According to the paradigm of realpolitik, states have no permanent friends or enemies- only interests can be permanent. This thought has been dominant in the foreign policy-making of the last centuries and, though subject to various mutations, has in general remained a dominant principle of international relations. However, there have been, and there still are, some exceptions. And one of the most persistent and seemingly counter-intuitive cases thereof remains the foreign policy of Armenia, a small landlocked post-Soviet republic in South Caucasus. The week of furious skirmishes along the border with Azerbaijan, that started on July 12, and subsequent tensions arising between Azerbaijani and Armenian communities in various countries of the world, have reminded the world about the destructive potential of this special case and at the same time invite us to think why this conflict has become so intractable and thoroughly outgrown its initial causes and interests.
To begin with, let’s remember the beginnings of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which started to unfold in 1988, three years before the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. The demands of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians (constituting around 75% of the population of this area, which had a status of an autonomous region- “oblast” within the Azerbaijani SSR) for “reunification” (or “miatsum” in Armenian) with the mother-Armenia, were the trigger. The movement defined itself through the discourse of a national awakening and revival, and posed as an inalienable part of the process of democratization which was then beginning in Armenia, along with Azerbaijan and some other Soviet republics. Let’s for now remember this point- it is really important.
The “Karabakh committee”, as the leaders of the secession movement called themselves, of course put forward standard accusations of the violations of Armenians’ cultural rights in Azerbaijan. However, these accusations were, mildly speaking, ill-grounded, as the recently released documentary “Parts of a circle” may attest: the worst oppression cited by the region’s Armenians were the occassional inaccessibility of the TV and radio broadcasts from the Armenian SSR. Other than that, Nagorno-Karabakh had its high school education predominantly in Armenian, hosted an Armenian pedagogical college and a theatre. Moreover, Armenians constituted a significant and influential share of the population of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly in the country’s biggest cities- Baku, Ganja and Sumgayit, and were widely represented in the republic’s social and cultural elite. Up until now, you cannot find any document-based, hard evidence of systematic violations of the cultural autonomy enjoyed by the Armenian majority of the Oblast’. So, we cannot understand the motives of the Karabakh movement unless we put it into the context of the much wider, global revival of extreme form of nationalism among Armenians of the world.
In 1973, Kurken Oghanian, an elderly Armenian living in California and a refugee from the 1915 events in the Ottoman Empire, assassinated two LA-based Turkish diplomats, declaring revenge for the alleged genocide as the motive of his crime. This murder inspired a group of Armenian nationalists who in 1975 founded a group called ASALA (Armenian Secret Army of the Liberation of Armenia), whose goal was defined as forcing Turkey to recognize the 1915 events as genocide and make Ankara not only pay generous compensations to the Armenian victims and their families, but also to cede territories (!) of the Eastern Turkey, which, according to the never-ratified colonial Sevres treaty were supposed to become the homeland of would-be Armenian state. To achieve these goals, ASALA unfolded a campaign of full-fledged terror against Turkish diplomats, killing 46 of them in the period until 1990. After the particularly vicious attack at the Orly Airport in France, the group was recognized as terrorist by most major countries of the world, including U.S.
At the same time, nationalistic attitudes were slowly brewing among the Soviet Armenians, back then very loosely connected with the Diaspora. Since 1965, when the 50-year anniversary of the “genocide” was for the first time openly commemorated in Yerevan, these events started to be held every year on April 24, and in 1967 a massive memorial was unveiled at the site of the Tsitsernakaberd Hill, quickly becoming the symbol of Armenians’ anti-Turkish sentiment. The Soviet government tolerated these expressions of nationalism, which were in general all but prohibited by the official ideology of “friendship of peoples” partly because Ankara was considered a dangerous geopolitical adversary of the Soviets and a puppet of “American imperialism”. However, this produced shocking repercussions, when on January 8, 1977 three explosions took place in Moscow (including one at the underground station), claiming the lives of 7 people. Later that year, three Armenian nationalists were found guilty of these terror acts, the first ever to happen in the USSR. The court concluded them to be an isolated group, though claims about their links with ASALA, which was in the process of creation back then, were subsequently made.
Hence, the 1980’s witnessed the rise in exclusive Armenian nationalism driven by ressentiment and a sense of pending revenge against the Turks. The Karabakh movement, though it succeeded in portraying itself as the vanguard of the Soviet-wide wave of democratization, was heavily imbued with this ideology, which equated Azerbaijanis, ethnically close to the Turkish people, to perilous “Turks” considered perennial enemies of Armenia. That’s why the initially peaceful protests gave way to an interethnic strife in a matter of months, and in 1988 most Azerbaijanis (around 170,000 people back then) were expelled from Armenia by force.
