Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Back to Square One with Turkey

In the end. painstaking efforts to rebuild the troubled relationship were blocked by massive unresolved differences.
By Armen Karapetyan
  • Armenian foreign minister Eduard Nalbandyan (left) and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu (since appointed prime minister) meet in Yerevan in December 2013. (Photo: Photolure agency)
    Armenian foreign minister Eduard Nalbandyan (left) and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu (since appointed prime minister) meet in Yerevan in December 2013. (Photo: Photolure agency)

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan’s decision to drop plans to ratify a 2009 agreement with Turkey signals a tougher new line that should chime with public sentiment at home.

The accord, known as the Armenian-Turkish Protocols, were signed at a time when both countries were working to repair a relationship troubled by the 1915 killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, and more recently by Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in the dispute over Nagorny Karabakh.

The thaw came to an end in 2010 when Armenia accused Turkey of trying to add extra conditions to the protocols.

On February 16, Sargsyan announced that he had formally recalled the still unratified accords from parliament because of an “absence of political will” on Turkey’s part to resolve differences.

Commentators in Yerevan say the move may be linked to the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the killings. Over 20 countries have joined Armenia in describing the killings as genocide, but Turkey continues to reject the term.

Last August, Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandyan attended Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inauguration as president and formally invited him to the centenary commemorations of Genocide Remembrance Day in Yerevan on April 24, 2015.

As prime minister, Erdoğan addressed the issue ahead of the 2014 anniversary, but while he spoke of Armenian “suffering” and “our shared pain”, he did not use the word “genocide” or offer an apology.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to show solidarity with Azerbaijan in the war in Nagorny Karabakh. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994, leaving Karabakh controlled by a separate Armenian administration. Protracted talks have failed to identify a mutually acceptable solution to the dispute.

The 2009 protocols were not intended to produce immediate solutions to the big issues of genocide recognition and continuing Turkish support for returning Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Instead, they were meant to bring about the normalisation of relations, including reopening the border.

With its growing, modernising economy, Turkey is important to Armenia despite their political differences. Since 2009 when the accords were signed, trade has grown by 30 per cent, so that Turkey was Armenia’s fifth biggest trading partner last year.

Ultimately, it was the two states’ different aims and their irreconcilable positions on the key issues that blocked further moves towards better relations.

“The two countries had different objectives in signing the documents,” said Stepan Safaryan, head of the Armenian Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Turkey was trying to stop the process of international recognition of the Armenian genocide, whereas Armenia wanted to open the border, which would have had a positive impact on its economy and strengthened its position in the Karabakh negotiations.”

When Sargsyan hinted last September that the protocols might be withdrawn from parliament, he accused Turkey of adding a new and unacceptable precondition for ratification – Nagorny Karabakh must be handed back to Azerbaijani control.

In an interview published by the Sabah newspaper on February 20, four days after Sargsyan’s announcement, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed that Karabakh must be returned.

“Armenia has not taken a single step,” he said. “Until the specific conditions are met, there can be no talk of ratification.”

Analysts say Sargysan may have adopted a more uncompromising stance on Turkey because he knew it would go down well at home.

After the accords were signed in 2009, opposition parties staged mass protests. There is also a large Armenian diaspora that tends to favour a tough line on Turkey.

“Throughout the discussion of the protocols, the Armenian public viewed them in a negative light, and it still does,” said Stepan Danielyan, head of the Cooperation for Democracy Centre. “One reason for this is that the protocols envisage setting up a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians to examine the historical facts. The fact of genocide is thus being questioned.”

According to Safaryan, the president has not always been at the forefront of the campaign for global acknowledgement of the genocide.

In retrospect, the invitation for Erdoğan to attend Genocide Remembrance Day – seen at the time as a diplomatic olive branch – may have been the first signal that Armenia was shifting to a tougher line. “About a month later, Sargsyan gave his famous speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, in which he said that Armenia's patience was not infinite and Turkey had little time left to ratify the protocols. And in the end the protocols were withdrawn,” Safaryan said.

In Danielyan’s view, the “Armenian question” continues to be a weak point for Turkey and to colour its relationships with other countries.

“Genocide recognition has unfortunately become a political bargaining chip, and it therefore suits many people for this leverage to continue to exist,” he said. “It’s in both countries’ interests to reach bilateral agreements, but Turkey in particular is not taking convincing steps to get there.”

The opposition Dashnaktsutyun party was always against the protocols, and the head of its Armenian Cause Office, Giro Manoyan, does not believe President Sargysan went far enough.

“You can’t say the matter is closed, since the president has only recalled the protocols from parliament. Armenia’s signature continues to be on these documents, so in legal terms, they still exist,” Manoyan said.

Armen Karapetyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.