What the Turkish election means for Armenia-Turkey relations

London School of Economics, UK

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will challenge incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the second round of the Turkish presidential election on 28 May. Armine Avetisyan and Kübra Zeynep Sarıaslan examine what the outcome of the vote could mean for Armenia-Turkey relations.

The parliamentary election held in Turkey on 14 May produced an overwhelming majority for nationalist parties in the country’s parliament. Nevertheless, the presidential election, which was held simultaneously, will now go to a second round of voting. Although Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main Turkish opposition, finished behind incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the first round, he remains in the race for the presidency.

Kılıçdaroğlu had promised to pursue a radical break from Erdoğan’s approach in a variety of policy areas, including foreign policy. His inclusive rhetoric and commitment to reconciling with marginalised groups had raised hopes among those who support closer relations between Turkey and Armenia.

The traumatic history of antagonism between the two countries and the Armenian genocide dispute continue to complicate Armenia-Turkey relations. However, while the Turkish and Armenian governments have failed to establish diplomatic ties, civil society actors on both sides have done a great deal of work to foster closer cooperation across the realms of arts and culture, the media, education, business, and tourism, among others.

But these initiatives have suffered greatly from the unpredictable and unstable foreign policies of Erdoğan’s governments over the last two decades, underlined by Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. They have also been undermined by the ultranationalist tone of one of Erdoğan’s key allies, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Turkey was one of the first nations to recognise the independent Republic of Armenia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet the mutual trust and commitment to dialogue needed to restore full diplomatic relations between the two countries has never materialised. Initial normalisation efforts were derailed by the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which took place between 1992 and 1994. The so-called Zurich Protocols, which were signed by Armenia and Turkey in 2009 as a step toward normalising relations, failed to be ratified in the two parliaments, under pressure from Azerbaijan.

In 2020, after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia signed a statement which also mentioned opening all trade routes in the region. In 2021, Turkey and Armenia started a new normalisation process by appointing diplomatic representatives. As part of this process, it was announced in 2022 that the land border between Turkey and Armenia would be opened to third-country nationals, however no concrete steps have yet been taken to open the border.

One week before the 2023 Turkish elections, Kılıçdaroğlu announced proposals for a new Silk Road project connecting Europe to China without mentioning Azerbaijan, which signalled distance from the long-lasting ‘one nation two states’ motto that encapsulates the close relationship between Ankara and Baku.

Although Kılıçdaroğlu and his team have not said anything about favouring relations with Armenia over Azerbaijan, and made no comment over the recent closure of Turkish air space for Armenian flights, they have at least signalled they would not establish the same kind of relationship with Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, that Erdoğan has had.

It is not clear to what extent this approach to Aliyev, a popular figure among Turkish nationalists, influenced the results of the first round of the presidential election, but the unexpectedly high votes for the third candidate with Azerbaijani descent, Sinan Oğan, along with the weight of representatives from nationalist political parties in parliament perhaps give some indication.

Kılıçdaroğlu had said he will work to improve Turkey’s poor human rights record and release political prisoners. Turkey’s civil society has suffered through difficult times ever since the failed coup attempt in 2016 and the two-year period of emergency that followed. The subsequent government crackdown on civil society organisations in Turkey, according to both Turkish and Armenian civil society actors, set back some of the progress made in the preceding decades.

This is underlined by the arrest of Osman Kavala in October 2017 during the state of emergency. Kavala was a key figure in programmes promoting civil dialogue and normalisation with Armenia. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2022 for allegedly organising the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the failed coup attempt. Six activists, including Çiğdem Mater, another key figure in the Armenia-Turkey dialogue working for the NGO Anadolu Kültür, were sentenced to 18 years in prison for participating in the Gezi Park protests and supporting Kavala.

Human rights defenders have argued that the prosecution of Kavala and his associates is based on insufficient evidence, and in 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated Kavala’s fundamental rights and demanded his immediate release. Referring to this decision, Kılıçdaroğlu indicated that “no one should be imprisoned for their thoughts.” The outcome of the second round of the election could therefore have major significance for wider efforts to establish cooperation with Armenia.

The opposition in Turkey was confident that it could revive EU accession negotiations very quickly if it won the elections. The EU has played and is expected to play an important role in the reconciliation efforts between Armenia and Turkey. EU financial support for civil society has been particularly important in ensuring the sustainability of activities in this field during turbulent times.

However, there is a chronological mismatch in Turkey and Armenia’s engagement with Europe. On the one hand, Armenia, as a former Soviet state that cares about maintaining close ties with Russia, aspires to adopt western values, while Turkey, as a NATO member, has almost entirely abandoned the goal of joining the EU, especially in the last few years under Erdoğan. In addition, civil society has secured more freedom in Armenia since the Velvet Revolution in 2018, though it remains a target for the political opposition. In contrast, Erdoğan’s governments have remained distant from civil society and in some cases even hostile towards it.

Erdoğan currently holds the upper hand ahead of the second round of the presidential election, but supporters of Kılıçdaroğlu concerned with Turkey’s relations with Armenia remain hopeful about his prospects and about the potential to develop future cooperation with Armenia on the basis of shared democratic values. In this scenario, Turkey would undoubtedly gain more credibility in efforts to reach stability in Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: © 2023 The Office to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia (CC BY-ND 3.0)

Armine Avetisyan is a peacebuilding practitioner and researcher. She holds a dual MA in Conflict Studies from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University (USA) and Cultural Management from Istanbul Bilgi University (Turkey).

Kübra Zeynep Sarıaslan is a Visiting Fellow at LSE’s Chair of Contemporary Turkish Studies and at the University of Cambridge. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Zurich (Switzerland).