The idea seemed quite simple when it was first floated by the Armenian president, Serj Sargsyan, in July. For all the historical hatred and political animosity, the beautiful game was one passion shared by people on both sides of the long-sealed Turkish-Armenian border. If the Turkish and Armenians teams were to play each other in a world cup qualifier, why couldn’t the occasion be used to bring the two peoples and states together, in a first step in the long road towards reconciliation? And so, the invitations went out, and the Armenian president invited his counterpart to a football match. That such an otherwise routine and commonplace action was labelled ‘historic’ fittingly illustrated the level of animosity between these two neighbours.
In the end, the visit itself was something of an anti-climax. Despite of Armenia lifting all visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, the visions of Turkic hordes descending on the Caucasian mountain state – Turkey’s fans are known for their fierce dedication to ‘the cause’ – did not materialise. The Turkish delegation included mostly diplomats and journalists, and numbered in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands. Neither did the nightmares of egg- or tomato-throwing Armenian nationalists come true. Yes, there were Armenian demonstrators peacefully expressing their dismay at the visit on the streets of Yerevan. And yes, both the Turkish president and the Turkish anthem were booed before the game. But public demonstrations are a fundamental human right, as is, according to many, the booing and hissing of opponents’ anthems during soccer matches – something at which Turkish football fans apparently also excel. In practice, there was general consensus in Armenian society on the desirability of a normalisation of relations – with the country’s opposition even suspending its long-running protest actions so as to create a favourable atmosphere in the capital, and with the press remaining overwhelmingly supportive. All in all, the visit went as planned – leaving everyone with the question, after the final whistle: “Now what?”
The very fact of a Turkish head of state visiting Yerevan would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. Both Sargsyan’s invitation and Gül’s acceptance indicate a wish on both sides to normalise relations. For Turkey, this is about stabilising the Caucasus, where an escalation of conflict could have potentially costly consequences for the country. It is also about countering the very real possibility of the recognition, by the US Congress, of the Armenian Genocide in the coming months and years, with all the complications this would involve in its relations with the United States. An apparent rapprochement with Armenia could, in Ankara’s eyes at least, delay or even eliminate such an eventuality. Finally, with unrest stirring (again) in Kurdish-populated Eastern Turkey, an open border with Armenia would provide these socio-economically backward provinces with new opportunities for trade and tourism. Finally, last month’s dramatic events in Georgia have graphically illustrated in how far it is counter-productive to use one single and quite unstable route for the energy and transportation projects of the 21st century.
For Armenia, that same conflict has also vividly demonstrated its dependence on a weak and unstable state for its trade links with much of the outside world. Despite of all claims to the contrary, even outside of periods of acute conflict and instability, the Armenian population is paying a high price for the current situation. Elevated transportation costs make imported goods extremely costly, and severely stunt Armenia’s ability to export, resulting in significant trade imbalances that grossly distort the country’s (still fast-growing) economy. Closed borders also make the country less attractive to large foreign investors. Opening the border with its large Western neighbour would enable Yerevan to use the Turkish port of Trabzon in addition to Georgia’s Poti and Batumi, and would connect Armenia’s rail network directly to Europe, thus opening new markets and opportunities for Armenia’s producers and foreign investors, and easing price pressures on consumers, through dramatically reduced transportation costs and a generally more open and competitive economy.
Then why, you may ask, is this border still closed after 15 years – despite of an opening obviously benefiting both sides materially? While Armenia has called for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border without preconditions, Turkey has put forward three prerequisites for a normalisation of relations:
• First, Armenia must abandon any territorial claims it may have in Eastern Turkey. Turkish diplomats and commentators argue, among others, that Armenia’s 1990 Declaration of Independence, which refers to the region as ‘Western Armenia’, and the country’s coat-of-arms, which includes Mount Ararat, both indicate territorial ambitions on official Yerevan’s part.
• Second, Armenia must abandon its campaign at having the 1915 Genocide recognised as such by the international community. In that regard, Turkey has proposed the setting up of an ‘impartial’ commission of historians to study the events of that tragic period in light of their conformity to the 1949 UN Genocide convention.
