Turkey, Armenia: A Major Thaw In the Long Freeze

Turkey, Armenia: A Major Thaw In the Long Freeze

Stratfor.com (Strategic Forecasting Inc.)
Feb 01, 2005


Armenia and Turkey have made stunning announcements that indicate a
melting in the long diplomatic freeze between them. Such unprecedented
progress suggests an end to the stalemate is on the horizon, if still
off in the distance. With Turkey’s drive for EU membership providing
the impetus, both governments now have far more to gain from
normalizing relations than they stand to lose by angering nationalist
opponents to those relations.


Mustafa Safran, chairman of the Turkish Education Ministry’s
commission on textbooks, says the country’s newest history textbooks
will include references to the controversial Armenian “genocide.”
Armenia has long insisted that Turkey acknowledge that it committed
genocide against more than 1 million Armenians in 1915, a charge
Turkey has denied — so vehemently, in fact, that the topic has been
taboo until recently. Textbooks, however, will now include both
Armenian and Turkish version of the events so students can make up
their own minds, Safran said.

This essentially amounts to an astounding change in Turkish foreign
policy and an enormous concession to Armenia. Diplomatic relations
between the two have been frozen since, in the wake of Armenian
independence from the Soviet Union, Turkey closed its border with
Armenia — this was done in a show of support for its Turkic brethren
in Azerbaijan over Yerevan’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
that began in 1988.

Complementing Safran’s surprise announcement was a statement the same
day, Jan. 28, from Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on a
Turkish radio station. Oskanian said Armenia no longer considers
Turkish acknowledgement that the 1915 events constituted genocide as a
precondition for normalized relations. Oskanian added that Armenia
would renounce all claims to territory now within Turkish borders and
that the re-opening of borders between the two countries would be
enough to re-establish normal ties. These two announcements are
tantamount to an earthquake in the old foundation of relations between
these two longtime adversaries, and their simultaneous presentation
likely signals coordination — revealing that a serious push is on.

It is probably no coincidence that these announcements came so soon
after Turkey received its invitation to begin negotiations on
membership to the European Union. The two sides have been holding
high-level secret meetings for several years, sources close to the
talks say, to avoid having nationalists on either side scuttle
negotiations before they can make progress. Turkey’s EU drive likely
has given those negotiations a strong shove forward.

According to EU membership requirements, Ankara need not restore
relations with Yerevan in order to join. Given that some EU members
are likely to try to delay Turkey’s accession as long as possible,
Turkey will need to be squeaky-clean in order to get in, and that
makes normal relations with Armenia a necessity. If the road to
Brussels goes through Yerevan, then Ankara has all the motivation it
needs to normalize relations.

For its part, Armenia also announced recently that it hopes to join
the Union in the future. If it is sincere, this makes peace with a
prospective member imperative for Yerevan as well, not to mention the
resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Hopes of EU membership
are even further off for Armenia than for Turkey, but Armenia has
convincing reasons to bury the hatchet.

In spite of their closed borders, trade between Turkey and Armenia
totaled $125 million in 2004, and the Armenian government believes
that figure would jump to $500 million almost instantaneously if the
border were re-opened. For a country with an estimated 2004 gross
domestic product of $3.5 billion, this is an enormous difference. That
trade would no doubt grow further if economic ties were allowed to
develop between the two countries, to the benefit of both sides.

More significantly for Armenia, an open door to Turkey would finally
release it from the economic prison it has been in since its borders
with Turkey and Azerbaijan were slammed shut. With the borders closed,
Yerevan has been forced to subsist on Georgia’s dilapidated
infrastructure to get goods to and from the West, which makes for a
significantly slower, and more expensive, trip than if it could go
through Turkey. Also, with access to Turkey, goods would pass through
a large market along the way to the West.

The political ramifications for Armenia are equally significant as the
economic ones, if not more so. An open border with Turkey would reduce
Armenia’s reliance on Russia for either its political or economic
well-being. Furthermore, Armenia would find less of a need for close
relations with Iran — its economic lifeline to the south and no
friend to Ankara — if it had more stable ties to the West. Better
relations with Turkey also likely would give a push to negotiations
with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In short, normal diplomatic and
trade relations with Turkey would reshape Armenia’s strategic position
and offer it a political independence that it has not had for a very
long time.

Potential stumbling blocks, however, remain. The Turkish military has
been the guardian of Turkish national interests since the days of
Ataturk and can always bring the works to a grinding halt. The
military high command has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to
allow the elected government to take steps to move the country toward
EU membership, which is in keeping with Ataturk’s Western-oriented
philosophy. If, however, it perceives an unnecessary step or
concession, such as one on Nagorno-Karabakh, the military could
quickly make its presence felt again. As long as Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan does only what is necessary for EU
membership, which includes normal relations with Armenia, the military
should stay on the sidelines.

On the Armenian side, the biggest stumbling block to Turkish-Armenian
rapprochement at this point appears to lie outside the two countries.
The Armenian lobbies in the United States and France are highly
successful and influential. They exercise their influence not only
through their control of significant remittances to Armenia, on which
the country depends economically, but also through their influence on
the governments of their respective countries. The sources say the
Armenian diasporas in the United States and France continue to be
vehemently opposed to a deal with Turkey that does not include
recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide.

These diasporas played a decisive role in the rise to power of
nationalist Armenian President Robert Kocharian in 1998 after his
predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosian, began talking to Ankara. Since they
do not have the political and economic interests that the residents of
Turkey and Armenia have, these expatriates tend to act strictly on
emotional grounds and have little interest in the practical benefits
of normalized relations.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the day after Oskanian’s Jan. 28
statement, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier demanded that Turkey
recognize the genocide of 1915 — a comment the Turks will never take
sitting down. Sympathy in France tends to be in Armenia’s favor, but
it is a virtual certainty that phone calls from influential Armenians
— in a tizzy about Yerevan’s overtures — played a role in eliciting
such a high-level response so soon. The fact, however, that Kocharian
is so publicly stepping out on a limb and risking the wrath of
important supporters abroad indicates there is enough political will
at home for him to absorb criticism from his supporters abroad.

Although bumps on the road are inevitable, opponents to normalized
relations on either side likely are fighting a losing battle. The
prospect of EU membership has altered the calculations of the
Turkish-Armenian dispute, and the power politics now point toward a
normalization of relations. In October, Turkey will officially begin
its negotiations to enter the EU, and the disputes with both Cyprus
and Armenia are destined to be resolved if Turkey is sincere in its
desire to join. With renewed Turkish willingness to negotiate, and
great benefits awaiting Armenia, the incentive to overcome any
obstacles is far greater now than it has been in the past, and that
makes normalized relations a strong possibility in the future.

(Stratfor: Predictive, Insightful, Global Intelligence)