Continuity and Change in the Turkish-Armenian Relations

Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers Eduard Nalbandian and Ahmet Davutoglu sign the Turkish-Armenian protcols in Geneva in 2009


To offer an evaluation of the current Turkish Armenian diplomatic relations, I will take a critical approach and consider not only the existing Armenian reality and facts that speak for themselves (an Armenian Republic and Diaspora), but also facts that speak through and for prevailing discourses of history and politics. Many studies in the Armenian Turkish relations often ignore some important dynamics in the politics of these relations, like alienation from homeland and the diasporan setting, in the Armenian case, state development and security issues.

Serious concerns about the Turkish-Armenian relations I have considered here both for diagnostic purposes and for a better understanding of the long term prospects of Armenian-Turkish relations. I have the following observations to provide some highlights on those concerns and offer a critical and a broader perspective on policy developments in the region: 1) Turkish-Armenian relations should not be confined to state-to-state relations; 2) The consideration of history (chronopolitics) along with geopolitics; 3) The Turkish school of political thinking; 4) Diplomacy largely in discord with politics.

No doubt we are in a new phase and experience in the Turkish-Armenian relations. In general, both sides seem to be determined to press on and have repeatedly signaled that rapprochement is in their interests. This year (2014), after Genocide remarks by CNN, Reuters, New York Times, Jewish papers, the BBC, the Economist, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we heard a condolence message issued by Erdogan and then Ahmed Davutoglu qualified the deportation of the Armenians as “wrong and inhuman.” This is not new, the trend goes back to 2010 when just hours after the adoption of the Armenian Genocide Resolution in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu stated the Turkish intent: “We are determined to press ahead with normalization of relations with Armenia” There has been no shortage of similar statements on the Armenian side.

Apart from these frequently heard and mutually reinforcing statements on both sides, we cannot easily assume that there is an established political relation between them. Diplomatic exchanges do not necessarily lead to political relations. …This means and suggests a broader perspective which would depict politics as a multitude of influences, issues and concerns, such as history, genocide, Diaspora, even issues such as human trafficking, emigration, poverty, and transnational violence, deeply ingrained in the history of these countries. These issues extend beyond the existing and stated interests of these countries and intersect beyond their boundaries and control. So politics has a broader perspective and extends far beyond diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Many Turkish intellectuals see reconciliation efforts with Armenia as a means to promoting Turkish democracy and eliminating authoritative imposition of social values and elimination of the “Deep State.”

It is an irony of history to consider Turkey as an emerging model for democracy in the Middle East as these intellectuals both in Turkey and in the west often do. Even more ironic is Turkey’s international appearance as a trustworthy broker in regional conflicts. Diversity is virtually non-existent within Turkish culture, resulting in the deterioration and destruction of a democracy the country claims to have nurtured. Hundreds of Armenian and Greek churches are permanently locked up if not destroyed, only to indicate the fact that minorities are under perpetual siege.

The true intent of Turkey’s foreign policy is a new hegemonic scheme, or new “Ottomanism,” as many point out, trying to invoke historical affinities in the region….. Not surprisingly, the “cooperative” relations and reconciliation efforts are gridlocked by recurrent violations of liberal democratic principles, and notably, by the refusal of the government to accommodate the legitimate demands of the minorities within Turkey.

The idea of democracy in Turkey suffers from an ethno-centric definition of citizenship and rejects the more inclusive understanding of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity. It certainly does not stimulate discussions for alternative political formations offering a more tolerant and more inclusive form of human society in which different groups and particularly deprived minorities would be equally motivated to participate. It has already been a century since the Armenian Genocide and Turkish nationalism today has little to offer Armenia, the Armenian diaspora, and the few remaining Armenians and other minorities in Turkey in terms of their safety and protection. “Turkey’s mainstream culture is deeply suspicious of “difference” — be it cultural, ethnic or sexual. Turkish society is stubbornly patriarchal and homophobic. Sameness is venerated. Identity is imposed from above and individuality is in danger.”

