Envoys from Turkey and Armenia will meet in Moscow on January 14 in a renewed effort to normalize their historically fractious relations.
The two Caucasian neighbors have long been at odds over a range of issues, from the World War I-era genocide of Ottoman Armenians to the contemporary conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Now, though, there is hope that the victory of Turkish ally Azerbaijan over Armenia in the November 2020 short, hot war may open the road to Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
This, in turn, may also lead the way to an opening of long-closed borders between the two countries, which could help establish a new trading corridor eventually stretching across Central Asia all the way to China.
Still, negotiations are likely to be fragile. Russia and Iran are also taking a close interest in the terms of any Turkish-Armenian deal as the regional security environment undergoes rapid changes.
“A lot could be achieved here, in the longer term,” Nigar Goksel, the International Crisis Group’s Turkey specialist, told Asia Times, “but there are also a lot of risks.”
Stops and starts
This is not the first time that Turkish and Armenian envoys have sat down to talk since Armenia became independent from the former-Soviet Union in 1991.
That was in the midst of a war between Armenia and neighbor Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – a part of Azerbaijan with an ethnic Armenian majority.
In 1993, Armenia finally won that conflict, declaring Nagorno-Karabakh an independent Armenian republic. It also occupied several other areas of Azerbaijan that did not have Armenian majorities, but connected Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia’s main territory.
Turkey had backed fellow Turkic and Muslim Azerbaijan in the conflict, closing its borders with more pro-Russian and Christian Armenia. This was in an effort to pressure Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to make concessions to Baku, the Azeri capital.
These concessions did not emerge, however, with relations then freezing until 2003, when the newly elected Justice and Development Party government in Ankara attempted to thaw relations.
Then-Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul met his Armenian counterpart, Vardan Ozkanian, at a NATO summit in Madrid ahead of NATO military exercises then being held in Armenia.
Both ministers announced their intention to establish normal diplomatic relations.
Yet many Armenians objected to any such move unless Turkey admitted to and apologized for what Yerevan and many others consider a genocide of Armenians that took place in the Ottoman Empire – the forerunner of modern Turkey – back in 1915.
Turkey admits that many were killed when ethnic Armenians formed a large minority within the empire, but Ankara denies this was “genocide.”
The next major effort at rapprochement was therefore not until 2009, when a series of protocols were signed between the two foreign ministers’ successors, Ahmet Davutoglu and Eduard Nalbandyan, in Zurich.
With the Nagorno-Karabakh issue still highly sensitive, the protocols excluded any reference to it, while also excluding the term “genocide.”
This caused considerable domestic opposition in both countries, with the parliaments of the two never ratifying what was agreed.
Now though, “We’ve come 180 degrees,” Hratch Tchilingirian, from the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, told Asia Times, “and there’s a completely different context.”
Aided by Turkey, Azerbaijan launched a successful attack in November 2020 to regain Nagorno-Karabakh and the other territories it had lost in 1993.
“Before, Turkey had always linked any normalization to a demand for Armenian withdrawal from these other territories,” says Goksel. “Now they have that, albeit as the result of the war.”
At the same time, the genocide issue, and Armenia’s global campaign for recognition of the atrocity, received a significant boost last year when US President Joe Biden used the word to describe the 1915 killings.
“The two will agree to disagree on this,” adds Goksel, “and recognize that establishing diplomatic relations is not about the past, but about trade routes and normalization.”
Those trade routes could be significant. As neighbors, Turkey and Armenia would likely both benefit from a re-opening of the border.
In 2019, Turkey exported just US$255 million worth of goods to Armenia, while $4.86 million went the other way, according to Organization of Economic Complexity figures.
An embargo on Turkish goods instituted during the conflict, lifted unilaterally by Yerevan earlier this month, had reduced trade to almost zero.
An open border would not only allow Turkish goods to enter Armenia more easily, and vice versa, but also would enable more direct trade via a corridor to Azerbaijan. From there, the rest of Central Asia beckons, as would China.
“Beijing has an interest in this region,” Jonathan Katz, senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, told Asia Times, “and has invested in east-west corridors and trade, particularly with Armenia.”
This interest is reciprocated by Turkey, which has long been trying to establish its “Middle Corridor” initiative – a road and rail network through the largely ethnic Turkic states of Central Asia.
“Turkey has always wanted a trade and transport corridor there,” adds Goksel. “Once the border, the markets open, Turkey can flourish in terms of trade with the region and project its ‘soft power’, increasing its influence over time.”
Such an increase in influence, however, may be a subject for concern elsewhere.
“I find it hard to believe Moscow would want full rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia,” says Katz. “If the border came down, if there was more inter-dependence in the region and stability, then there would be less dependence on Russia.”
That the January 14 talks are being held in Moscow underscores Russia’s influence on the process – as does Armenia’s sending of troops to Kazakhstan last week, as part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance.
“There was a lot of opposition to that in Armenia,” adds Tchilingirian, “to the crushing of demonstrations and also given that the CSTO didn’t come to aid Armenia when it was attacked by Azerbaijan in 2020.”
At the same time, Iran, which borders Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south, also has a keen interest in the future of Turkish-Armenian relations.
“They have a north-south economic and energy corridor through the region they wish to protect,” says Katz, which “highlights how much of a crossroads this region is for international powers.”
The upcoming talks are therefore unlikely to see any major breakthroughs, with the meeting expected to be the start of a long process in trying to heal both historic and contemporary wounds. “I don’t have high expectations for the first meeting,” says Tchilingirian.
A roadmap for future meetings may well emerge, however, with these “likely to be bilateral,” says Goksel, “although no one is going to try and elbow out Moscow, as that would be highly counter-productive.”
Follow Jonathan Gorvett on Twitter at @jpgorvett