Although Turkey and Armenia have a troubled relationship they share a common goal – EU integration.
On 3rd October 2005 Turkey will open accession talks with the European Union. The talks are expected to be long and difficult and Turkey will have to face-up to many tough issues, including its long-standing problems with Armenia during the course of these discussions.
At the same time, Armenia, which is now part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, clearly sees this new EU initiative as a stepping-stone to full membership. Whichever Armenian politician you talk to the answer is always the same – their vision of the future is as a full member of the EU family. This in itself is quite interesting as ENP does not offer the prospect of membership. This point, however, seems to be regularly disregarded. However, in order to move closer to this ambition Armenia will have to normalize its relations with its neighbours and carry out massive reforms.
Currently diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey remain frozen. Three issues dominate: the closed border, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the alleged genocide of 1915-16. Although the genocide issue is extremely important it does not directly effect either country’s integration aspirations or their relations with the EU. The other two issues do, however.
Without doubt one of the biggest success stories of the EU has been its ability to bring about change in countries aspiring to be closer to the EU. The new member states from Central and Eastern Europe as well as Romania and Bulgaria are a clear example of this accomplishment. The reforms that have taken place to date in Turkey can also be substantially accredited to the EU carrot. Thereby, it is clear that the EU could have an important role to play in the transformation of Turkish-Armenian relations.
Problems Turkey will Face Vis-à-Vis Armenia
Improving public opinion in EU Member States is going to be a priority of the Turkish government. To this end, Ankara envisages carrying out a large-scale communications and public relations campaign to win the hearts and minds of those skeptical over Turkish membership. However, as long as Turkey continues with its current policy towards Yerevan the government will face difficulties in trying to achieve this. The Armenian government, as well as its very large diaspora community, (± 6 million world-wide) will continue to condemn and criticize Turkey. In France, for example, a country already very unenthusiastic and negative over Turkish membership, and where 250,000 Armenians reside, it would seem difficult for such a campaign to succeed. The Armenian government and the diaspora community will work as a team. While the Armenian government will continue to push for the normalization of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border, the diaspora community will maintain its call for recognition of the alleged Armenian genocide. (24 April will mark the 90th anniversary of this incident and a number of conferences and seminars are expected to take place across Europe to mark the event.) Turkey cannot afford to keep churning out the same tired old arguments of decades.
Overall, it would seem that the Armenian government was pleased with the decision of the European Union to open accession talks with Turkey on 3 October 2005. As long as Turkey is in this “process” its relationship with Armenia is destined to improve and eventually normalize. The current status quo over the frozen diplomatic relations and closed border cannot be sustained if Turkey is to become a full member of the EU. However, how quickly or slowly Ankara decides to move on this issue will be significant. Although Turkey’s accession is estimated to take place in 10-15 years time, the Armenian government will not want to wait until the very last moment for a solution. Without doubt Yerevan will make the most of this new window of opportunity it now has to influence the EU and member states into pressing Turkey to normalizing relations.
The government, therefore, needs to face the fact that its current policy towards Armenia is unsustainable. It is time for Prime Minister Erdogan to begin to look at realistic and practical ways in which to normalize relations with Yerevan. Turkey must take some courageous steps regarding Armenia.
The Closed Border
Without doubt the most important step Turkey should take is to normalize diplomatic relations and open the border. Turkey sealed the frontier in 1993 – at the height of the Armenian-Azeri conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh – as an act of solidarity with Azerbaijan. The policy has cost the region dearly, as it blocks trade routes vital not only to Armenia and Turkey, but to the entire area. The Turkish town of Kars is testiment to this. The main road and rail routes from Turkey to the Caspian, for instance, go through Armenia, and are currently closed due to the blockade. Baku argues that if Turkey were to open its frontier with Armenia to trade, it would remove a vital incentive for Yerevan to make concessions in the Karabakh peace process, which at present is in a deadlock. However, if Azerbaijan and Armenia are serious about ENP and moving closer to Brussels, they will not be able to continue with this deadlock situation and will have to be willing to approach talks with a more give-and-take attitude. Although the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Turkey (as well as other officials) meet to discuss their common problems it would appear that there is never any real progress made but rather each country blames the other for the stalemate.
