Serdar Kılıç and Ruben Rubinyan
The Armenia–Turkey normalization process was officially launched on January 14, 2022 when special representatives – the Deputy Speaker of the Armenian Parliament Ruben Rubinyan and Ambassador Serdar Kılıç – met in Moscow. The groundwork for this meeting began in mid-2021, when the Armenian government proposed the idea of peace in the South Caucasus and normalizing relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenia’s catastrophic defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war seemed to put aside one of the main obstacles to launching the Armenia–Turkey normalization process. The 2008-2009 “football diplomacy” failed mainly due to Turkey’s precondition to Armenia to return “occupied lands” to Azerbaijan. By signing the November 10, 2020 statement, the Armenian government accepted the loss of seven regions outside the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR), as well as 30-percent of territories of NKAR itself.
In late 2021, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan started to hint that Nagorno Karabakh had no chance to be outside Azerbaijan. This rhetoric accelerated in 2022 and culminated in a speech he delivered in the National Assembly on April 13. Thus, Armenia effectively accepted one of the main Turkish preconditions of the “football diplomacy” era.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey’s policy in the South Caucasus has been to increase its influence in the region. Turkey was quite successful in reaching this goal in its relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia, but the absence of relations with Armenia prevented Turkey from influencing the entire region. Russia, the main rival of Turkey in the South Caucasus, simultaneously exerted a strong influence over Armenia through the deployment of a military base and border troops and the establishment of bilateral and multilateral defense and security cooperation. Meanwhile, Turkey’s full support to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and economic blockade of Armenia did not leave much room for Armenia–Turkey normalization prospects. The West, particularly the US, was constantly pushing for normalization between Armenia and Turkey. They hoped it would reduce Armenia’s fear of Turkey and decrease the necessity for Armenia to keep its military and security alliance with Russia. It would pave the way for the eventual withdrawal of the Russian military base from Armenia and a significant decrease in Russian influence in the South Caucasus.
As the Nagorno Karabakh issue ceases to be a serious obstacle for the Armenia–Turkey normalization process and the current Armenian government expresses its willingness to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, conventional wisdom says that Turkey should do its best to use this window of opportunity to normalize relations with Armenia. It will open a new horizon for Turkey to increase its influence in the region and better compete with Russia. Meanwhile, the recent protest movement in Armenia should bother Turkey. Protesters are demanding Pashinyan’s resignation mainly for his administration’s willingness to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan if Baku provides relevant security guarantees. However, relations with Turkey are also part of the equilibrium. If a new government forms in Armenia, it will be less enthusiastic about normalizing relations with Turkey by accepting Turkey’s preconditions.
For Turkey, the window of opportunity to normalize relations with Armenia and decrease Russian influence in the South Caucasus may close soon. This implies that the Turkish government should make efforts to conclude the process by signing documents on establishing diplomatic relations and opening borders. However, the pace of the Armenia–Turkey process creates a perception that Ankara is not in a hurry to reach any concrete results and is interested more in the process than in the outcome.
Rubinyan and Kılıç have already met three times, the last one in Vienna on May 3. After the May 3 meeting, the sides issued identical statements, with almost the same wording as the outcome of the first and second meeting. The statement emphasized that the special representatives reaffirmed the declared goal of achieving full normalization between countries and discussed possible steps that can be undertaken for tangible progress in this direction, reiterating their agreement to continue the process without preconditions. However, even the period between meetings showed a lack of progress. If the second meeting happened only 40 days after the initial one, the sides waited 70 days before holding the third meeting.
The apparent lack of progress in the negotiations raises questions about Turkey’s real motives. One reason could be the change of Turkey’s strategic objective to use normalization with Armenia as a tool to weaken Russian positions in Armenia. It could result from Russia–Turkey understanding of managing their competition in the South Caucasus. Thus, if Ankara reaches some agreement with Moscow on the limits of their regional rivalry, the normalization of relations with Armenia may lose its significance for Turkey as a way to counter Russia. In this context, Turkey may believe that a potential change of government in Armenia will not create obstacles in the negotiation process. Thus, the window of opportunity will remain open for an extended period.
Suppose Turkey does not see the normalization of its relations with Armenia as an urgent necessity to push forward its vital interests in the region while still believing that the US views this as a necessary step in the global US–Russia confrontation. In that case, it may wait for some gestures from the US to move forward. It may be some advancement in the US–Turkey negotiations on the sale of F-16 jets to Turkey or the cancellation of US sanctions on the Turkish defense industry. Regardless of the real motives of Turkey’s apparent lack of enthusiasm in making any progress in the normalization process with Armenia, Armenia should consider it while dealing with Ankara.