Time to revitalise Turkey’s diplomatic initiative towards Armenia

The 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ended with a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement on Nov. 9, has had one loser and three victors – the undisputed loser is Armenia and the victors are Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia.

Azerbaijan managed to liberate a sizable amount of its territory that had been under Armenian control for more than 30 years. Turkey shared this victory as Azerbaijan’s main ally and military supporter. Russia reasserted its influence in the South Caucasus by successfully determining the faith of the conflict and positioning itself as the main enforcer of the ceasefire agreement, along with a limited role for Turkey.

Now, all involved parties are assessing the geopolitical and strategic consequences of this war and their best course of action moving forward. As several observers in recent weeks have remarked, the terms of the peace agreement and Azerbaijan’s substantial territorial gains have created unique opportunities for Turkey to expand its diplomatic and economic relations with the region. Chiefly, to revitalise its gradual rapprochement policies with Armenia, which had suffered a significant setback for more than three decades because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

At the same time, since the terms of this agreement limited Armenia’s losses, it might be less opposed to the reduction of hostilities with Turkey. While Azerbaijan enjoyed a sufficient military advantage to capture the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region and even enter into Armenia’s mainland, the ceasefire agreement left 30 percent of the territory, known as the Republic of Artsakh by Armenians, under Armenian control.

It also provided Armenia with access to the Lachin Corridor, a 60-kilometre passage corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, under Russian protection. This outcome makes it politically feasible for Armenia to eventually overcome the trauma of this loss and move toward a rapprochement with Turkey and maintenance of the new status quo with Azerbaijan.

The deal will also make it easier for Turkey to resume the rapprochement initiatives that were undertaken between 2007-2015, for several reasons.

First, the circumstances of this major victory allow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to facilitate dialogues and cultural exchanges concerning Armenia’s demand for addressing and acknowledging the Armenian casualties of World War I from a position of strength and national confidence. In recent decades, the external pressures on Turkey from the United States and the European Union to recognise these casualties as genocide and offer an apology have resulted in a nationalist resistance.

The Karabakh victory, however, will allow Erdoğan to address this issue from a position of post-victory generosity, which is likely to face far less political resistance from Turkish nationalists, particularly Erdoğan’s coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP, which stands on a basis of Turkish nationalism and pan-Turkism, has traditionally been opposed to normalising relations with Armenia. However, they are likely placated by this victory for the time being and, if they raise any objection, Erdoğan can emphasise the legacy of MHP founder Alparslan Türkeş, who understood the necessity of a relationship with Armenia and was proactive in initiating a diplomatic dialogue with the country.

Second, Azerbaijan’s victory and the critical role of Turkish support in this outcome is likely to reduce Azerbaijan’s opposition to Turkey-Armenia rapprochement. In the past two decades, Azerbaijan has emerged as a major trade and investment partner for Turkey and, as a result, has been able to influence Turkey’s relations with Armenia. After this victory, not only is Azerbaijan less incentivised to oppose better relations between Turkey and Armenia, but it even has an interest in seeing these relations improve.

One of the most important benefits of the ceasefire agreement is the creation of the land transport passage between Azerbaijan and its landlocked exclave, Nakhjivan, through Armenia. Azerbaijan has already pledged to link its railway system to this passage for trade with Turkey and Europe. Improved ties between Turkey and Armenia would reduce the latter’s incentive to obstruct the creation and successful operation of this passage.

Third, economic incentives might make Armenia more receptive to Turkish rapprochement initiatives. Armenia is nearly isolated, open to only two short borders with Georgia and Iran since 1993. Opening the border between Turkey and Armenia would lead to greater opportunities for Armenia to end its isolation and gain land access to Europe. It can also benefit from direct trade with Turkey. Despite closed borders and lack of diplomatic relations Armenia imported $2.3 billion worth of Turkish goods during 2010-2020 indirectly through Georgia. Improved relations with Turkey can facilitate more trade and attract foreign trade to Armenia.

Despite all the challenges that lie ahead, normalising relations with Armenia will have several important benefits for Turkey. The direct benefits include an end to the adverse effect of ongoing Armenian historical grievances on Turkey’s international image, which it cannot afford to ignore as a country that depends heavily on global trade and investment for its economic prosperity. Although Armenia is a small country of only three million, trade and investment relations will be beneficial for Turkey, which already enjoys a large trade surplus with the country.

Furthermore, the indirect benefits of normalisation might be even more important for Turkey.  Turkey’s tensions with Armenia have cast a shadow on its relations with the United States and many European countries. The Armenian diaspora lobbies are highly influential in both regions, particularly in the U.S. Congress, and they have had some successes in the past in affecting the United States and EU relations with Turkey. A rapprochement with Armenia will mitigate the anti-Turkish campaigns of these lobbies.

Since Turkey made its first bid to join the EU nineteen years ago, the bloc has repeatedly stressed the necessity of Turkey addressing the Armenian grievances such as the Armenian Genocide, as a prerequisite for EU accession. Although the prospects of joining the EU look grim, Turkey still stands to benefit from improved EU perceptions that will result from better relations with Armenia.

Normalising relations with Armenia can also strengthen Turkey’s hand in its complex relationship with Russia. Turkey and Russia have developed a cooperation-competition relationship in the Middle East and Eurasia, two regions in which they have intervened in multiple conflicts.

As substantial as Turkey’s gains were in the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia gained even more. Not only did it manage to dictate the terms of the ceasefire and limit Turkey’s peacekeeping role, but Russia has emerged as the dominant powerbroker between the two sides. Armenia is now even more dependent on Russia for its security and stability and as such, Russia can exploit the Turkish-Armenian hostilities as a bargaining chip in its region-wide relations with Turkey. By normalising its relations with Armenia, Turkey can reduce Armenia’s isolation and, hence, dependence on Russia.

Any effort toward revitalising the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement will have to overcome the negative public opinion in both countries. According to a 2019 study on the public perceptions of Turkish foreign policy, over 60 percent of respondents named Armenia as one of the countries that poses the largest threat to Turkey. The anti-Turkish sentiments in Armenia have also reached an all-time high after the latest round of fighting.

The Armenian government imposed a ban on Turkish products effective January 2021 which enjoys popular support. Despite these strong negative sentiments, the current circumstances of Azerbaijan’s victory have created a window of opportunity for Turkey to initiate a rapprochement with Armenia, the effects of which will allow for regional cooperation and enhanced opportunities for both countries and Azerbaijan. This will require a bold diplomatic move by President Erdoğan.

(The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)