Open Democracy
Dec 30 2011

Armenia-Turkey: the end of rapprochement
Vicken Cheterian, 30 December 2011

A diplomatic process designed to normalise relations between Armenia
and Turkey led to the signing of two protocols in 2009. Its failure is
rooted in the miscalculations of both sides, says Vicken Cheterian.

The genocide museum in Yerevan lies north of the Armenian capital at
the top of a hill called Tsitsernakapert. The physical effort of
walking to the summit is an appropriate spur to the visitor to reflect
on the hardship of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman citizens of
Armenian origin, who in 1915 and subsequent years were forced by their
state to walk to the Syrian desert, there or on the way to die of
hunger, exhaustion or by an act of murder. Today, the end-point is the
sight of a sober, forty-four-metre high stele pointing skywards, as if
claiming justice; and beside it, a circular monument of twelve basalt
slabs that both open to and protect the eternal flame.

On 24 April each year, the day of commemoration of the Armenian
genocide, thousands of people gather at Tsitsernakapert to place a
flower at the monument - and then walk down the other side of the hill
where, on a clear day, there is a magnificent view of Mount Ararat,
with its white glaciers as if hanging from heaven. It is a poignant
sight, for Ararat is both the visible totem of the Armenians yet
remains unreachable to them, since it lies on the other side of the
border that divides Armenia from Turkey. The two countries'
300-kilometre-long frontier, which runs only 40 kilometres from the
centre of Yerevan, is closed: the last closed border of the cold war.

I went to Tsitsernakapert to visit Hayk Demoyan, the director of the
genocide museum which is part of the cluster of monuments on the site.
"This museum tells the history of not only the Armenian people, but
also that of the Turkish people", Demoyan tells me. He refers to the
the diplomatic exchanges since 2008 that sought to normalise
Armenian-Turkish relations, saying that he expected these to prompt "a
flow of Turkish visitors". It has proved a vain hope. "The
international community, especially the Americans, did not exert
enough sustained pressure on Turkey to open up the border", Demoyan
says. "Now the process is at a dead-end".

>From blockade to diplomacy

The complicated relationship between Armenia and Turkey is rooted in
the events of the great war of 1914-18, when the Ottoman
administration deported en masse its Armenian citizens from their
towns and villages in Anatolia, the prelude to the anihilation of
almost the entire Armenian population of the empire. The legacy of
this bitter history was such that only in the early 1990s, amid the
break-up of the Soviet Union and Armenia's attempts to secure its
independence, did a chance arise for Armenia and Turkey to move beyond
deep antagonism and create normal relations.

At the time, Armenia's new political leadership was trying to escape
Moscow's influence and prepared to establish diplomatic relations with
Turkey without preconditions. But the escalation of the conflict in
Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave inside the new state of Azerbaijan with a
majority Armenian population, posed a major obstacle to this course.
Turkey's then leadership supported Azerbaijan in this conflict,
refused to open diplomatic links, and (in 1993) joined Azerbaijan in
imposing an economic blockade on land-locked Armenia in an effort to
force it to end its backing for the Karabakh Armenians' quest for

A frozen conflict ensued, until the war between Russia and Georgia in
August 2008 overturned the region's geopolitical map. Ankara saw a
chance to address this anomaly of its Caucasus policy. On 8 September
2008, Turkey's head of state Abdüllah Gül visited Yerevan during a
football world-cup qualifying match between the two national teams,
and this was followed by a series of diplomatic meetings where
practical steps were discussed.

In fact, secret diplomatic talks had been held in Bern since 2007,
mediated by the Swiss foreign ministry. The chain of diplomatic
contacts culminated in the signing in Zurich on 10 October 2009 of two
"protocols", dedicated to establishing diplomatic relations and on
opening the borders. The ceremony, hosted by Swiss foreign minister
Micheline Calmy-Rey, was attended by international dignitaries such as
United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign
minister Sergei Lavrov.

"What is ironic is the fact that during the cold war this border was
not so hermeticaly closed as it is now. At the time, trains travelled
regularly between Kars and Leninakan [now Gumri]", says Tatul
Hakobyan, a Yerevan-based author who is finishing a book on
Armenia-Turkey relations. Hakobyan's interpretation of the failure of
dialogue is interesting: "The expectations of the various sides were
based on wrong calculations. The Armenian side thought that it was
possible to change the status quo on Armenian-Turkish relations
without changing the status quo on the Karabakh issue. Turkey thought
that dialogue with Armenia will lead to Armenian concessions on
Karabakh. And the international community did not pay enough attention
to details."

The protocol-signing process in Zurich was fraught: the Turkish side
wanted a public declaration linking the protocols with the Karabakh
negotiations process, leading the Armenian delegation to boycott the
ceremony, meaning that in the end there was no declaration. "In
Zurich, the sides showed that they were not ready to compormise.
Turkey wanted Armenian concessions on Karabakh, not just on the
question of genocide and fixing the current border", says Hakobyan.

The results of failure

When the process began, both presidents took risks in the hope of
bringing peace and stability to their countries. For Armenia's Serge
Sarkissian, entering a dialogue with Turkey was a particularly bold
step; he was already challenged by a powerful domestic opposition that
contested the legitimacy of his election, and the diplomatic move so
angered the Tashnaktsutyun party (which has a large diaspora base)
that it left the government coalition in protest. The signing of the
protocols also created a schism between Yerevan and Armenian
communities abroad, which Sarkissian experienced directly when, during
a foreign tour of diaspora communities, he was faced by demonstrations
in Paris, Los Angeles and Beirut.

For Turkey's diplomacy, the policy of rapprochement with Armenia was
part of a wider effort to ease tensions in the Caucasus's several
conflict-zones, especially that of Karabakh. They believed that
ameliorating Ankara's relations with Armenia would facilitate
negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Instead, they were
confronted by a vehement reaction from Azerbaijan that accused Turkey
of betraying Baku's interests. Baku threatened to suspend relations
with Ankara and to cancel future hydrocarbon deals. As a result, the
Turkish leadership insisted that Armenia made concessions over
Karabakh on the grounds that this would enable the protocols to be
ratified by the Turkish parliament. Ankara was here not just seeking
measures additional to those foreseen in the protocols, but reverting
to its earlier position that Armenian-Turkish relations can only move
forward if Armenia complies with Azerbaijani demands on the Karabakh

Thus, both Armenia and Turkey entered the process of negotiations
without anticipating all the moves they might be expected to make, and
were surprised along the way. Yerevan's diplomats proceeded to sign
the protocols without consulting diaspora communities, amid protests
by diaspora communities against the president of Armenia for the first
time since independence. Ankara similarly misjudged its capacity to
resist opposition from Baku, and even a reversal of its policy has not
allayed Azerbaijani suspicions.

The failure of the protocols is so great that it will have long-term
consequences. "The failure of Armenian-Turkish negotiations will
harden the Armenian position on Karabakh negotiations", according to
Ara Tadevosyan, the director of the Media Max news agency in Yerevan.
Even worse, what started as personal initiatives and cautious trust
has turned into mistrust. Today, the Armenian leadership feels
deceived by its Turkish equivalent: it signed two protocols for which
it had already paid a political price back home, only to be asked to
make further concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh.

This perceived deception will harden Yerevan's position in relation to
Turkey, only three years before the centenary commemoration of the
Armenian genocide in 2015. Turkey's official reaction to the proposed
outlawing of the denial of genocide in France shows that attitudes on
its side are becoming even more intransigent. The hopes of 2009 look
ever more distant.