So, against this reality, we need to draw a comprehensive picture of the contemporary Turkish-Armenian situation. For the Armenian side, in particular, the state cannot dictate the fate of Turkish-Armenian relations, not without considering the big picture of the Armenian nation both in Armenia and the Diaspora. Ignoring the trans-state and perpetual issues that fall beyond the scope of the state seems to have a causal effect on our recurrent political and social disorder.

The big picture is the holistic image including history. Armenians for the most part are a history people; their history and traditions are dynamic and mutually contingent. History is not just something that happened in the past, but something perpetually in the making and in constant interpretation with the present diplomacy. Ignoring this reality seems to disrupt the prospects of a balanced development course for Armenia.

Take the Armenian Diaspora for example, it is an extraterritorial entity and has its politics. That politics is not detached from its history. It is not an easy task to just start a new political phase, or take a drastic and exclusively geostrategic turn in Armenian politics detached from history and then claim to have a diplomatic triumph. History, through its events, names, and dates, is the main driving force, the main agent of Armenian political socialization as well as diplomatic discourse.

The year 1988 was the year of great changes in the contemporary Armenian politics. A remarkable occasion to experiment state-building was presented and fundamentally changed the political fate of the Armenian people. There were great hopes and expectations, and many national and organizational rethinking about what it meant to advance an Artsakh liberation struggle and how to pursue the idea of an independent state. Not surprisingly, the Turkish political mind did not sit idle and engaged into both proximate and long-term policy responses to the reviving Armenian nationalism. About fifteen notable Turkish “think tanks,” for example, in the last twenty years or so have been proactively engaged in contesting all claims of genocide and self-determination of Karabakh. Another example of intellectual investment is the number of universities. “Turkey today has 173 universities, 89 of them were founded since 2006” as pointed out by President Abdullah Gul in his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2012. Today, there are 180 universities.

From the Turkish perspective, diplomacy with Armenia seems to expand beyond bilateral relations and expound the foundation of the reemerging Turkish role in the region. Stability in the region is explained through tacit Turkish objective of predominance ranging from relations with Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, and oil rich Caspian region and Central Asian countries. To depict the strategic moment and in attempt to show a renewed Turkish image, Kemal Kirisci of Bogazici University illustrates the change in Turkish foreign policy from Hobbesian culture of deep mistrust of the international system in the early 1990s to that of Kantian culture of sharing common values and norms in the 21st century.

This kind of intellectual framework for Turkey’s foreign policy was largely provided by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister. In his words, “it is impossible for a country experiencing constant crises with neighboring states to produce a regional and global foreign policy … A comprehensive peace plan and a package to develop economic and cultural relations have to be put into place simultaneously to overcome security crises with the closest neighbors.” Davutoglu’s proactive policies have been praised globally for their “strategic-depth” and realpolitik developments on the ground and offered a comprehensive meaning to the Turkish role in the region.

So, the main argument is that the Turkish government in the last 20 years or so seems to be playing a new post-Soviet geostrategic role in the larger geopolitical considerations of the South Caucasus and gradually advancing and expanding its political norms.

There seems to be global/regional and bilateral consensus around these diplomatic norms which also address the Turkish political influence in the last two decades. Quite familiar by now is the repeated slogan of normalization of relations in the region; and also consolidation of security and increased Turkish influence by developing good neighborly and cooperative relations.

These are mutually reinforcing catchphrases, well-thought and discussed in the Turkish think-tanks, universities, and government, well-received and acknowledged globally as standards of behavior to initiate conflict resolution. Richard Falk of Princeton University and international human rights lawyer has praised Ahmet Davutoglu as a genius political mind ready to resolve conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. Also, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the US Smithsonian Institution has presented the “Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service” to Davutoglu in 2010. After all, these slogans/catchphrases and so called norms indicate Turkey’s regional policy devised to reintegrate Turkey into its immediate neighborhoods. And contribute to the expansion of the new Turkish post-Soviet imperial space.

