Opinion: The Turkey-Armenia detente

WASHINGTON — This week, Turkey and Armenia announced their intention to establish diplomatic relations, open the closed border between the two countries and launch a series of talks and confidence-building measures aimed at resolving long-standing disputes and fostering closer cooperation.

To be sure, these protocols will need to be ratified in Ankara and Yerevan, and some important political hurdles remain. But these new accords, reached with the help of Swiss mediation, could transform regional stability in the Black Sea region. They are also very good news for American and European interests.

These positive developments are a direct result of the opening established last September when Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, took up an invitation from the Armenian president, Serzh Sargysan, to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Yerevan. The visit was unprecedented and groundbreaking.

In a more fundamental sense, this week’s announcement flows from years of quiet, unofficial dialogue among senior intellectuals and opinion shapers on both sides. The changed atmosphere also shows the influence of business leaders keen to capture the benefits of bilateral trade, and enlightened policy figures anxious to take a long-standing problem off the table.

The normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations will produce clear benefits for the region and transatlantic security interests. First, an open border will contribute to the economic development of Armenia and rebalance the country’s position between East and West. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict pitting Russian-backed Armenia against Turkish-backed Azerbaijan, and the closure of Turkey’s border with Armenia in 1993, Yerevan’s ties to the West have remained underdeveloped. Open links to Turkey will give Armenia new options on the international scene and contribute to the economic development and stability of the country. (Substantial numbers of Armenians already work and trade in Turkey on an undocumented basis.)

Second, improved relations between Armenia and Turkey can have an important demonstration effect. Multiple flashpoints and “frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea underscore the dangers of resurgent nationalism against a backdrop of economic strain. The conflict between Russia and Georgia, and looming tensions between Russia and Ukraine, highlight the risk. Open borders and confidence-building measures can encourage the emergence of a more integrated Black Sea region, rather than a retreat to inward-looking, nationalistic postures. If Ankara and Yerevan can change course and resolve disputes long seen as intractable, this can set a positive precedent for crisis management and conflict resolution from the Balkans to the Caspian, and beyond. Could the “intractable” Cyprus dispute be next?

Third, for Turkey, a genuine opening to Armenia will reinforce the country’s new approach to foreign policy. In recent years, Turkish leaders have pursued a “zero problems” approach to relations in the Balkans, the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Middle East. By and large, Ankara has succeeded in transforming its often troubled relations with neighbors as diverse as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria. Western observers may be ambivalent about some aspects of this Turkish strategy, not least Ankara’s improved ties to Iran and Russia. But Turkish-Armenian detente is another matter. Like the rise of Turkish-Greek detente over the last decade, normalized relations with Yerevan should be an undiluted benefit for Turkey’s transatlantic partners. At a time when Turkey’s European Union candidacy faces serious challenges, the opening to Armenia can also remind Europeans that Turkey is a producer rather than a consumer of security in Europe’s neighborhood.

Finally, the roadmap set out by the parties envisions the establishment of an international commission to review the contentious history of 1915 and its aftermath that has bedeviled Armenian-Turkish relations for nearly 100 years. It would be surprising if this group manages to reconcile strongly held and competing historical narratives. It would be even more surprising if detente between Ankara and Yerevan ends the perennial debate in the U.S. Congress on an Armenian genocide resolution — feelings run too high on this matter, especially among the Armenian diaspora.

Yet a formal dialogue about the tragic events of 1915 will extend the trend of recent years, in which both societies have become more comfortable with frank discussion about Armenian-Turkish relations, past and present. From the perspective of American regional interests, there is much to be gained from a climate in which pressing bilateral issues, including Iran, Russia and energy security, can take center stage in relations with Ankara — and Yerevan.

The prospect of genuine Armenian-Turkish detente can help make this a reality. The process deserves continued and unreserved support from Washington.

Ian O. Lesser is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.