Next Steps to Normalize Turkish-Armenian Relations
Hovhannes Nikoghosyan

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 at the height of the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno Karabakh, a conflict in which Turkey sided with Azerbaijan. At the time of the closure, the Russian media were speculating that Turkey might invade Armenia but was warned off by the head of Russia’s General Staff, who was said to have told Ankara that to do so might start World War III.

In the mid 1990s there were rumors of secret negotiations between Armenia and Turkey concerning the route of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. It was said that Turkey suggested the pipeline run through Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia instead of Georgia, in exchange for Armenia withdrawing its forces from Nagorno Karabakh. If such talks were held, nothing came of them as the pipeline was routed through Georgia.

The next, and possibly the most positive step in bilateral ties, was the creation of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) in 2001 by civil society representatives from Armenia and Turkey. TARC was originally financed by the US Administration and coordinated by David Phillips, a senior adviser at the US State Department.

Today we can say that the major step towards real reconciliation made by TARC was the decision to ask the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to study the applicability of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention to events of 1915-1923. The ICTJ published a report in 2003 stating that the Ottoman Empire in its late years had committed genocide against Armenians. However, TARC stopped functioning after its fourth meeting in Moscow. No official outcome of its work was ever published.

If we look at how Armenians and Turks conduct business, one can hardly describe their behavior as that of enemies. The notion of the two peoples being enemies today is a stereotype perpetrated by those powers that benefit from the standoff between the two, especially for strategic and military reasons. I deeply believe that if we do not take any steps to improve the ongoing situation in Armenian-Turkish relations their “geopolitical incompatibility” will become a matter of fact. For instance, in Armenia both political and public opinion believes that the Kars-Baku railway project (bypassing Armenia through Georgia) is a project Ankara is behind to support Baku, and not a project that will help strengthen regional integration and peace.

The most important reason for improving Turkish-Armenian relations, however, is the need for both countries to be more stable European allies, since both nations want to join the European Union.

Besides, keeping the Turkish-Armenian border closed is not the best way to solve problems in 21st century. There are unresolved disputes within Europe, but no borders are closed. The best way forward is a fair dialog. No state can move forward alone without cooperating with its neighbors.

In 2001 Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian made the following statement: “The fundamental obstacle for future Armenian-Turkish relations is our lack of trust in Turkey, as well as the fact that we are not hopeful that Turkey will become our reliable partner.” I believe, no one could describe the current situation better. And the same mistrust is no doubt present in Ankara. The fact is that neither side trusts the other. What can be done to improve the situation?

In 2001 former Turkish foreign minister Ismail Cem suggested the holding of a Turkish-Azerbaijani-Armenian trilateral conference on regional security issues. I believe this was a great idea that was unfortunately never carried out. But the idea is still valid.

I believe it would be useful to call a wider conference for regional peace and security, focused on confidence-building measures in the South Caucasus/Caspian region. The following powers could participate: Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, the United States and the European Union.

I think this is an issue to be discussed seriously. It is a matter of fact that all the participants have reservations regarding rapprochement with at least some of the others, but these should be discussed as soon as possible. It is important for each country to articulate for the others what concessions it deems acceptable for the talks to succeed. Armenia believes in a non-military approach to solving the thorny regional issues, but it has not received a positive response so far.

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan is the Managing Editor of “Actual Policy” e-Journal. (www.ap.rau.am)