What’s important to note for the immediate future? We will be dealing with Erdogan’s autocratic style as a key tool for the concentration of power in his hands. His intention to change the Constitution to create a stronger presidency amounts to a “drift toward authoritarianism.” A stronger president with more executive powers and less checks-and-balances for a stronger “new” Turkey; also, consider that Turkey will hold the presidency of the G-20 in 2015, the group that brings together the world’s biggest economies.

The Turkish economy is the world’s 17th biggest economy. The trade volume between Russia and Turkey amounted to $32.7 billion in 2013. Russia is Turkey’s second-largest trade partner after the European Union. Turkey ranks eighth among Russia’s foreign trade partners. Armenia doesn’t have a big influence in this.

Russia still holds unchallenged sway over the Transcaucasian region and manipulates the territorial wars in accordance with its own strategic objectives. The primary concern for Russia is extending its sphere of influence. The sheer size of the country, its nuclear warheads, resource endowments (especially oil and natural gas), geography, and history ensure that it still is the dominant power in the South Caucasus. Given the geography of the region and the geopolitical factors, Russia and Armenia historically have had close relations. Armenia is Russia’s “near abroad,” part of its traditional sphere of influence.

Of course, Armenia is primarily concerned about Turkey’s continuing support to Azerbaijan and its growing military assistance to the country. Turkey has unwavering support for Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno Karabakh. It is unlikely that Armenia will achieve a significant breakthrough in border conflict with Turkey in near future.

The current nature of Turkish-Armenian bilateral relations can be traced in the two protocols of 2009 in which we find three norms advanced by Turkey (the logic of the protocols still guide the behavior of Turkey-Armenia bilateral relations): 1) Confirmation of the existing borderline between Turkey and Armenia; 2) Evade any reference to the past and concentrate on the present: geopolitics, not chronopolitics (although repeatedly used, the term “just memory” does not serve Turkish interests); 3) Respect the territorial integrity of sovereign states.

There has been a considerable international support to this diplomatic logic and no conflict of interests has seriously been explored. The Armenian authorities also seem to be departing from the same starting point and are looking at the whole issue as a potential new opportunity for improved socio-economic and political relations.

Socio-economic priority prevails in Armenia since 1991. After gaining independence the country has quickly embraced market freedom and brought unprecedented prosperity to a few. It also widened inequalities of income and wealth and aggravated mass exodus from the country. The liberation from controlled economy opened up the opportunity to privatize most of the industries. Notably, rapid privatization of land began early in the post-Soviet years and farmers were quickly marginalized by large landowners leaving the countryside desperately impoverished. There should be a clear demarcation of the boundary between free markets and political values. Unchecked market relations increases job insecurity and inequality, and thus democracy remains deficient, unable to counter the injustices of the market. Democracy and market-oriented economic policy are not always compatible.

No attempt, no effort in the Armenian-Turkish diplomatic relations can be interpreted or understood as relief to the ordinary working people. Diplomacy has taken over and is likely to advance bilateral market relations at best, and has undermined the much needed infrastructure and politics of socioeconomic development. The important question at this point is not whether increased diplomatic relations might lead to cooperative relations, establish “good neighborly relations” and order in the region, but whether ordinary people will accept to live the consequences of these diplomatic actions.

Diplomatic relations cannot defy the socio-economic logic of development. Interstate reconciliation might lead to and produce change and rapid transformation of the economy – such as increased free trade, further privatization and deregulation. It might also lead to normalization of relations but cannot be allowed to advance antisocial and antidemocratic economic growth.

Diplomacy and economic growth in Armenia should be consistent with politics of development. Some of the demands of growth are: privatization, government deregulation and deep cuts in social spending, and they are all extremely unpopular with citizens.

We should be able to see that the suppression of human solidarity and democratic relations become the primary reasons to ignore the national interests, and the interests of the collective, the wage earning, and peasant masses.

The Turkish-Armenian relations should not be interpreted as an opportunity for economic growth, meaning expansion of lucrative business deals. Market relations with Turkey might revive bilateral economic contacts, contribute to economic growth, but at the same time should also and carefully consider the vital development needs of the country, or the socio-economic conditions of the people.

