Armenia suspended the process of normalization with Turkey in April, dealing a blow to an agreement designed to open the closed Armenia–Turkey border after almost a century of hostility between the nations. In a new video Q&A, Tom de Waal notes that while the Armenians left the door open to resume talks in the future, the region is stuck in a vicious circle.

Although not formally linked to the dialogue between Turkey and Armenia, de Waal warns that the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh is the biggest hurdle in moving forward. “Turkey needs the cover of some kind of progress on that conflict to move forward. But the Armenians explicitly don't want to link these two issues and talks themselves are pretty deadlocked.”

What is the history of Armenia-Turkey relations?

When we look at 1915 and what happened, it was really one of the first great atrocities of the 20th century. There were more than two million Armenians living in what is now the Eastern part of Turkey, Eastern Anatolia. Within a few years there were none left—they had been killed, deported, or assimilated. 

Many of them went to the Middle East and many of them went West, which is why we have such large Armenian diaspora in the United States, particularly in California and Massachusetts. Many of them went to Eastern Armenia which then became part of the Soviet Union. That border was then closed during the Cold War, and this issue really only came back with full force when Armenia gained independence in 1991. So we’re looking at a historical blackspot. 

Now it has to be said that this was an incredibly complex period during the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Muslim Turks also died, sometimes at the hands of Armenians. Although Armenians were the biggest losers of this great tragedy, they weren’t the only losers. This is one reason why Turkey have denied this, because Turks also suffered. Turkey was basically founded on the fact that it escaped being dismembered by Christian powers, including the Russians who were supporting the Armenians. 

So it’s a historically complex period and only in the last few years with the end of the Soviet Union, the changes within Turkey, and Armenia’s independence have the two sides really been able to look at it. Unfortunately, then we got stuck on another issue: the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is also a Turkic nation. Azeri and Turkish are very close languages, so Azerbaijan was Turkey’s natural new ally in the region. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan also have historical issues, particularly over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh. The two countries went to war over that area in the early 1990s and Turkey backed its Turkic ally Azerbaijan. And, in 1993, after one Armenian operation which captured a large Azerbaijani province in solidarity with its Azerbaijani neighbors, the Turks closed the border. 

So we have two issues laid one on top of the other. One is what happened in 1915, that huge tragedy during the First World War and then more recently, the lesser but also tragic, history of the early 1990s, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. 

What is the significance of Armenia's decision to suspend the ratification of its agreement to normalize ties with Turkey?

Armenia suspended the process of normalization with Turkey, but did not kill off. This was the least of the two options. They were angry that the Turks weren’t moving forward with this historic normalization process which would involve opening the border and that the Turks were not going to ratify the agreement signed last October in Zurich. 

The Armenians were taking a lot of domestic heat on this issue. So the question for the Armenians was whether they would walk away from the process altogether or would they merely suspend their participation in the process. They chose the latter, so they've left the door ajar so they can come back to it. Everyone is assuming that this process could get back on track next year when the Turks are more comfortable after the Turkish elections. 

Many people hoped that this great historical normalization would go through, the two parliaments would ratify this document that the foreign ministers had signed, and there would be an opening of the closed border. What we’re getting is a pause in the process but not a full stop. 

The fear was that we are going end up in a worst place than where we originally started—that there would be a lot of recriminations and mistrust and this process would be stalled for many years. What we have now is not a great solution because the process is stalled, but it does mean that Armenia and Turkey can get back to this when they are more comfortable and see progress in other areas which makes them feel more secure about going back. 

And it allows other kinds of contacts to continue. This is one of the success stories about this process. Turkey has opened up a great deal in the last few years and been looking at its past, including the dark issue that happened in 1915 to the Armenians. There has been a lot of people-to-people contact. The taboo has been broken in Turkey on discussing the Armenian issue. There was an internet campaign which 30,000 people have signed a statement of apology to the Armenians. 

So, the dialogue has begun on the level of societies and that will continue now that the Armenians have taken a step back from the process but haven’t killed off the process. 

Why has there been a delay in normalizing relations?

This process started quietly with mediation by Switzerland a couple of years ago, getting the two sides together for some quiet talks and they were able to move forward and start to look at a roadmap. The United States only got involved in the spring of 2009.

