Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D.,
(Head of the Interethnic Relations Department at Moscow’s Institute of Political and Military Analysis)


On the surface, it appears that Armenia and Turkey, whose trenchant relations stand out as the most bitter in the Southern Caucasus, are now making gestures of reconciliation toward one another, precisely by holding a soccer match between their teams. However, the prospects of a brighter future for both nations are inescapably viewed – and thus, impeded -- by the ghost of an ever-present past, as the issues of the “Armenian genocide” and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remain unresolved. 

Professional sport has once again demonstrated that it can be an important political factor. The first match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying round, on September 6 was a poignant occasion as the Armenian soccer players took on Turkey’s national team (the Euro 2008 bronze medalists, along with Russia). The return game between the two sides will also take place in the fall, a year from now.

This soccer match is wedged within the context of trenchant historical and political conflicts between the two nations. Let us remember that Armenia and Turkey have no formal diplomatic relations at present. Ankara also maintains a land blockade of Armenia (350 kilometers of the border was closed in 1993), but airplanes do fly between the two states (the Yerevan-Istanbul route was launched in 1996). Turkey supports Azerbaijan’s position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, participates in the training of the Azeri officer corps, and carries out transportation projects to circumvent Armenia (the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Kars railroad project); it also officially denies the Armenian Genocide of 1915. In Armenia, these events are central to the country’s historiography, collective memory and spiritual culture.

So, on September 6, an event of great historical importance took place in the Armenian-Turkish bilateral relations. Abdullah Gul, the president of Turkey, visited the Armenian capital of Yerevan, accepting the invitation of his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan to attend the World Cup qualifying match. It is reasonable to think, however, that no revolutionary changes have emerged in the relationship between two states that have accumulated a huge joint list of mutual complaints and grievances. However, the mere fact that the leaders of Turkey and Armenia were able to put aside the main dishes on their political menus and see the normalization of relations as important already says a lot.

At the moment, key issues such as the Armenian Genocide, the occupation of Azeri lands beyond the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenian armed forces, Turkey's land blockade of Armenia and Ankara's support of Azerbaijan have not been discussed. There have been declarations made in the spirit of political correctness, emphasizing good will. Following the meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan said: “We have expressed the hope that we are capable of showing good will in order to solve existing problems and not pass them on to later generations.” Abdullah Gul, in turn, used similar words to underline the following: “We expressed the political will to create an atmosphere fit to solve the problems that exist between Armenia and Turkey. I hope that this visit will open up great possibilities for us.” As Mikhail Gorbachev would say in such situations, “the process has begun.”

Parallels between Sargsyan and the first (and last) president of the Soviet Union have already been drawn in Armenia. Many consider the decision to receive the head of the Turkish Republic in Yerevan as an unjustified political concession. According to some representatives of the opposition, Sargsyan has been forced to demonstrate amiability toward Ankara because he is an heir of the Robert Kocharyan regime, which opted for the use of force in repressing opposition protests in March of this year, thus putting Armenia's foreign policy in a vulnerable position. Now he has to compensate for domestic failures on the foreign stage--rather strange logic if we take into account that it was during Kocharyan's two terms that relations between Armenia and Turkey were almost completely frozen. It was Kocharyan who announced publicly that if he were president of Armenia, he would not allow the Turkish leader's visit to Yerevan.

Even inside the ruling coalition, Gul's visit was met with far from universal enthusiasm. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation “Dashnaktsutyun” (ARFD), the republic's oldest political force and a party to the ruling coalition, spoke out against the visit. The party organized mass protests with the slogans “Armenia remembers everything” and “Turkey must recognize the Genocide.” It seems that a certain part of the Armenian government apparatus (which does not participate in public polemics) likewise has its own views on the question of improving relations with Turkey. And these views are not held in the spirit of the “new thinking.”

In Turkey, however, things are also far from idyllic. Gul's decision to go to Yerevan provoked an ambiguous reaction from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish premier is worried that the president's trip will fuel harsh oppositionist criticism of official authorities. Quite naturally, representatives of extreme nationalist forces have already labeled Gul a “traitor.”

In truth, Sargsyan was not the first to propose a “thawing” of relations with Turkey, and neither was Gul. It emerged in the early stages of the development of independent Armenian governance, and for very objective reasons. The armed conflict with Azerbaijan and complex relations with Georgia (due to the Georgia-Abkhazian conflict, into which the Armenian community in Abkhazia was drawn, as well as the complicated Armenian-Georgian relations in Djavakheti) isolated Armenia. In this light, a confrontation with powerful Turkey (whose army is second in NATO to that of the United States, while its multilateral ties with Turkic-language Azerbaijan are more than obvious) did not present Yerevan with the best scenario. As for Turkey, “the formation of new independent states in the Caucasus at the end of the Cold War increased Ankara’s importance, while at the same time creating serious risks,” as noted by Mustaf Aydin of the Turkish National Security Academy. “The fall of the Soviet Union rid Turkey of a century-old Soviet/Russian threat, but at the same time it created a power vacuum on its borders.”