Turkey has continually argued three points on this issue – that a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should be a pre-condition to opening the border (even though Turkey is not directly involved in this conflict); that Armenia should drop the genocide claims and that Armenia must recognize Turkey’s border – a subject that both sides continually disagree over.
On this question of territory, Turkey maintains that Armenia still has a territorial claim on Eastern Turkey as Article 11 of the Declaration of Independence attached to the Armenian Constitution cites ” the Republic of Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia”. However, Armenia insists that this document has no legal standing, that Armenia has declared more than once, and at all levels, that Yerevan does not have any territorial claims and that Armenia recognizes the border as stated in the Kars Agreement which was drawn up between the Soviet Union and Turkey prior to Armenian independence. Moreover, in the event of a resumption in diplomatic relations a Protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations, clearly stating that the two states respect each others territory, and clearly stating what those territories are, could be signed making this long-running dispute void.
Moreover, over the last few years Turkey has clearly demonstrated that it wants to turn into a mature democracy. That the days when people could be jailed for expressing an opinion that went against that of the state are gone. Therefore is it not time for Turkey’s political elite to step back and reassess this policy on Armenia?
The opening of the border would be beneficial for Turkey and Armenia in many respects. Firstly, it would send a clear signal to the international community that there is a strong will and determination of both countries to solve their problems. Moreover opening the border would promote contact, trade, business opportunities and tourism between the population of both countries which would, in turn, help to build confidence and understanding between these two neighbours. Without such a move the current climate of tension will continue to smolder indefinitely.
The Genocide Question
As already stated, this issue is not linked to Turkish accession. However, certain politicians, the French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier for example, has expressed a desire to see this issue addressed within the process and it is possible that other political leaders may decide to give this issue for attention. Therefore it would seem sensible for Ankara to be more focused in its approach. The standard Turkish response of “we never committed genocide” would seem to be no longer sufficient. The government needs to take a more pro-active stance in the on-going debate. A transparent and clear dialogue needs to be undertaken which would allow Armenian and Turkish historians to sit down and debate the matter with all the archived information from both sides opened. A direct dialogue between Turkish and Armenian historians that began in 2004 between the Turkish Historical Society and their counterparts from the Armenian Academy of Science and Yerevan’s Genocide Museum formed the Vienna Armenian-Turkish Historians Platform (VAT) ground to a halt after the first meeting in 2004. Therefore, it would seem appropriate that a next step could be the formation of an International Commission under the auspices of the UN. This would help ensure impartiality and to encourage the opening of all archives.
EU Role in the Region
The European Union clearly wants to deal with the countries of the South Caucasus as a region. Presently this is impossible. To this end, Armenia and its neighbours must endeavor to do all they can to improve regional stability. All three countries have expressed a desire to become further integrated into the EU and to meet EU standards and values. The European Union has recently released Country Reports for all three countries. These will be followed by Action Plans in the autumn. Most importantly, Armenia must demonstrate, along with Azerbaijan, that it has a real political will to bring about a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenia continues to occupy 20% of Azeri territory. Without the resolution of this conflict it is difficult to see how the EU could seriously engage itself in the region.
Although the inclusion of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was clearly a significant step forward in the EU’s involvement in the region, the effectiveness of the EU in region will depend on its ability to establish a true partnership particularly in the area of conflict resolution, political and economic reform and intra-regional co-operation. Again, much political will to change the status quo will need to be demonstrated.
Turkey, integrated into the enlargement process, has a real opportunity to play a key role in the application and implementation of the ENP. The EU therefore needs to conduct a dialogue with Turkey on policies and actions vis-à-vis the region. In this regard, additional support through instruments such as technical assistance and twinning will boost the development of various forms of cross-border cooperation involving local and regional authorities, non-governmental actors and business communities by building on the achievements of Turkish Armenian Business Development Council and others in the border regions.
Up until now the policies applied by both Turkey and Armenia have failed. With Turkey’s accession talks due to begin later this year and with Armenia involvement in the ENP and clear EU ambitions it would seem that the time has come to open a new chapter and to begin a fresh process of dialogue and reconciliation. Leaders of both countries, with some help from the EU, need to find the political will to begin thinking in global and realistic terms and start taking steps for peace, if they are serious about bringing stability and peace to the region. The end result can only be a win-win situation for all.
European Policy Centre, Brussels