Every year Armenian–Turkish relations reach a boiling point over April 24, which is marked as Armenian genocide day. The temperature heats up every April 24 and the U.S. president issues a statement on that day honoring the Armenian victims, and that statement is pored over in Turkey. They are outraged by the statement because it suggests Turkey committed grave crimes. Armenians, on the contrary, are outraged by the statement because traditionally it does not mention the word genocide, which is the big demand of Armenian lobbies in the United States. 

A road map was announced on April 22, 2009, which simultaneously moved the process forward and also took the pressure off the Turks (because of this process the U.S. president was not going to use the word genocide). So that was the beginning, and they then managed to sign protocols in October 2009 in Zurich. This was mediated by the Swiss, but the big guns were there, including Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov. The big powers were suddenly putting their weight behind this normalization process.  

Things then started to get stuck when Azerbaijan started to use all the levers it could in Turkey to try to derail the process. They were unhappy and worried about what it meant for them. And when April 24 came around again this year there was lots of lobbying. The two leaders, Armenian President Sarkisian and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, met at the beginning of April in Washington on the sidelines of President Obama’s nuclear summit to try to see if they could bridge their differences, but they couldn't.  

How does this dispute relate to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh?

The big problem here, the pebble in the shoe which keeps on coming back, is the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh. This conflict has tied up the whole south Caucasus region since the late 1980s, early 1990s. 

It started in 1988 and was initially a problem for Mikhail Gorbachev when this small province with an Armenian majority had autonomy inside Soviet Azerbaijan. They lobbied to become part of Soviet Armenia. 

This started off as a political dispute, then there were pogroms in Azerbaijan, then there was violence. It basically escalated into a full-scale war over this province of Karabakh in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. Armenians won that war in 1994 and kept control of Karabakh and they also conquered Azerbaijani regions outside Karabakh from which hundreds of thousands Azerbaijanis fled. 

That’s where we are today. The Armenians are still in control of not only Karabakh but the zone around Karabakh. And Turkey, in solidarity with Azerbaijan, closed its border with Armenia during the war to support the Azerbaijanis. 

The two processes are not formally linked, but everyone knows that in some ways they are actually linked. The Armenians want to see normalization with Turkey and an opening of the border to proceed anyway—they say the border opening is good for both countries.  

Turkey sort of accepted that, signed the protocols, but simultaneously, were hoping and saying we need some progress on the Karabakh issue and that Armenia must move forward if we are going to ratify these protocols. Between the signing and the ratification, nothing happened on the Karabakh issue and basically, even though the Karabakh issue was not mentioned in the protocols, the Turks have basically made this a precondition and this is why we’re stuck. 

There have been differences on the Turkish side. President Gul was the one who flew to Armenia in September 2008 to a soccer match in Yerevan which kicked this whole thing off, while Prime Minister Erdogan has consistently adopted a more aggressive tone towards Armenians. He has several times explicitly said that Armenia needs to move forward on the Karabakh issue for the Turks to move forward on the protocols.   

There have been some mixed messages here. The big question is why the Turks signed protocols with Armenia which explicitly did not mention the word Azerbaijan or the word Karabakh. They clearly hoped that something would happen in parallel; the hopes may be that someone would take care of the Azerbaijani factor. That didn't happen so they found themselves boxed in earlier this year. With no progress on Karabakh, Azerbaijan was extremely unhappy, Armenians were insisting on forward movement, and they basically put a halt to the whole process. 

What are the potential benefits of warmer ties and opening the border between Turkey and Armenia?

This is one of the last closed borders in Europe—it’s the edge of Europe, but it’s still Europe. It’s a great anomaly to have a closed border in a globalized world. Ultimately, in the long term, opening the border benefits everybody.  

Armenia really suffers from a siege mentality which goes all the way back to 1915 and all of the problems they've had. They've got two of their four borders closed—one with Azerbaijan and one with Turkey. For them, opening this border ends their status as a regionally isolated country. They start to open up to the West. Economically it’s obviously good for Armenia. Transport costs go down, they have a new route for all their imports and exports which currently go via Georgia or Iran. But I think that’s a long-term thing, I don't think it’s going to have an amazing transformation for the economy. It’s more of a psychological aspect as well as some economic benefits. 

For Turkey, it’s about allaying the ghosts of the past and reaching some accommodation over the issue of the genocide. Very importantly for them it’s also about being able to put a stop to all these resolutions, where foreign parliaments call what happened in 1915 a genocide, which they assume would stop if there was a normalization of relations with Armenia. It’s also about entering the Caucasus—this is a region to their northeast and basically they don't really have a role there. They are strong allies with Azerbaijan, they have a fairly good relationship with Georgia, but since they don't have any relations with the third country, they can’t really be an effective player in the Caucasus. So it’s about expanding that role. 