In the final analysis, the Armenian political identity has long wandered through significant historical stages such as sovietization, independence and sovereignty, state-building and Diaspora dispersion. As a nation the Armenians have sure played an important role in transforming the international political environment from Cold War to post Cold War, to liberation of Artsakh, to independence and state-building, and to the perpetual concern most of us have as a result of the current developments in bilateral relations with Turkey, beginning with the 2009 protocols to football diplomacy and then the gestures of condolences and “just memory.” These are diplomatic efforts that fail to advance any understanding of permanent state of security for Armenia, or socio-economic development policies, or safety and security of Artsakh, and many other pertinent issues, such as trade relations, class conflict and poverty, and the whole range of national issues that do not fit into the continued logic and explanations of the current reconciliation diplomacy.

The Armenian authorities, after all, seem to be more concerned with and advancing in diplomatic relations, but, more important, is to advance, and much faster in politics. And by that I mean inward-looking decisions, infrastructural development, and state-building. Diplomacy is rarely challenged and the most dangerous diplomacy would be the effect of unchallenged decisions. The critical political mind proceeds on this suspicion and investigates power relations and diplomatic discourses that establish a national identity alienated from its politics. A critical mind also reveals some diplomacy-politics contradiction in which our current diplomacy seems to matter more than our politics. In other words, politics, and politics of state-building in particular, cannot be left to the mercy of diplomatic relations. Diplomatic attempts are important but they should not inscribe the fate of the Armenian state.

We cannot ignore our politics for the sake of diplomatic gains. Of course, our political destiny is subjected to the regional or great power diplomacy and, it is important to be highly active in this area and increase our membership in IGOs and NGOs and counter Turkish or Azeri agenda. However, more than diplomacy, our politics is in our hands and we cannot afford to mishandle it.

For more than two decades, Armenia has undergone through dramatic economic, political, and social transformations. Economically, the country has shown steady growth. The civil society sector in Armenia began to develop after its independence and a large number of groups were successful in mobilizing public support for various causes, such as, environmental protection, human rights, women’s rights, and humanitarian aid. These groups and their causes are testimony to political activism and the resilience of the Armenian youth to face the challenges within the society and advance the process of democracy.

What Armenia’s independence has reminded us is that state building is a founding political discourse that allows the country to establish its identity. Notably, perennial concept of freedom and justice can spark political discourse and set the foundation for political institutionalization and infrastructural development. Consequently, participation of all sectors of society in political process becomes the most certain element of development that is also capable of substituting injustice with justice among the populace.

In conclusion, the Armenian political mind should realize that there is a Turkish intellectual vigor in the last two decades and a renewed Turkish hegemonic scheme in this post-Soviet space. So, it is important to focus on the national survival strategic thinking, the inward looking politics of state building and development.

For a small and landlocked country like Armenia, formulating a survival strategy necessitates a holistic view of security, a balanced adaptation to the changing demands of political and economic environment, and a forward-looking vision. The country is under constant regional pressure to account for both threats and opportunities.

Armenia’s future security largely depends on how the broader regional situation evolves. More directly, its future security and balanced relations with the neighbors will be influenced largely by its political and socio-economic development. This would require major structural reforms to use the benefits derived from economic growth to eliminate poverty, improve educational, social, and health services and reverse the trend of the country’s diminishing population.

Razmig B. Shirinian
is a Professor of Political Science at the College of the Canyons.


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  1. hidi said:

    **** this was great article.!!!, highlighted intellectual approach., but no mention of practical implementation of good policy’s to left our people in and out side of Armenia as a nation., which I think is the fundamental problem with us, and we need to correct that with a major shift in our identity approach.

  2. Arn.Sweden. said:

    The Turkish National Consciousness is the same and will be the same.
    Nothing has Historicaly changed.

    Turkey can not Save Herself,
    Islam not Either.!.

    Bevere of Turkey and prepere for the worst,
    Turkey can not expell and drive out Her National Spirit by Herself,
    only God in Jesus Christ can.