• Third, Armenia and Azerbaijan must come to an agreement on the thorny issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Of these three pre-conditions, the first two are relatively ‘manageable’ – either because they are the result of long-time misperceptions, or because, being of a largely symbolic or historic nature, they do not directly impact the immediate material interests of either party. Moreover, both the territorial and genocide issues are purely bilateral in nature – making their solutions dependent on the parties themselves, and, therefore, relatively less complicated to resolve. The success or failure of the current attempts at Turkish-Armenian rapprochement will largely depend on the third pre-condition – on how the parties decide to deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Of all three obstacles standing in the way of a normalisation, this is the most complex one, and if this most recent attempt at rapprochement fails, it will most likely be on this issue rather than the previous two. Firstly, the Karabakh question does impact on the interests of both parties in a very real and present manner – here, we are not talking symbols or history, but an extremely tangible situation, existing on the ground as we speak, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Secondly, the Karabakh issue is not purely bilateral: both Armenia and Turkey will be subject to pressures from below, besides and above as they try to tackle this question, with their societies, allies and the great powers all having a vested interest in how exactly things are settled.
First, the most absurd pre-condition – that of tiny Armenia dropping presumed territorial claims against Turkey. The fact that the Armenian declaration of independence talks of ‘Western Armenia’ does not indicate a territorial claim – neither does Armenia’s very discreet use of Mount Ararat on its coat-of-arms. If the Armenian state stayed silent or made explicit claims in addition to these purely symbolic factors, yes, Turkey would have a right to be concerned – but no-one representing the Republic of Armenia in an official capacity has ever made such demands. Quite on the contrary, high-ranking Armenian officials have, at various times, clearly and unequivocally stated the absence of any territorial claims by Armenia in Eastern Turkey. In 2006, Armenia’s foreign minister at that time clearly affirmed Armenia’s acceptance of the validity of both the Kars and Moscow treaties delineating the current border between Turkey and Armenia. Just a month or so ago, in an interview with the Turkish ‘Radikal’ daily, the current president also clearly acknowledged the absence of any Armenian territorial claims in Eastern Turkey. These statements are being ignored by a surprising number of Turkish pundits and politicians – perhaps because they do not fit the established nationalist stereotypes that would allow them to continue ‘business as usual’ with their Eastern neighbour? Armenian officials would most probably see no problem in officially reaffirming their recognition of Turkey’s territorial integrity, despite of the reaction it would cause among the nationalist fringe.
On the second issue – that of the Genocide – both sides are actually not as far apart as it might seem at first sight, at least on the question of how to limit its effects on their bilateral relations. Of course, it is completely unrealistic to believe Turkey will recognise the Genocide any time soon, as it is unreasonable to assume Armenia will ever completely drop the Genocide issue from its foreign policy agenda. Both parties are subject to considerable pressures from below on that point – at this juncture, Turkish society would simply not accept a recognition by its government, and (contrary to what is often erroneously believed in Turkey), Armenian society (and not just the diaspora) could not countenance its state remaining silent on that matter. Moreover, it would be quite erroneous for anyone to expect the Armenian diaspora to give up its forceful quest for recognition – one of the pre-requisites for ‘managing’ this issue would be for Turkey to accept the Republic of Armenia has little, if any control over what American or French citizens of Armenian descent demand from their respective governments.
Provided all the caveats mentioned in the previous paragraph are taken into consideration, some kind of ‘modus vivendi’ could be found between the parties. Armenia has seriously replied to Turkey’s proposal to set up a commission of ‘impartial’ historians to study the matter by suggesting the creation of an inter-governmental commission tackling all issues of interest to the states after the establishment of diplomatic relations. It would not be surprising if discussion on the exact format of such a commission had been included in the secretive talks between Armenian and Turkish diplomats in Switzerland earlier this year. Another possibility would be for the issue to remain on Yerevan’s agenda, but less prominently so than in previous years, with Turkey silently scaling back its attempts at historical revision. In any case, the visit by Gül to Yerevan would have been unlikely if there hadn’t been at least the prospect of an agreement on how to manage this delicate issue – whether through a commission or through a decision to somehow “agree to disagree” in the future.
