Prisoner’s Dilemma or Exploiting Structure in Adversarial Negotiations: Armenian-Turkish Protocols of 2009


This paper provides a preliminary overview of the processes associated with the Armenian-Turkish Protocols of 2009.

The lack of parliamentary ratification of the Protocols on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey can find its roots in an adversarial, rather than a cooperative, mental model of Turkish elites. Negotiation includes the tension created as parties decide when they need to cooperate or compete to achieve their goals. The main characteristic of the interaction is  uncertainty of the outcome and balance between risk and gain. Cooperative gain is possible only when there is trust, otherwise both parties tend to defect and play a more adversarial game. The adversarial mental model views the negotiation choice in stark win-lose scenarios which usually are imposed solutions of one side on the other, such as placing preconditions, implying threats, etc. The latter is more in line with the dictates of an armistice than creating mutual beneficial options upon which to synthesize a long term settlement based on the interests of all sides involved.

Regardless of whether Turkey or Armenia were compelled into sitting at the negotiating table for the greater interests of more powerful regional and international players, in this case the U.S., Russia and the EU, (the troika), the disputants were not precluded from using acts of deliberation or products of negotiation for their own interests. However, the number of parties does shape the strategy of negotiators. These were not bilateral negotiations between Armenia and Turkey; but rather were multiparty negotiations with some players exerting influence behind the scenes. In this setting, actions taken away from the table can be as important as what transpires at the table. Even after deliberations commence, negotiators continue shaping the structure by altering the agenda, introducing action-forcing events, and linking or delinking negotiations. In this case, it was through the change of structure that Armenia managed to exercise control over the process to avoid the least desirable outcome when the most desirable one was beyond its reach.

To secure a smooth initiation of negotiations, Turks dropped their 1994 preconditions on Armenia in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations and lifting its border blockade. However, immediately after signing the Protocols, Turks reiterated the preconditions as a requirement for their ratification. These preconditions included:

1.     Armenia must end its support for expanding international recognition of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenians.

2.     Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions—as part of an active, yet exclusive negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

3.      Armenia must recognize current borders as inviolable and thus has no genocide reparatory claims on any lands in eastern Anatolia (Western Armenia).

Armenia demanded that ratification proceed without added conditions.

Turks were fully aware that their preconditions would poison the ratification process.  Turkish ratification stalled. In response, the Armenian Constitutional Court’s rapid approval of the Protocols provided Armenia with a tactical advantage over Turkey as viewed in diplomatic circles. The Turks could not ratify the Protocols since they had no face-saving space left. The Armenian Court decision put direct pressure on Turkey to reciprocate. Turkey found itself being caught in a classic stalemate. First, Armenia unconditionally stated that any Turkish demands made regarding Armenia-Azerbaijan talks were not to be part of this negotiation. Turkey could not afford to alienate its close ally, Azerbaijan, by a unilateral border opening agreement with Armenia. Armenia adeptly changed the structure of negotiations by “inviting” an additional player and a spoiler in this case, Azerbaijan, to the table. Turkish ratification predicated on the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh was clearly doomed to failure.

Second, the Armenian Constitutional Court concluded the Protocols do not violate the Armenian constitution (see January 12, 2010 court decision Item 5,, and paragraph 11 of the Armenian Declaration of Independence which states, “11, The Republic of Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.”) (See also .) Armenia was able to reiterate its active demand for international genocide recognition as part of its legal decision regarding the Protocols.

In a broader picture, Turkish foreign policy makers claim as a goal to have zero problems with its neighbors.  Although Turkey has vibrant relations with Syria and Iran, it has continued issues with Greece and has failed with Armenia and Cyprus. Turkey continues to occupy northern Cyprus. Turkey refused to take sides during the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict as it temporarily refused U.S. humanitarian aid to Georgia via the Bosporus. Turkey has attempted a vibrant trade with Abkhazia, in spite of Georgian disdain and their seizing of Turkish ships bound for Abkhazia. Turkey clearly does not have a zero problem policy with its neighbors, unless it counts only Islamic countries as neighbors.

