azerbaijan taking as much territory or inflicting as much damage as they were able to,” she told Daily Sabah, calling Azerbaijan and Turkey “two hostile neighbors who are, from its perspective, united against it.” But she continued by pointing out that isolated Yerevan needs restoration of relations more than Turkey does.
Köse also claimed that the Serg Sargsyan administration had been under the control of the bureaucracy and the “Karabakh lobby,” and it backtracked, even though normalizing relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan would work in Yerevan’s favor. But he noted that the current president, Nikol Pashinian, has a different – more favorable – approach that could finally lead to normalization.
While highlighting the idea that now is the time to take concrete action to restore relations, Köse said normalization would open the door for new opportunities that may have a transformative impact on the South Caucasus region.
“A rapprochement between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan and opening borders between the neighbors, would lead to enhanced trade relations,” Köse said, adding that it could also open a new logistics corridor between Central Asia and Europe. He said that Turkey, Armenia and Central Asian countries would all benefit from this, as recent global developments have highlighted the importance of creating alternative logistics corridors.
“The integration of Armenia in the economic system would also be beneficial for all regional actors and may even create opportunities for energy investments,” Köse said, adding that solving commercial problems would contribute to countries’ efforts to solve their political problems in an easier manner.
Justin Bumgardner, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who also specializes in war and conflict resolution, told Daily Sabah that the restoration of ties between Ankara and Yerevan may lead to greater peace and stability.
“For example, Egypt and Israel fought four major wars against each other before they normalized relations with each other, but they have fought none since,” he said, pointing out that the establishment of stable relations may have positive repercussions in the future.
Cavoukian pointed out that the Armenian state is looking to stabilize the situation, as ongoing border clashes with Azerbaijan occur with the Russian military distracted by the war in Ukraine.
Although noting that a permanent peace deal between Yerevan and Baku would be the best option to bring peace to the region, Cavoukian said she’s not too optimistic about it.
“I think the best we can hope for in the near term is some sort of provisional peace agreement, which safeguards the lives and freedoms of the NK Armenians,” she said.
The Armenian diaspora is one of the largest diasporas, with over 7.5 million Armenians living abroad, mostly in Western countries, while Armenia’s population stands at around 3 million. Oftentimes, the diaspora has been accused of attempting to spoil the efforts between Ankara and Yerevan to restore ties.
But the diaspora may also play a positive role, according to Köse, who noted that the Armenian diaspora living in Turkey may particularly contribute to the normalization process. Noting that Armenian citizens living in Turkey welcome the initiative with open arms, Köse said they play a positive cultural and economic role.
For instance, they were euphoric after FlyOne Armenia and Turkish budget carrier Pegasus Airlines launched Istanbul-Yerevan flights back in February.
"I am very happy. As Armenians, we always side with peace ... The resentments should be left in the past," Diana Bulgadaryan, a dual Turkish and Armenian citizen, told reporters after her FlyOne Armenia flight landed in Istanbul in early February.
However, Köse noted that the Armenian diaspora living in the West may have a different approach regarding the restoration of ties with Turkey, which actually negatively impacts Armenians living in their homeland.
“The diaspora still has a profound economic impact on Armenia and they have immense lobbying power in the West,” Köse said. He continued by noting that while Armenia does not see the recognition of 1915 events as genocide as a precondition to fixing ties with Turkey, the diaspora emphasizes it and uses it as a means to hamper Turkey’s relations with Armenia and the West. For Köse, the Armenian diaspora has not been playing a constructive role, but he’s not hopeless:
“I believe there is a possibility that a common ground will emerge (for the diaspora) once Turkey and Armenia develop their diplomatic relations,” he said.
Noting that diasporas are “often accused of being more militant and obstinate than their counterparts in the home country,” Cavoukian said they can fan the flame of conflicts and obstruct the resolution process.
She continued by highlighting the main grievance of Armenians living in their home country, which is trying to make ends meet amid the de facto economic blockade on their economy.
“This is something the diaspora does not experience as directly, so it tends to prioritize other matters,” she said, adding that the Armenian government has proven itself “perfectly able and willing to prioritize its own interests over the perceived interests of the diaspora in the past.” She continued by noting that “the Sargsyan government went to great lengths to 'sell' the 2008-2009 Protocols to the diaspora precisely because it wished to soften the blow of a policy decision it fully intended to take anyway.”
“Like citizens of Armenia, diasporans are diverse, and do not share a common position on most issues,” Cavoukian told Daily Sabah.
Third parties, including Russia and other regional actors, may contribute to the normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations, but currently, there is no coordination between them, according to Köse and others.
Turkey and Armenia are part of the 3+3 mechanism in the South Caucasus, which includes Russia, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
For instance, Georgia is involved in a dispute with Russia over South Ossetia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still in the process of establishing relations, and Iran has a different perspective about developments in the region, Köse said.
“A regional approach is important but we see that conditions are not ripe for such an initiative, as we cannot talk about a framework in which all parties are equally eager,” he said but added that other parties may be encouraged to contribute once economic and political interests are at stake.
Meanwhile, Bumgardner pointed out that third-party mediation can be an effective conflict management technique and can help bring peace.