As the both republics became independent in 1991, Karabakh started to attract “fidains”- mercenaries who had their training at the ASALA camps in the Middle East, many of whom participated in the acts of terror and served prison terms for that. The most famous of them, Monte Melkonyan from California, who was among the organisers of the Orly attack, is now a much-revered national hero in Armenia. The arrival of these people with their fierce anti-Turkic stance, brought the primordial discourse of “much-oppressed ancient nation”, “Armenia from the Caspian to the Mediterranean”, to the fore. Presence of the “fidains” significantly increased the intensity of atrocities, the most vicious of which happened in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly where on the night of 26 February 1992 613 unarmed people (including children and the elderly) were slaughtered. And although the negotiation process conducted by the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments, served to bring the conflict to the international level as a “classic” interstate one, it never lost, at least for the Armenian side, its zero-sum “either we or you” character. The words uttered by former Armenian President Kocharyan, who used to be the leader of Karabakh Armenians during the war, in an interview to the British researcher Tom de Waal, that “Armenians and Azerbaijanis are genetically incompatible”, sound as something from the racist playbook. Yet this black-and-white vision of the Armenian history and interests reflect the dominant, if not usually articulated, thinking which among others defines Armenian foreign policies as well.
The major feature of the Armenian strategy ever since its independence- the reluctant but inevitable affiliation with Russian interests- is one example. The Armenian democratic movement perceived Moscow as no friend as well. However, as the conflict intensified and Turkey in 1993 ultimately closed borders with Armenia, Yerevan had no other choice but to fully embrace Russia as security guarantor. Ultimately, the presence of the Russian military base in Gyumri as well as the frequent engagement of former Soviet army units in hostilities on the Armenian side, were among the major factors behind the ultimate Armenian victory. Later on, as the idea of preserving the “security” of the Nagorno-Karabakh (which proclaimed itself an independent republic, not yet recognized by any sovereign state), and the seven adjacent districts occupied by Armenian forces, got entrenched in both the national state of mind and political strategy, any attempts to re-orient Armenia towards Western integration would fail against the need to preserve Russia’s exclusive leverage in the country in exchange for its security guarantees. The failure of the “compliant Armenia” strategy preached by the first President Ter-Petrosyan, encapsulated this permanent deadlock of the Armenian foreign policy. This strategy envisaged gradual shift of Yerevan towards the Western-centered global institutions, including NATO and EU, and distancing from militant exclusive nationalism that characterized Armenia’s attitude towards Azerbaijan and Turkey. Ter-Petrosyan supported the maximally quick return of the 7 occupied regions (the “buffer zone” in the parlance of Karabakh separatists) to Baku and even reportedly contemplated an option of the “single state” for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Such prospects were rejected by the majority of Armenians, and the President had to resign in 1998, being replaced by the war hero Kocharyan, who quickly turned to considerably more nationalist rhetoric.
Another exemplary U-turn happened in 2013, when the Sargsyan government, preparing the association agreement with the EU, refused from signing it in the most unexpected manner days before the planned agreement date and a few days later joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The evidence indicates that this decision was obtained by Moscow through pressing hard on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, pivotal for Armenian politics. The newest case is the current president Pashinyan, who swept to power with the agenda of a more transparent and reforming Armenia and prioritized improving ties with the West. In the first year of his presidency Pashinyan did a lot to relieve the tensions with Azerbaijan, making 2019 the calmest year on the frontline in at least a decade. However, domestic pressure exerted by nationalists, who manipulated public opinion into believing that the President prepares a “treason” on Karabakh, and growing bitterness with Moscow, triggered Pashinyan to gradually adopt the traditional intransigent mode, and the latest escalation has been the logical outcome of the mounting tensions. In the aftermath of the July hostilities, he made a number of unprecedentedly pro-Russian statements, reassuring Moscow that Yerevan will remain its firm ally. At the same time, the officials and expert community in Armenia are again pushing the idea that only Russian umbrella can save their country from the destruction by “enemy Turks”. However, violence against peaceful Azerbaijani protesters in Los Angeles, Brussels or London, as well as rioting in Moscow, came as a shock and was the first time the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict really spilled over the territory of third countries and involved thousands of people with no direct links to the armed forces or politics. Given that the Armenian leadership never bothered to denounce such behavior by their ethnic kin, it must be concluded that the conflict in the eyes of most Armenians, despite of their appellations to international law and the language of realpolitik, is clearly an ethnic one which justifies war by all means. Among the Armenians who came on the streets of Western cities to confront the Azerbaijani crowds, were scattered people bearing the insignia of “ASALA” on their t-shirts, which also indicates the merging of Azerbaijanis and Turks in the radical-nationalist perception.