This is why, in 1992, Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan met with Suleiman Demirel (the Prime Minister of Turkey at the time). In the course of their meetings, the problem of settling the Karabakh conflict was discussed. However, the aggravation of the military situation on the Karabakh front in 1993 and, ultimately, the military defeat of Azerbaijan led to an estrangement between Turkey and Armenia. Ankara accused Armenia of aggression against Azerbaijan and of supporting Kurdish terrorist organizations. The result was the beginning of Turkey’s land blockade of Armenia.

At the same time, despite any action taken by Turkey, Yerevan did not give up hopes of overcoming the mutual rift. In 1995, in a speech dedicated to the 80th anniversary of “Yegerna” (the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in Armenian historiographic terms), president Ter-Petrosyan blamed the genocide on the “Young Turk” regime, not on the Turkish people. When Ter-Petrosyan left office, the official Yerevan position became much harsher. When speaking at the 53rd UN session, Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan attempted to bring the “Armenian issue” back into the field of international politics; the issue was expelled in 1923.

Thus Sargsyan is not a pioneer in this area. He is trying to repeat the experience of the early 1990s. At the same time, we should not see his “new thinking” as altruism and compassion for mankind. Sargsyan operates in the state’s national interests. He is keen on opening up the borders to minimize Armenia’s isolation, and to break up the ties between Baku and Ankara. This would make the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a matter of the two countries of Southern Caucasus; therefore, Turkey’s role would not be that of “Azerbaijan’s fan and supporter.” It would also become a positive background for the West (the criticisms addressed at Armenia for its stubbornness and lack of diplomatic progress in relations with its neighbors could be hushed up).

Incidentally, Turkey also has its own reasons for historical reconciliation. Firstly, Turkish foreign policy in the last few years has taken a very clear European angle. The European Union is always very positive about saying goodbye to the past (especially if this parting is carried out amicably). Meanwhile, the “Armenian issue” greatly complicates Turkey’s record in bolstering its candidacy for EU membership. Secondly, progress in relation to Armenia will add a positive dynamic to the rocky American-Turkish relationship. Thirdly, there are economic reasons as well. It should be noted that Turkey’s regional officials and businessmen have on numerous occasions spoken publicly in support of developing economic contacts with Armenia. However, there are also serious obstacles on the way toward mutual understanding.

An important issue that unsettles the bilateral relationship is the problem of interpreting the events of 1915 by the politicians and historians of the two countries. For Armenia, the events of 1915 are termed as genocide (some of the historical research extends the genocide period, adding to it the Armenian-Turkish wars during Armenia’s first independence in 1918-1920 and the political actions at the end of the 19th century). Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, has noted that “a great part of the population of today’s Armenia is made up of descendants of the Armenians who survived the genocide. Mostly it was the people who were able to somehow make it across the border to the territory of the Russian Empire.” Iskandaryan added that as a result of all this, “there are verbally preserved histories that live in the families, told to children in one form or another.” In Turkey, the events of 1915 are seen either as deportation, or as a “massacre,” or as a “resettlement of Armenians.” In the last few years, the events of the early 20th century have also been interpreted as an ethnic conflict or a civil war (especially since the Armenians residing within the Ottoman Empire were its nationals). Moreover, there have been quite a few books published in Turkey that assess the 1915 events precisely as genocide. This is something that used to be impossible to imagine.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also puts Armenia and Turkey on opposite sides. In the early 1990s, Turkey was able to avoid a direct participation in the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation (although the public opinion inside Turkey demanded a greater involvement). However, the conflict served to highlight Ankara’s interests in the Caucasus. This was the conflict that forced Ankara to close off its land border with Armenia (which increased Armenia’s economic and geopolitical isolation). Up until now, Ankara has been demanding concessions from Yerevan in Karabakh as an important condition for opening up the border. But this is a price Armenia is not willing to pay today.

So far Yerevan is willing to make minimal concessions. Armenia’s Football Federation changed its logo for the qualifying round match, removing the image of Mount Ararat (a place of sacred, symbolic importance for all Armenians, despite its location with Turkey). However, concessions in soccer are not equal to giving up Karabakh or the genocide of 1915.

And this is how both sides have presently chosen the tactics of “small acts.” Without daring to make drastic breakthroughs, the two nations, immersed in the most complicated context of bilateral relations, are trying to simply initiate a normalized dialogue. This is already a major breakthrough in itself, considering the overarching historical context. Perhaps this model of optimization will become a pattern for other states of the Greater Caucasus as well.

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