Turkey’s most complicated condition is the one relating to Nagorno-Karabakh. For this issue not to stand in the way of a Turkish-Armenian detente, either Turkey would have to de-couple its Armenia policies from Baku, or Armenia and Azerbaijan would somehow have to come to an agreement after years of tortuous and so far fruitless negotiations. While both outcomes are possible, they also face a variety of structural hurdles that limit the scope for action in both Ankara and Yerevan. As noted above, this is the only issue of substantive (rather than historic or symbolic) nature among the pre-conditions cited by Ankara for improved Armenian-Turkish relations. The conflict directly affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region – the Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azeri refugees and IDPs. It has a quite tangible effect on the security of Armenia, and Turkey’s closest ally, Azerbaijan; over the past 20 years, all sides have invested considerable material and diplomatic resources in trying to prevail in what they have rightly or wrongly seen as an issue of existential importance.
The conflict is, moreover, one where both sides are subject to pressures from a variety of quarters, making it by far the most complex issue standing in the way of a normalisation of relations. For a number of reasons, preserving the security of Karabakh’s Armenian inhabitants has been the central plank of Armenia’s foreign policy since independence. It would be utterly unrealistic to expect Yerevan to hand over the territory and its ethnic Armenian inhabitants ‘on a silver platter’ in return for economic favours: Armenia has so far been quite willing to pay the hefty economic price that comes with its insistence on Karabakh’s self-determination, which it sees as the only guarantee for the survival of that region’s ethnic Armenian population. On the other hand, Turkey’s powerful nationalists, and many in the nation’s military, see an unconditional commitment to Azerbaijan as an absolutely essential aspect of the country’s foreign policy. De-coupling Ankara’s policies towards Armenia from Azerbaijan would thus involve considerable domestic costs for any Turkish government – these would have to be overshadowed by the gains on the international and regional levels for such an eventuality to occur.
There are, however, solid arguments for such a de-coupling – especially after Georgia’s conflict with Russia. Turkey’s de-facto outsourcing of its Armenia policy to Baku has not achieved anything concrete in terms of making a resolution of the Karabakh conflict more feasible. Instead, it has reinforced existing stereotypes and insecurities, and has in effect excluded Turkey from the negotiations processes regarding the single most important frozen conflict in the region. Any advantages Baku might have received in terms of tilting the balance of power in its favour have been effectively neutralised by Russia’s strategic alliance with Armenia; and any hopes Azerbaijan might have had regarding a speedy Russian withdrawal from the Caucasus have now been dashed during the conflict in Georgia. Now that Ankara has woken up to the necessity of a comprehensive approach to security in the Caucasus – its Caucasus Stability Pact is a clear expression of this realisation – it might also feel that a more independent and pro-active approach is more conducive to constructing compromise solutions based on carefully constructed trust rather than the crude, largely ineffective pressure of closed borders.
Of course, the Karabakh conflict could also cease being an impediment to Turkish-Armenian relations by being resolved. Negotiations led by the OSCE Minsk Group have been continuing for almost 15 years, and, although the negotiators have been claiming for some time now that the parties are tantalisingly close to agreement – save for a few complex sticking points – such hopeful signs have previously been dashed on several occasions. Significantly, the talks have so far involved three co-chairs: France, the United States, and Russia. Although these three actors have been able to co-operate smoothly within the narrow confines of the Minsk Group, it is quite unclear whether this will remain the case in light of recent processes in the Caucasus. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has recently indicated Russia would be happy to see Armenia and Azerbaijan holding direct talks on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, outside the Minsk Group’s formal aegis - an effort at sidelining Washington and Paris, or a sign of tangible progress? And, Turkey’s president has visited Baku in the wake of his historic football diplomacy in Yerevan – an indication of panic or, again, a hint at a possible speedy solution? It is impossible to know at this point.
What is certain, however, is that the Karabakh conflict represents the most complex of all three impediments standing in the way of normalised Turkish-Armenian relations. In tying the normalisation of relations to that conflict, Ankara has in effect joined its bilateral relations with Armenia to a nexus where the very material interests of numerous actors, foreign and domestic, intermingle with any political will Armenia and Turkey might have towards normalising their relations. Of course, Turkey may have come to the conclusion that a more independent and pro-active Caucasus policy would contribute more to security and peace in the region than threats and blockades – in that case, Armenian-Turkish relations could go from being a hostage to the Karabakh conflict to potentially contributing to a solution. Alternatively, Ankara might feel that an agreement between Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan is imminent – eliminating Karabakh as an impediment to bilateral interaction. But otherwise, football diplomacy will risk being drowned out in the complications of the Karabakh conflict – yet another tragically lost opportunity in the long and winding road towards the reconciliation of two of the world’s most intractable foes.