Normalizing Armenia-Turkey relations

[Editor's note: this story was updated to account for the events of Saturday, Oct. 10 and Sunday, Oct. 11.]

ISTANBUL, Turkey — It began with a soccer match, and it may just end with one. Seeds of a new friendship were planted last September when Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first modern Turkish leader to visit Armenia, for a match between the two countries (which Armenia lost).

Now, more than 15 years after Turkey closed its border to Armenia, the two states appear ready to move beyond their differences — which are significant — and sign an accord committing them to re-establish diplomatic ties and open their common border.

The historic accords, scheduled to take place in Zurich on Saturday would be a huge step towards ending a century of hostility. But the signing was delayed at the last minute Saturday due to objections by Turkey to Armenia’s planned statement, which reportedly included the word "holocaust".

The signing went ahead, but by early Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan had already cast doubt on the agreement, saying the opening of its border with Armenia would be linked to progress on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave which broke free from Turkish-backed Azerbaijan and has been a stumbling block for reconciliation since. Azerbaijan, for its part, said on Sunday a peace deal between Armenia and Turkey could threaten security in the region and "cast a shadow" over its relations with Ankara. 

The signing ceremony had been scheduled two days before the Oct. 14 World Cup Qualifier match between Armenia and Turkey, taking place in the western Turkish provincial capital of Bursa and attended by the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan.

However, simmering territorial disputes and the vexed question of how to describe the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians remain a further complicating factor in their plans, as seen in Armenia's curveball — the planned statement that almost derailed the Saturday signing.

Predominately Christian Armenia and Muslim Turkey have been at odds since World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, when 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered in what is widely referred to as the Armenian genocide, a label rejected by Turkey. Then, in 1993, Turkey closed its frontier with Armenia in solidarity with its Muslim ally Azerbaijan during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians threw off Azeri rule with the backing of Armenia.

Magnifying the difficulties facing Turkish policymakers right now is the timing. The government’s push for the normalization of Armenian ties coincides with an anticipated official move to deal with the lingering Kurdish issue, compounding any unease Turks already feel about the rapid pace of change in their nation as it vies for EU membership.

“I want to be open, you know,” explained Ali Diker, 24, a shop worker in Istanbul’s Cihangir district. “But the government is asking not only to change how we feel about Armenia, but also to rethink the Kurdish question. It’s a lot of change.”

There is much to gain from the Armenian protocol: it would improve Armenia's struggling economy, strengthen Turkey's credentials with the West as a modernizer and bolster security in the South Caucasus region, a key transit corridor for oil and gas supplies to the West.

A full deal seemed imminent last April, when the two countries initiated a preliminary agreement, including a plan to reopen the border. The agreement quickly fell through, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reverted to Turkey’s earlier stance, insisting that peace with Armenia would come only if the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was resolved.

Many argued that Turkey had never really had the intention of making peace, but had simply created the illusion of possible reconciliation to pre-empt the U.S. Congress from adopting a resolution to label the mass slaughter of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

This time, however, the efforts seem organized, thoughtful, and most importantly, genuine. Still, several hurdles remain, the largest being the Karabakh peace process.

In an attempt to secure a lasting peace in the region international mediators have been pressuring Armenia to negotiate with Azerbaijan over Karabakh – attempts which many hope will come to fruition in the latest round of talks. Just two days before the ceremony in Zurich Saturday, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met to discuss Karabakh in Moldova's capital Chisinau.

"There are intensified efforts ... to make sure that at some point, relatively soon, there will be something from the Karabakh process that could help the Turkish-Armenian process move forward," a senior European diplomat said in an interview with Reuters.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, seemed less optimistic, however, telling Azeri state television on Friday that talks with his Armenian counterpart on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh had been fruitless.

Officially, the Azeri-Armenia talks on Karabakh are separate from the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement. In reality, the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border was the fundamental way in which Turkey supported Azerbaijan during the 1993 conflict. As such, as long as the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is unresolved, Turkish policy towards Armenia cannot be disassociated from its relationship with Azerbaijan.

On the thorny question of the supposed Armenian genocide, both Turkey and Armenia have taken bold steps forward with their agreement to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations,” as the text of the protocol states.

The protocol also calls for what is arguably the most controversial aspect of the agreement — a plan to set up a joint sub-commission on the history that would work on an “impartial scientific examination of historical records and archives.” Generally perceived as a victory for Turkey, the fear of many Armenians is that as long as this work is ongoing, third countries will abstain from labeling the wartime killings as genocide. In the Turkish border town of Kars, a large concrete monument is perhaps the most potent symbol of the challenges facing this long-awaited reconciliation. On a hill above the city sits a statue of two 30-meter-tall figures, standing face to face. Between the two figures, however, there is a void — a hand that would have attached the two figures lies discarded at their feet.

Much like the statue, the protocols have great potential to unite long-separated foes. Still, the parliaments of Armenia and Turkey need to ratify the protocol, something Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he couldn't guarantee, as parliamentarians in Ankara have a free vote in a secret ballot.

Even if the agreement is ratified, Turkish officials have already indicated that the border could take longer to open than the three months set out in the protocol. Still, restoring diplomatic relations and opening the border, thought only first steps, would marginalize extremist voices on both sides and bring Turkey and Armenia one step closer to shaking hands.