Inching Forward in Armenian-Turkish Ties

Football diplomacy: where are we now?

Inching Forward in Armenian-Turkish Ties

Football diplomacy: where are we now?

Wednesday, 9 September, 2009
On June 2008, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to watch a match in Yerevan between the Armenian and Turkish football teams. This triggered heated discussion in both countries about what really lay behind the invitation.

The pressure to normalise relations increased after the war in Georgia in August 2008, which demonstrated the vulnerability of all the countries in the region to a repeat shock. Commentators in both countries said the peace process would heighten stability in the south Caucasus.

Turkey failed to maintain momentum, which initially seemed to have harmed the opportunity for a resolution to the conflict in the south Caucasus. What was seen in Yerevan as an anti-Armenian policy followed by Ankara for the last 15 years appears to have cast a shadow over moves towards peace. Doves argued, however, that the opening of the border with Armenia and the establishment of diplomatic relations would, in fact, open the way to addressing every dimension of the conflict between Armenia and Turkey.

Hopes built again after April 22, 2009, when the two sides signed a “road map” detailing measures to open the border, establish diplomatic relations and set up a forum for considering current disputes.

Finally on August 31, Turkey and Armenia took a new step, and agreed to start internal political consultations on two protocols – the “Protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations” and the “Protocol on the development of bilateral relations”.

The Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his initiative for a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform”, CSCP, on August 13, 2008 in Moscow. The CSCP cannot come into effect if Turkey has not established sound relations with all countries in the region. Without a normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations, it will be a dead letter, and this has made Turkey keener to resolve outstanding disputes.

The Reaction from Azerbaijan

The prospect of an open Turkish-Armenian frontier triggered panic in Azerbaijan, both in government and at large. Many people felt that Turkey would be abandoning its ally by opening the border with Armenia before Armenia had pulled troops out of western Azerbaijan and the breakaway republic of Nagorny-Karabakh.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have been close since the early 1990s, so Turkey’s talks with Armenia shocked Baku. Azerbaijan has, however, also engaged in talks with Russia, which has traditionally been an Armenian ally, and even used the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as an excuse.

The Nagorny-Karabakh issue

A decision to open the border with Armenia would mean that Turkey had largely abandoned its symbolic support for Azerbaijan over Nagorny-Karabakh. However, commentators in Turkey have long questioned the efficacy of the closed border as a means to force Armenia to negotiate over Karabakh, since it has failed to work for the last 15 years.

The settlement of the Nagorny-Karabakh conflict and the normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations should be seen as distinct processes.

Turkish-Armenian affairs

The Turkish-Armenian talks were kept low profile. Many meetings were held in a very short time, but no substantial statements were made.

In the run-up to April 24, 2009, Armenian Genocide Memorial Day, the media covered the process closely and the road map, published on April 23, massively raised expectations. However, the disappointment was widespread after the talks failed to progress rapidly. In Armenia, there was a general perception that Turkey had not been negotiating in good faith.

The Turkish prime minister’s visit to Baku in May 2009 led to substantial discomfort in Armenia. Erdogan spoke emotionally of his support of Azerbaijan, which harmed the Armenian perception of progress made. An enlarged role for Turkey in the south Caucasus became less welcome and the expression "Turks never change" was frequently heard in Yerevan.

Turkey’s hesitation left Armenians thinking that its foreign policy in the south Caucasus was entirely hostage to Azerbaijan.

The Protocols

On August 31, 2009 the foreign ministries of Armenia, Turkey and mediator Switzerland announced that Yerevan and Ankara had agreed to start internal political consultations on establishing relations between them. The two protocols provide a framework for normalising their bilateral relations within a reasonable timeframe. The political consultations will be completed within six weeks, following which the two protocols will be signed and submitted to the respective parliaments for ratification by each side.

The protocols make clear that the process of Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is not dependent on any preconditions related to Nagorny-Karabakh or the recognition of the genocide.

“For the first time in the history of independent Armenia, the signing of a most important international document will follow public discussions. They will allow the hearing of all opinions and approaches,” Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said.

What Next?

Whether Turkey and Armenia can overcome their internal issues and proceed to normalise the bilateral relationship will become clear during the next two months.

Tevan Poghosyan is executive director of the International Centre for Human Development, ICHD, in Yerevan.

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