Armenia alone could not possibly compel Turkey to sign the Protocols. However, since pressure came from the troika, Turkey’s non-ratification said no, not so much to Armenia, but to the troika. Armenia pulled out a tactical victory by taking a confrontational, Turkish precondition-laden ratification orientation, and cleanly placing the ball in the Turkish court. Armenia did not say no to Turkey, not because it could not, but, in the current power construct, it leveled the asymmetry by building a tactical alliance with the troika members more successfully than Turkey. The endgame is well known. Turkey failed on its signed commitment to the troika, whereas Armenia did not. While most observers became overly caught up in the substance of these negotiations— assessing interests, discussing positions, implications and consequences—it was often done at the expense of analyzing the process. Control of process design is a potent source of power, one that enabled the Armenian side to steer the proceedings toward a desired outcome.

The political conditions and perception of interests under which negotiations start can change during deliberations. Discussions between Turks and Armenians that culminated in the 2009 Protocols began in the middle of the last decade. Since the signing of the Protocols, events that have a direct bearing on the dynamics of Turkish-Armenian relations have taken front stage and have an impact on relations going forward. The Turkish-based Gaza Flotilla in May of 2010 sparked debate in Israel regarding official recognition of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenians. Turkish alignment with the Islamic world, in general; anti-Israeli rhetoric; and active relations with Syria, and in particular Iran, have caused many to question Turkey’s western positioning and even its role in NATO. As late as mid-to-late October 2010, Turkey expressed reservations regarding the proposed missile defense shield aimed at protecting NATO members from an attack by states such as Iran. This prompted reports in the Turkish press with titles such as “U.S. Plays ‘Genocide’ Card to Pressure Turkey on NATO Missile System.” (See )

The troika, but particularly the U.S. administration, has spent considerable diplomatic capital in support of this initiative. Failure of ratification has left the U.S. with less influence in the Caucasus and Russia taking up much of the vacuum. Increasingly, the U.S. finds itself running out of sticks or carrots, for Turkey is more confidently steering away from the Euro-Atlantic agenda to play its own game in the Caucasus and Middle East.

Over a year has passed since the signing and ratification failure of these Protocols. The Turks have taken the proverbial ball, with this stalled Turkish-Armenian Protocols, and attempted to drop it in many of its courts. For example, in September 2010, Turkish authorities allowed an Armenian church service in a Turkish-restored 10th century abandoned Armenian cathedral on an island in Lake Van, in eastern Turkey. Armenians considered this a publicity stunt. Turkish reaction to this event was quick and was evident in a Muslim prayer session that took place in the remains of another abandoned Armenian cathedral in Ani, just over the Armenian border.

In addition, many non-governmental initiatives have taken place between Armenian and Turkish citizens since the announcement of the Protocols in August of 2009. Unfortunately, these initiatives styled as “Track Two” diplomacy cannot target overcoming the barriers to negotiations. They are private efforts, civil society platforms, predominantly funded by third party countries, poorly if at all coordinated, with all the signs of peace industry that has flourished for decades in Israeli-Palestinian, Greek-Turkish and other intractable conflicts.

Some preliminary conclusions:

  • The Protocols are dead. Predictably, one or both sides could defect in this prisoner’s dilemma type game where gains from cooperation are possible if there is trust. Turkish behavior only enhanced distrust—the failure to ratify in a parliament where the ruling party has majority indicates lack of good faith. (See )
  • Unless Turkish elites can find a face-saving move it will be hard for them to get back to the table with the same agenda.
  • The window of opportunity is shut for a couple of years as both sides are entering electoral cycles that are least conducive for unpopular moves. The troika members may undergo significant changes as they too will go through elections in 2012-13.
  • Low profile formal processes may continue but not likely to produce any breakthroughs.
  • Leaders among negotiators know that managing internal differences poses the biggest challenge. The current Armenian leadership opted to play the game mostly alone instead of proactively building a sufficient consensus on key issues of the national interests and red lines. In the next round of this process, going it alone may produce suboptimal results. Therefore, a window of opportunity exists and should be used to build a sufficient consensus and establish consultative bodies ahead of time.

David Davidian is a Sr. System Architect at a major IT firm engaged in technical intelligence analysis. He manages the U.S. office of Arthur Martirosyan is a Senior Consultant with CMPartners, with 16 years as a negotiation specialist. He has worked with negotiators in the FSU, Middle East and the Balkans.


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