Turkey and Armenia: Make History Instead of Repeating It

By W. Robert Pearson | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Apr 20, 2015
Turkey and Armenia: Make History Instead of Repeating It
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

On April 24, Turks, Armenians, and millions of others around the globe will clash again over the events that began 100 years ago in the Ottoman domains. The mass deportations and massacres of Armenians in 1915 and later years have led many to call this great tragedy a genocide. The old arguments and contested evidence are now going to be heard once more. It might also be the perfect moment for Ankara and Yerevan to take practical steps that benefit all and harm none.

Turkey’s present position is not producing any good result. For nearly 25 years, Ankara has put relations with Armenia in a straightjacket. The border is closed, and Turkey has made improved ties with Yerevan hostage to Azerbaijan’s position on disputed territorial claims between the two neighbors. That dispute—the so-called frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh—is so convoluted that the U.S. Army War College uses it each year to teach future U.S. military leaders the complexities of diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The failure to make progress has had a number of negative consequences. Putin’s Russia has troops stationed in Armenia and has made Yerevan its most loyal ally in the region. One result is to see Georgia bracketed north and south by Russian forces. Russia fosters tensions in the region to highlight its own importance and to spoil efforts by others. Iran has cultivated Armenia for years as a counterweight to Azerbaijan and to underline its interest in playing a role in South Caucasus developments. Azerbaijan’s steadily increasing oil wealth continues to tilt the military balance in its favor in case of a major crisis. Azerbaijan has promoted closer ties with the United States while cracking down domestically on human and civil rights. Baku’s close ethnic and linguistic ties with Turkey, its vital energy conduits to and through Turkey, and its strategic importance for the United States and Turkey in the South Caucasus raise the stakes for peace efforts. Armenia has seen a steady emigration of its children to better lives in Europe and the United States because of its doleful economic circumstances. The EU Parliament’s resolution of April 15 that called on Turkey to recognize the 1915 events as genocide and seek reconciliation with Armenia reflects the parlous state of negotiations between the EU and Turkey over Turkey’s EU membership and cannot be seen as any encouragement for progress.

When resolutions on the genocide question are debated, there are enormous demands on Turkish diplomatic and political energy to try to contain the crisis. When such resolutions are introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Turkish Embassy in Washington mounts a major campaign to prevent passage. The time devoted to stopping such initiatives often puts other issues on hold while this matter is addressed.

Thawing relations between Turkey and Armenia would cause all the other players to adjust their positions and would diminish their influence. Greater freedom of movement of goods and services would open up the region to genuine economic growth and trade, with specific benefits for the Turkish commercial and investment sectors. A new departure would also allow Ankara to focus on a positive agenda for a region of long historical importance for the Turks.

History has a current, and it is difficult to see how the present stream of thought and opinion is running in Turkey’s favor. France’s National Assembly in 2006 passed a resolution, later dropped, calling the tragedy a genocide. In recent days, Pope Francis quoted reports referring to the massacres as genocide. The EU Parliament’s resolution of April 15 called on Turkey to recognize what happened in 1915 as a genocide. If this were an election year in the United States, it is possible that another genocide resolution would be introduced in the House of Representatives. Turkey states sometimes that it enjoys “being alone,” but being alone to lead and being alone to defend a position with shrinking support are different realities.

For Turkey to take the high road on reconciliation with Armenia would make a lot of sense. Reconciliation has played a critical role in aiding other countries to embrace their histories and move forward. Generous terms offered to the U.S. South in 1865 helped enormously to heal the deep wounds of the Civil War and inspired U.S. strategic thinking in World War II to make former enemies eventual friends. South Africa’s years’ long process of testimony and reconciliation helped put its acrimonious past behind it. In Rwanda, a process of reconciliation using indigenous cultural traditions has fostered social cohesion. In Argentina and in Chile, the combination of an orderly process to reckon with history and to have the stories of atrocities aired publicly has helped those countries make progress. History teaches us that truth telling from all perspectives leads to healing and better societies. However painful, reconciliation works, and the process further lends itself to diplomatic leadership for a country and region.

To make 2015 a positive year for Turkey in its relations with Armenia, Turkey could easily undertake the following measures:

**Open one or more border posts to local trade. This small step led to lowered tensions in Cyprus, and it could work with Turkey and Armenia.

**Negotiate expanded rail and air connections. Apparently, no nonstop flights exist between Istanbul and Yerevan, even by Turkish Airlines, which has one of the world’s most extensive networks. Aeroflot, the Russian airline, flies many of the multiple stop flights that connect Istanbul and Yerevan. Currently, rail connections are closed, and goods must go through Georgia.

**Initiate a discussion of regional energy resources and how to share them. Eastern Turkey and Armenia have great potential for using local energy resources to spur development. Armenian hydropower development could serve eastern Turkey requirements as well. Currently, Armenia is dependent on Russia and to some extent on Iran for its energy needs.

**Expand sports diplomacy. Sports started a peace process in 2008 between the two countries, and it could have potential once again.

Once some of these more modest steps have been taken, the more difficult ones come into view. They are significant. Turks rightly worry about Armenian reparation or territorial demands. Fully normalized relations potentially could become contingent on a settlement of the regional disputes. Azerbaijan needs movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh question as Turkey and Armenia move forward.

What we know is that each year April 24 reminds us of a enormous tragedy that must be addressed by those most directly involved. However, what we need to recognize more clearly is that April 24 could provide an impulse forward that would concentrate on how two neighbors can make life better for their peoples. There are many possibilities.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is visiting Washington to emphasize Turkey’s defense on the Armenian question. It would be an act of statesmanship for him to take a step forward at the same time to begin healing a wound that has lasted a century. President Obama should make this point clearly, understanding the challenges that would lie ahead.