“The question is whether or not a conflict is 'ripe' for mediation. Mediation is more likely to be successful when both parties have reached a mutually hurting stalemate,” he told Daily Sabah.
He continued by expressing skepticism about Russia's ability to play a positive mediating role, especially after its invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia has garnered a rogue state status since initiating the war, and its priorities are on Ukraine now,” he said.
Professor Cavoukian also noted that Moscow is currently “bogged down in a needless war” in Ukraine, but said she was sure that the superpower would welcome the de-escalation of tensions in the region.
“However, Russia also considers Turkey a regional rival, and will want to ensure its own authority in the Caucasus is not undermined. It will view normalization through that lens, and not as a development that may or may not bring peace to the region,” she added.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinian said they both welcome the efforts to normalize ties between Turkey and Armenia. Pashinian had also expressed determination to maintain talks, saying that Yerevan will try its best to ensure that the ongoing peace discussions with Turkey are not stalled. While noting that the government is aware of all the risks in the normalization process, Pashinian said he believes the negotiations should continue and dialogue must be established despite everything.
“We need to do everything to ensure that negotiations with Turkey do not come to a standstill. We are aware that the results of the process may not come fast and let our international partners know about this,” Pashinian said, adding that delayed results may lead to a halt. To prevent this, he suggested that small steps may be taken, as he noted that Yerevan’s international partners fully support the initiative.
Turkey has also been trying to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, and its efforts have been hailed by both countries and outside actors.
Although the two neighbors have had hostile relations, Turkish and Armenian people have a trove of things in common, including significant elements in their culture, cuisines and more. Capt. Moltke's observations still ring true after almost two centuries. In 2015, anthropologist Emine Onaran Incirlioğlu, who visited Armenia as part of Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation’s “Beyond Borders” bursary program to observe cultural similarities and differences between the two people through direct observation over the course of four months, was surprised with her findings.
“What really surprised me, was the fact that many of the idioms we use on a daily basis (in Turkey) could be directly translated into Armenian,” Incirlioğlu had told Agos daily.
Idioms like “for God’s sake,” (Allah aşkına / Astvatz sires), “enjoy it,” (güle güle kullan / barov mashes), which do not have a meaning when directly translated into English, made sense to Armenians, the anthropologist said, adding that they would burst into laughter as they discovered more shared idioms.
“They say the British and the French do not laugh at the same jokes. What is considered funny is a cultural thing: Not everybody laughs at the same joke,” she said, pointing to the similar nuances between the two cultures.
Politics aside, some of the most prominent Armenian artists, including legendary photographer late Ara Güler and the late Adile Naşit, the beloved motherly figure of Turkish Yeşilçam movies, are still remembered, celebrated and loved by almost all segments of Turkish society. Perhaps Turkey could also utilize its soft power, like it has been doing all around the world, including Latin America and the Arab world, through its TV series, to reach wider audiences and establish a connection and break stereotypes.
On Oct. 10, 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed a peace accord, known as the Zurich Protocols, to establish diplomatic relations and open the border, but failed to ratify the agreement in their respective national parliaments. The Armenian diaspora, the church and nationalist parties in the country reacted against the protocols.
Turkey sent the protocols to parliament for approval, while they were also submitted to the Constitutional Court in Armenia. Although the Armenian court ruled on Jan. 12, 2010, that the protocols could constitutionally be approved, it rejected one of the main premises of the protocols. In the end, Sargsyan suspended the ratification process.
Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence on Sept. 21, 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It sent humanitarian aid to Armenia, which was struggling with serious economic problems after declaring its independence, and helped Yerevan integrate with regional organizations, the international community and Western institutions.
Turkey also invited Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation as a founding member.
However, the bilateral relations deteriorated after Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh, internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory.
Turkey ended direct trade with Armenia in 1993 and the border between the two countries was closed.
In 2005, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkish prime minister, sent a letter to then-Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and proposed establishing a joint commission of historians to study the Ottoman-era incidents of 1915.
Kocharyan, instead, suggested a high-level political dialogue to normalize relations between the two countries.
Then-President Abdullah Gül congratulated his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, over his 2008 election victory. In what was called "football diplomacy,” Sargsyan invited Gül to a 2008 World Cup qualifier match between Turkey and Armenia in Yerevan.
Gül became the first Turkish president to visit Armenia after its independence.
It was only one year later that the Armenian president paid a visit to Turkish northwestern Bursa province to join Gül at the second leg of the World Cup qualifier.
High-level meetings continued when Erdoğan and Sargsyan met in Washington on the sidelines of the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit.
Relations between Ankara and Yerevan entered a new phase in the fall of 2020 with the end of the second Karabakh war, which lasted 44 days and in which Turkey helped Azerbaijan recapture its territory.
The two countries have since appointed special representatives, Serdar Kılıç and Ruben Rubinyan, who first met on Jan. 14 in Moscow. Their second meeting was held in Vienna on Feb. 24, after which both sides "reiterated their agreement to continue the process without preconditions."
Turkey’s normalization with Armenia does not come as a surprise, as Ankara has actively been involved in intense diplomacy traffic, trying to mend ties with a number of other countries, including its western neighbor Greece, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Egypt. More importantly, like Erdoğan recently said, there are no losers in peace and prolonged conflict is not in anybody’s interest.