However, the most dramatic consequence of the intransigent, zero-sum policy of Armenia are the numerous wasted opportunities for the dynamic development of the whole region. Even in the 1990’s, when all the three countries of South Caucasus experienced the economic collapse of more or less similar magnitude, Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan warned about long-term adverse outcomes of the uncompromised attitude to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue for the country’s economic development. Since then, Armenia found itself isolated from the major infrastructural projects of regional significance, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, as well as many more international initiatives promoted by the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan triangle. The absence of the border with Russia, together with economic problems Moscow is experiencing since 2014, mean that this partnership is not nearly as lucrative for Yerevan as the hypothetical collaboration with the direct neighbours could have been, and in fact the only serious boon from it is Yerevan’s ability to obtain Russian weapons for lower-than-market prices from time to time- which only strengthens “the party of war” and perpetuates the mentality of a besieged fortress. The resulting dependence on communications with Iran puts severe limits on Armenia’s attempts to deepen cooperation with the West. As a result, in the last 15 years Armenia’s GDP per capita consistently lagged behind Azerbaijan, for some years even falling to the half its level, and in the recent years has also been considerably lower than the respective figure for Georgia. Moreover, Armenian economy, compared to Azerbaijan and Georgian ones, is much more dependent on the inflow of investment from rather limited sources (particularly the Armenian diaspora), which makes it more vulnerable to various shocks and further constrains the range of available policy options, as diaspora money is usually linked with Armenia’s uncompromised and vigorous promotion of the issues of genocide recognition and Nagorno-Karabakh “independence”.The vicious circle of stagnant economy and bellicose rhetoric serves to reward the politicians most radical on Nagorno-Karabakh, since its “defense” from Azerbaijan becomes the only success that can justify the government’s performance.
At the same time, Armenian policies have put significant obstacles to the whole region as well. Amid the growing weariness from the enormous Russian influence, the continuing presence of Russia’s 302ndmilitary base in Gyumri can now be justified only by the guarantee of the status-quo it provides for Yerevan. Unsurprisingly, after initial irritation at the CSTO and Moscow who didn’t rush to interfere into the border skirmishes with Azerbaijan, President Pashinyan had to change his stance and recognize the strategic importance of security partnership with Russia- a victory for Moscow but another blow to the sustainable peace in South Caucasus. The lack of such peace and the constant, if often understated threat of a new escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan causes skeptical assessment of the strategic importance and potential of the whole region in the West, which throughout his last decade has considerably diminished its presence here; since Obama’s presidency, South Caucasus has been downgraded in the list of U.S’s foreign policy priorities. The constant threat of war in South Caucasus was very clear to the whole world in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, but the fact that Armenia is, unlike Russia, a small, economically backward state has blinded many analysts from fully recognizing its destructive role and put the Karabakh conflict to the back row, relative to the conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia. Yerevan’s rejection of compromises and desperate attachment to the Russian security umbrella made a long-term time bomb from Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that many Armenians abroad perceive Azerbaijani embassies and peaceful rallies as a target, attests to the flawed thinking which perpetuates Armenia’s conflict with “Turks”. At the same time, it made as clear as never before that it would be in the best interest of the international community to return, after many years, to a pro-active role, and take a harsh stance against war-mongering and ethnic radicalism in South Caucasus. It must be finally made clear that Yerevan cannot pretend to be a flagship of democracy in the region and continue its occupation, preaching the ideas of militant primordial nationalism and disregard for international law.
Western Influence Wanes in South Caucasus
Over the course of past year, Georgia’s relations with its Western partners have notably cooled. Under the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party which came to power in 2012, ties with the West had strengthened. But recently, as the popularity of the party declined and the political landscape in Georgia altered, distrust has grown, accusations have flown, and questions regarding the sustainability of Georgia’s pro-Western path are loudly discussed.
