Can the Normalization Process Between Turkey and Armenia Yield Results?

May 6, 2022
by Mustafa Enes Esen, published on 6 May 2022

The third meeting for the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia took place in Vienna on May 3. In the aftermath, Turkish and Armenian foreign ministries literally made the same brief declaration about the talks: “The Special Representatives reaffirmed the declared goal of achieving full normalization between their respective countries through this process. In this sense, they had sincere and productive exchange of concrete views and discussed possible steps that can be undertaken for tangible progress in this direction. They reiterated their agreement to continue the process without preconditions.” 

These talks fall within the broader picture of Turkey’s recent normalization efforts in its region. Nevertheless, some fundamental dynamics render the Armenian case different from others. To begin with, Ankara’s current efforts to normalize its relations with its neighbors primarily rely on Turkey’s desire to boost its economy by expanding its export markets and attracting investments. But unlike other wealthy countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the normalization with Armenia does not present a similar prospect in terms of commercial activities. Armenia is a land-locked and small country with a negligible trade potential for Turkey. Therefore, political and diplomatic concerns, rather than economic ones, dominate Turkey’s agenda regarding Armenia.

Second, Turkey had never enjoyed a close relationship with Armenia. Although Turkey was among the first countries that recognized the independence of Armenia in 1991, it was the only country in which Turkey did not establish any diplomatic mission among 14 post-Soviet republics that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aside from the acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide, one of the underlying reasons for Turkey’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia was the assassination of several Turkish diplomats by Armenian terrorists during the previous decades. The invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia in 1993 ended any further prospects of establishing diplomatic relations. 

Third, Azerbaijan has had an overwhelming influence on setting the course of Turkish-Armenian relations in the last 30 years. Turkey had closed its borders and effectively terminated its economic relations with Armenia in 1993 to show solidarity with Azerbaijan. The previous Turkish-Armenian rapprochement efforts between 2008 and 2010 were torpedoed by Azerbaijan, which was anxious that the weakening of the Armenian isolation in the region could loosen its claims on Nagorno-Karabakh. Lastly, the recent rapprochement was enabled by the blessing of Baku after it reclaimed last year the territories that Armenia had occupied in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Within this context, these talks can pave the way to stabilize and bring prosperity to the Caucasus. Just before the latest round of the talks, “We are in negotiations with Armenia. Hopefully, the gates will be opened, and our friendly relations will continue,” said Erdoğan to the representatives of the Armenian community in Turkey on 26 April. Considering the willingness of the Armenian government to exploit economic and trade opportunities with Turkey, we can expect a speedy outcome in this field. Significant challenges loom, however, over these talks. 

Turkey will hold the presidential election next year. It is highly possible that Erdoğan will follow ultra-nationalist rhetoric during his political campaign. A rapprochement with the Armenians may not bode well with his constituents since many of them consider Armenia one of Turkey's “historical enemies.” It is, therefore, likely that the talks with Armenia will continue at the technical level, and formally establishing a diplomatic mission might be delayed until the aftermath of the elections in Turkey. In the same vein, concrete steps such as opening Turkish-Armenian borders will be announced without much fanfare, as happened with the beginning of commercial flights between the two countries in February. 

On the other hand, any flare-up of tensions at Nagorno-Karabakh will have direct repercussions on the talks as it happened in the past. Although the risk of a full-fledged war in the short term remains low, the sporadic clashes between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the region continue. In this regard, Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu stressed that Turkey is coordinating with Azerbaijan on its policy on Armenia and added: “Armenia’s messages are positive, but we want to see action. We can take trilateral steps.”

Lastly and most importantly, Erdoğan will not seek normalization with Armenia just because the circumstances are fortuitous. Given the interest of the USA and the EU in supporting a friendly government in Yerevan, Erdoğan will definitely use the normalization process as leverage in his relations with the West. For instance, in one of the rare meetings he held with Erdoğan, President Biden urged him to normalize ties with Armenia. As the war in Ukraine has already strengthened Ankara’s hand, Erdoğan may save the normalization with Armenia for a rainy day. This fact would further entice Erdoğan to prolong the negotiations over a more extended period of time. When the right moment comes, he might ask for adequate concessions from the Western sponsors of Armenia to fully normalize the relations.  

To conclude, the upcoming presidential elections in Turkey and the war in Ukraine will influence Ankara’s normalization pace with Armenia. The talks can yield some tangible and positive developments after decades of mutual mistrust. Nonetheless, we should be reminded that fully normalizing the relations with Armenia is not an urgent priority for Erdoğan. 

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