Those are all benefits but unfortunately when they are put into balance the antagonism of Azerbaijan outweighed the benefits for them and this is why we’re still stuck. 

How successful is U.S. policy on the issue?

The United State is a key player in this process. The United States has a huge Armenian–American population. There is a strong lobby in Congress—the Armenian Caucus is perhaps the most powerful after the Israeli Caucus. The United States obviously has a strong relationship with Turkey—a member of NATO, a key player in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, on Cyprus, on all kinds of issues. The United States has a strong stake for different reasons in both countries. 

Having said that, it’s really a conflict between two very different policies. Armenia is more about domestic policy and reaching out to the Armenian–American population which is why the April 24 question, how the American president honors the victims of the Armenian genocide ,becomes so important every year. With Turkey, it’s not a domestic issue, it’s a foreign policy and security issue, so it is different.  

The United States is constantly trying to balance and sometimes does quite well. The problem is that it doesn't really have that much leverage with Turkey and is also obliged to honor its Armenian–American community. So it often ends up pleasing neither side. There needs to be a better way to do this, and the United States is struggling with how to articulate a better policy. 

On April 24, President Barack Obama issues what I thought was an extremely dignified statement on Armenian remembrance, saying, “Today, we pause with them and with Armenians everywhere to remember the awful events of 1915 with deep admiration for their contributions which transcend this dark past and give us hope for the future.”

Very dignified words and yet the ANCA, one of the main Armenian lobbying organizations, immediately issued a response calling the statement a “disgraceful capitulation to Turkey’s threats,” simply because he did not use the word genocide. 

Everyone has gotten too sidetracked by whether the President will use the g-word, “genocide,” or not. This distracts from the broader issue, which is remembering and honoring what happened to the Armenians back in 1915. 

There needs to be more engagement with Turkey, because there is a growing dialogue within Turkey to address the past, to look at the question of what happened to the missing Armenians. There have to be ways for the United States to treat this as an issue of dialogue between Turkey and Armenia and they’re still struggling with knowing how to do that properly. 

How is the U.S. Congress involved?

What happens every year is Congress attempts to pass some kind of resolution, with the lobbying of the Armenian Caucus and the Armenia lobby organizations. On March 4, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution—very narrowly passed 23-22—calling the 1915 killings genocide. In response, Turkey withdrew its ambassador. 

So, Congress has become a player in this and not necessarily in a very helpful way. It’s all about the one word—genocide. They are in pursuit of Congress and the President using the word genocide. If they do it is a victory, if they don't it’s a defeat. 

The broader objective—to get Turkey to address this issue and for the world to understand what happened to all of these Armenians—is being lost. What was hopeful about this process was that it was a way of normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia so that both sides could come to terms with the past. Unfortunately the annual hand wringing and debate about the g-word has begun to get in the way with this kind of dialogue. 

What are the prospects for success and how can key players avoid a collapse in the process?

We’re now in a holding pattern—we’re waiting to see what happens next, but the process is basically frozen. Turkey has elections which are due next year, although they could be brought forward to the end of this year. If the AKP gets reelected in Turkey, that would give the government more breathing space and could bring Turkey back to the process. 

But there are some big ifs there. One is maybe the AKP won’t get such a big majority in parliament and parliament needs to ratify the protocols. And the biggest problem is the Armenian–Azerbaijan conflict. Basically Turkey needs the cover of some kind of progress on that conflict to move forward. But the Armenians explicitly don't want to link these two issues and talks themselves are pretty deadlocked. 

It’s not a very promising picture, but we have to hope that work can go on in the meantime filling some of the gaps in relations. There are many things that can be done without opening the border. You can improve trade, transport links, and contacts. The two sides could even exchange diplomatic notes, which mean they have some kind of relations without opening embassies. 

There are things that can be done and on the Karabakh dispute. The international community needs to invest more resources into doing something about this. It’s really a tiny group of people who are trying to resolve this conflict and they don't really have enough international support. 

There are things that can be done, but we’re unfortunately stuck in a vicious circle. One thing that could move region forward is if Armenia and Turkey could open the border. But the two can’t open the border because we’re still stuck in negative regional dynamics such as the Karabakh conflict.