A primary driver is an internal political crisis which followed the 2020 parliamentary elections. That worsened following a July 28 decision by GD to walk back a deal it reached with the political opposition to end a month-long internal political crisis. The process was supervised by EU diplomats along with the U.S. ambassador. A six-point plan was produced that envisaged long-sought electoral and judicial reforms, and power-sharing in parliament. It also involved stipulations on the possibility of new elections and the issue of political prisoners (though the government says there are none.)
The decision to withdraw from the deal might be also linked to the upcoming local government elections and troubles faced by the ruling party. IRI-produced polls showed that GD is backed by only 28% of the population, with the United National Movement, traditionally the biggest opposition party, coming second with 15%. Other polls showed only slightly higher support for the ruling party.
Georgian Dream also faces serious dissent within its own ranks. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s active political campaigning and growing popularity (9% according to the IRI polls) have taken significant support from Georgia Dream to his new party, called For Georgia. The proliferation of parties as well as the steady process of generational change is breaking the political status quo. Gradually, older parties are losing popularity, while newer groups manage to attract support in the 5-10% range. Diffusion of political power among multiple parties is thus a significant development which breaks with traditional Georgian politics of single party dominance of the entire political landscape.
Although pro-EU sentiment within the Georgian public remains fairly high, for the political elites it has become increasingly clear that membership prospects are bleaker than ever before. Reasons range from troubles in the liberal world order, to the rise of illiberalism and the divisions within the EU on expanding onto Russia’s doorstep.
America’s failures should not be magnified, but its prestige has been shaken by the Afghan withdrawal, meaning U.S. authority is being diluted. President Joe Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region has provided an opportunity for Georgia’s government to consider a more balanced approach to the Black Sea neighborhood. This involves the establishment of more equidistant external ties, both to regional and global powers. Ukraine, another long-time EU-hopeful, did something similar when the country was essentially shunned from EU and NATO membership. The country turned to China, and signed a large investment deal to improve railway and ports infrastructure. Reaching out to Turkey is another option.
In Georgia’s case, its fixation with the West no longer provides the expected results. However, this does not mean Georgia will abandon its pro-Western stance. Ideally, constructing closer foreign ties with other actors would allow the country to partially compensate for its inability to win EU/NATO membership. A multi-vector foreign policy is already visible in Turkey, Iran, Russia and other neighboring states. Even Armenia, much constrained by asymmetric dependence on Russia, is actively looking at diversifying its foreign policy options by actively seeking a rapprochement with Turkey.
One possibility is that Georgia seeks an improvement of relations with Russia — badly marred by the 2008 war — as part of a more agile and balanced foreign policy. As ties between Georgia and the West deteriorate, Russia seems to want an understanding. A series of offers on normalizing bilateral relations was suggested by the Kremlin, aiming to exploit the rising disagreements between Georgia and its Western partners.
In the end, the shift from fixation on the West to a policy of criticism as part of a broader foreign policy reflects changes in the balance of power. The West is no longer seen in the wider Black Sea region as a decisive power. The rise of an illiberal alternative to the Western liberal democratic model allows countries to take another path. That of course ultimately harms the U.S. and its friends, reduces their credibility, and may reverse liberty’s advances, achieved over several decades, both in Georgia and Ukraine.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Ukraine’s EU-integration plan is not good for Europe
Late this summer, Estonia, in the person of its president, Kersti Kaljulaid, became the first EU country to declare that Ukraine remains as far away from EU membership as it was after the “Revolution of Dignity” – the events of 2013-14 in Kiev, which toppled Ukraine’s vacillating pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, the ambassador of Estonia’s neighbor, Latvia, in Ukraine, echoed Kaljulaid’s statement, although in a slightly softer form. This came as unpleasant news for the current authorities of Kiev, especially amid the celebration of Ukraine’s 30th independence anniversary and the “Crimean Forum,” which, according to President Zelensky’s plan, was supposed to rally international support for the country in its confrontation with Russia. However, during the past seven years, Ukraine has been a serious problem for the EU, which is becoming increasingly hard to solve.
Back in 2014, the Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of its ally, Yanukovych, was just as harsh as to the coming to power in Kiev of pro-Western elites. Without firing a single shot, Russia annexed Crimea, a major base for the Russian Black Fleet, and populated by a Russian-speaking majority, many of whom sincerely welcomed the region’s reunification with Russia. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Ukraine’s also Russian-speaking southeast where the local separatists were actively supported by Moscow. Europe then realized that it was now necessary to ramp up pressure on Russia and support the budding democratic transformations in Ukraine. However, the country’s successive pro-Western presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared European values, have since failed to achieve any significant results in European integration. Moreover, they became enmeshed in US electoral scandals and the war of compromising evidence, and they do not create the impression of being independent figures. Moreover, they were consistently making one mistake after another. In two major battles with separatists near Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk in 2014-15, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered a crushing defeat, despite the upsurge of patriotism backed by US and European support. The closure of the borders with Russia has divided families and left tens of thousands of people without jobs. An inept language policy and rabid nationalism split the Ukrainian nation, which had just begun to shape up, with wholesale corruption plunging the country into poverty.
