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Turkey and Armenia show no signs of reconciling

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The genocide a century ago is just one source of contentionApr 27th 2021BAKU, ISTANBUL AND YEREVANBOTH PAST and present haunt relations between Turkey and Armenia. A century ago, Ottoman troops carried out a genocide of Armenians. A few months ago, Turkey helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in a war. For decades, the border between Turkey and Armenia has been closed.Yet in December Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held out hope of “a new era” in Turkish-Armenian relations. The unlikely setting was a military parade in Azerbaijan celebrating victory over Armenia. Using Turkish arms, Azeri forces had just recaptured parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians, and the adjacent districts that had been occupied by Armenia for three decades. Army

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Turkey and Armenia show no signs of reconciling

The genocide a century ago is just one source of contention


BOTH PAST and present haunt relations between Turkey and Armenia. A century ago, Ottoman troops carried out a genocide of Armenians. A few months ago, Turkey helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in a war. For decades, the border between Turkey and Armenia has been closed.

Yet in December Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held out hope of “a new era” in Turkish-Armenian relations. The unlikely setting was a military parade in Azerbaijan celebrating victory over Armenia. Using Turkish arms, Azeri forces had just recaptured parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians, and the adjacent districts that had been occupied by Armenia for three decades. Army convoys rolled past Mr Erdogan and the Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, displaying the wreckage of Armenian tanks, as well as the Turkish drones that had pounded them into the ground. Mr Erdogan hinted that Armenia might have learned a lesson from its defeat, and later suggested that Turkey could open its border with Armenia.

Turkey and Armenia show no signs of reconciling

Nothing of the sort has happened. On the contrary, tempers flared again on April 24th, when President Joe Biden formally declared the killings and deportations of over a million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915-17 to have been a genocide. Most historians agree with Mr Biden, but previous American presidents have usually avoided saying so to avoid upsetting Turkey, which furiously denies that the killings were as widespread or systematic as the evidence suggests they were. Turkey’s foreign ministry called Mr Biden’s statement “a vulgar distortion of history”.

Turkey’s ties with America may not suffer much. With its currency on the ropes, Turkey cannot afford another crisis with its NATO ally. But Turkish officials suggest their country’s offer of detente with Armenia might be a casualty. Ilnur Cevik, an adviser to Mr Erdogan, says that the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war removed obstacles to reconciliation. (Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s territorial claims, and now deems them more or less settled.) However, he says, “if Armenians continue to antagonise Turkey, forcing the Americans to recognise genocide, then this is not going to go anywhere.”

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993, out of solidarity with Azerbaijan. Reopening it would relieve tensions with Armenia “in a dramatic way”, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, told The Economist in March. Armenia, he also said, would be ready to establish relations with Turkey “without preconditions”. Mr Pashinyan, who was pilloried for losing the war, resigned on April 25th to trigger early elections.

If there was a broad regional settlement, “everybody would win,” says Ahmet Davutoglu, a former Turkish prime minister. The opening of borders would help stabilise the entire Caucasus, offer Armenia, the region’s poorest country, access to markets in Turkey and beyond, and connect Turkey to the energy-rich Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Mr Davutoglu, who now heads a small opposition party, was foreign minister when Turkey and Armenia came close to normalising diplomatic ties in 2009. The process foundered after a backlash from nationalists in both countries. Those in Turkey refused to accept any deal unless Armenia withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh. Those in Armenia demanded that Turkey recognise 1915 as genocide.

Western diplomats have long believed that a settlement between Turkey, a NATO power, and Armenia would diminish Russia’s influence in the Caucasus. Today, the opposite might be true. Instead of pulling Armenia into the West’s orbit, normalisation could draw Turkey deeper into Russia’s. “Russia’s plan is to have an open border between the Eurasian Economic Union and Turkey,” says an Armenian ruling-party MP, referring to a Russian-led trade bloc Armenia joined a few years ago. Turkey itself, having learned to cut deals with the Kremlin, does not seem eager these days to advance Western interests in the Caucasus. Russia might have as big a say in the reconciliation process as Turkey and Armenia themselves. Russian troops have patrolled the Armenian side of the border with Turkey ever since the fall of the Soviet Union; Armenia would doubtless insist that they continue to do so. “Armenia is more locked in Russia’s orbit than ever before,” says Richard Giragosian, a political analyst. “And normalisation with Turkey will only deepen this.”

As good as it might look on paper, a regional settlement seems as elusive as ever. Some Armenian officials cautiously welcome the prospect of direct trade with Turkey. But much of the political class, and society at large, seem unready for any kind of engagement. Some also fear that détente with its powerful neighbour would force Armenia to relinquish its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. In a country of barely 3m people, which remains shaken by the war, the fear of Turkey is greater than in recent memory. “This was a war that was triggered by Turkey, instigated by Turkey, and managed by Turkey,” says an Armenian official. “There is no confidence.”

Turkey and Azerbaijan have not exactly been reassuring. During that victory parade in Azerbaijan, Mr Erdogan praised Enver Pasha, one of the architects of the genocide. Mr Aliyev recently presided over the opening of a ghoulish “Spoils of War” theme park, featuring mannequins of wounded Armenian soldiers with hooked noses and grotesque faces, and neatly arranged helmets of Armenians killed in the war. How to square such displays with Azerbaijan’s offers of peace is anyone’s guess. What Mr Erdogan and Mr Aliyev are offering Armenia looks less like an olive branch than the short end of the stick.

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