In their clumsy effort to prove their adherence to European values, Petro Poroshenko, and after him Volodymyr Zelensky, both made clumsy attempts to prove their adherence to Western values, starting to prioritize the interests of the country’s LGBT community. As a result, gay people were given prominent positions in the country’s leadership, and the square outside the presidential palace became the venue of almost weekly gay pride parades. This open disregard for the conservative values of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians led to an even greater split between the ruling elites and the nationalists, who are now at loggerheads with the Zelensky administration on many issues – another gigantic problem hindering Ukraine’s European integration.
The fact is that Ukrainian nationalism has old and very controversial roots. Starting out as fighters for independence, the Ukrainian right-wingers quickly joined the camp of Hitler’s admirers and committed a number of serious war crimes not only in Ukraine proper, but on the territory of neighboring Poland as well. Their heirs now honor Hitler and Ukrainian collaborationists, deny many crimes of Nazism and espouse anti-Semitic views that are unacceptable for Europe. Moreover, they do not see Russia as their only enemy, actively provoking conflicts with the Poles and accusing them of the “genocide of the Ukrainians” during the 1930s in the territories that until 1939 were part of the Polish state.
In the course of the seven years of Ukraine’s “pro-Western turn” the local right-wingers, who already represented an organized force, were reinforced by veterans of the Donbass war, members of the country’s military and security forces. They were long regarded by the Washington as important allies in the fight against Russia, failing to see real neo-Nazis hiding under patriotic slogans. Now it is exactly these people, who are breaking up gay parades in Kiev and crippling LGBT activists. They feel no need for European values because they take much closer to heart the legacy of the Third Reich. Thanks to visa-free travel to Europe, they have become regulars, and often the striking force of neo-Nazi gatherings from Germany to Spain. They are ready to kill refugees from the Middle East and burn synagogues. Moreover, some of them have retained ties with their Russian neo-Nazi brethren, who, although in deep opposition to Vladimir Putin, continue to propagate the idea of superiority of the Slavic race.
President Zelensky and his administration are smart enough to distance themselves from the local right-wingers. Moreover, they are detained, and sometimes their rallies are broken up by police (albeit without any consequences for the leaders). Even though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector lost their seats in parliament in the last elections, they retained their hard-core base and influence. De facto neo-Nazi leaders maintain good contacts with the outwardly liberal presidential administration and are thus immune from prosecution. They also go to Europe, where right-wing sentiments are very popular.
Meanwhile, President Zelensky continues to pointlessly lose soldiers along the “contact line” with separatists, unable to “be strong with his weakness” and establish a full-fledged truce in a war he does not yet want to win. As a result, more and more illegal arms are seeping into the country’s central regions from the frontlines and many soldiers, fed up with the war, are now joining the ranks of right-wing militants! These are by no means pro-European activists. They will be just as happy to beat up LGBT members and destroy a refugee camp as the Russian embassy. The authorities simply cannot fight them in earnest because the ultranationalists have too many supporters in the state apparatus and too many activists capable of plunging Kiev into chaos in a matter of hours. Small wonder that such post-Soviet countries as Estonia and Latvia, which themselves had problems with both nationalism and the justification of local collaborationists, were the first to raise their voices criticizing Kiev.
Well, Ukraine could and should be viewed as a potential new EU member. However, it must be forced to root out Nazism, instead of holding staged gay prides in downtown Kiev just for show to demonstrate the elites’ adherence to European values! Otherwise, we would have a faction of real neo-Nazis in the European Parliament, compared to whom any members of the European Far Right would look like moderate conservatives. In addition to stamping out corruption, President Zelensky needs to eradicate neo-fascism, which threatens Europe just as it does his own country. Only then can we talk about European integration. Meanwhile, we have to admit that, just as the Estonian president said, seven years of “European democracy” have not brought Ukraine one step closer to the United Europe…
Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement
Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.
Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”
On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”
So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.
Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.
Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.
As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.
Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.
Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch
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