Armenia-Turkish border opening talks; Russia takes up regional residence?

By | Rachel Brooks

February 17, 2021 

Commentary

Image credit: Pan Photo Agency captures the fence between the Armenia-Turkey border. “Armenia-Turkey Border” by PAN Photo Agency is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. See Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act for more information on news commentary fair use of images. 

The end of the second episode of the Karabakh conflict sparked discussion about the future of Azerbaijan in international relations. It likewise sparked discussion regarding Armenia’s future relationship with the Turkic bloc, and whether the western world would step in to mediate the potential future relations, including the possibility of Armenia’s opening the border to Turkey. The possibility of a rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Armenia and Turkey is still one of great complexity. From the Armenian side, Eurasianet stated that there are no talks in place as of recent news, as Armenia did not initiate the blockade and believes that Turkey should take the first steps toward reopening the border rather than requiring Armenia to accept preconditions.

The war left both Armenia and Azerbaijan scarred and fearful of the other. The negative outcome for the Armenian side riveted the country with calls for the resignation of Pashinyan, and a surge of anger and mistrust toward the government. All political decisions of the current government, therefore, are expected to be held under critical scrutiny by fellow politicians, the Armenian people, and the vocal Armenian Diaspora. 

Talk of opening the Armenian-Turkish border 

Talk of opening the border between Armenia and Turkey has been making headlines for several days now. On February 9, Republic Underground’s media vice president Irina Tsukerman appeared on CBC TV Azerbaijan to discuss the prospects of Armenian-Turkish border opening, Iran and Armenia’s relations, and the approach that the U.S. under Biden’s administration would take toward the Caucasus. See this video in Russian below. 

 

 In addition to Russian-language new casts, Eurasianet posted a political commentary on the subject of an Armenia-Turkey border opening on February 11. The post stated that Yerevan had been interested in an end to the Turkish blockade of Armenia for a decade. Eurasianet likewise stated that, since the close of the second episode of the Karabakh conflict, the Turkish government has expressed willingness to now discuss a border opening. Eurasianet stated that, in the wake of the Karabakh conflict, Turkish President Erdogan has suggested a six-country cooperation platform that would include Armenia and would promote economic integration. 

“The Turkish trap” rhetoric makes headlines in Armenia

Armenia, however, may not be politically ready at this time for the processes of a six-country cooperation platform. This reluctance continues from the state of political instability within Armenia, in which Armenians are still divided over issues of their national identity. The controversy of the “genetic incompatibility” with Turkic people appears to still hold sway over the public media. This took the form of a headline that appeared in Asbarez News on February 16. The post was written by Harus Sassounian, an Armenian-American writer, and continues to highlight the Armenian political infighting that has darkened the skies of Armenia’s forward-seeking progress in the days immediately following the end of the Karabakh conflict 2020 episode. 

Sassounian continues to urge Armenians to distrust leaders of the Armenian republic, indicating the political infighting between the Armenian republic leaders themselves and the Diaspora. 

“Neither Armenia’s previous nor current leaders have had the adequate experience to run a country. This is true in both domestic and foreign policies. To rectify this undesirable situation, some have suggested finding the pertinent experts who would advise Armenia’s leaders,” writes Sassounian. 

Sassounian then dives in to discuss all possible negative outcomes of an end to the blockade between Armenia and Turkey. Sassounian argues “clever ploys” in the past that Turkey had used to prevent the United States from recognizing massacre pogroms by the Ottoman party. Turkey’s position that Armenia must recognize Turkey and Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders was denounced by Sassounian’s argument. Sassounian denounced Obama’s approach of the Turkish-Armenian normalization of bilateral relations in 2009 and noted that the Armenian community must continue to urge the Biden administration to acknowledge the Armenian rhetoric of the 1915 ethnic killing pogroms in the region, which led to the deaths of hundreds of Armenians. Sassounian argued that the Armenian community must also not take the “unthinkable” step of acknowledging the current borders of Turkey. 

“Even more importantly, Armenia’s leaders should not take the unthinkable step of pledging not to pursue the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide and acknowledge the current borders of Turkey. Such an acceptance would damage Armenia’s interests forever. How could Armenia agree to such Turkish suggestions in the aftermath of the vicious role played by Turkey in the recent Artsakh War, which resulted in the killing and maiming of thousands of Armenian soldiers and the occupation of Armenian territories? The wounds are too fresh to contemplate any attempt to normalize relations with Turkey,” writes Sassounian. 

Based on this rhetoric, which was written by a prominent writer of the Armenian diaspora, and published in a widely read Armenian periodical, one can see that Armenia’s highly influential Diaspora is not open to the prospect of rapprochement. The Armenian Diaspora’s rhetoric continues to cling to the interests of territorial expansion rather than international regional cooperation as the primary agenda for Armenia’s progress in the Caucasus. In which case, any potential progress in opening the border between Turkey and Armenia may require a third mediator. If a reform and a weariness of the failed Karabakh war passes through national Armenia, it may not be enough to combat the continued rhetoric of its Diasporan counterparts. 

While a third mediator to this normalization is expected, the world continues to question the backseat the United States appears to have taken as international mediator of NATO-member affairs. Turkey, as a NATO member, is an important member state to the United States and the European Union’s interests in the region. Yet, as the United States role is held to scrutiny due to its own political infighting and state of reversal policies on many issues, another mediator may self-appoint in its absence. The most likely candidate in this scenario would be Russia, a state actor with which Turkey and the Caucasus has a complex relationship.

Transport links have opened, but it is difficult to gauge the outcome 

This is not to say that transport links between Armenia and the surrounding Turkic nations will not occur. The Armenian Weekly noted that transport links for prisoner exchange have already opened, as of February 3, after an initial meeting of the trilateral group created to open these links met on January 30. The leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia met on that day to discuss opening all economic and transport links in the region as part of the November 9 Russian-mitigated ceasefire.

While transportation links are opening between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is difficult to gauge what the outcome will be. The transportation links are being mediated by Russian forces as per this report from The Armenian Weekly. The Armenian Diaspora’s hostile rhetoric toward Turkey and Azerbaijan would indicate a high unlikelihood of cooperating directly with these nations toward normalization or opening of trade borders. Rather, Armenia appears to favor Russia as the mediator in the region. While Turkey would be willing to cooperate with Russia directly, Turkish-Russian cooperation in the border regions with Armenia does not indicate a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. Instead, it indicates a prolonged mediative presence of Russia in the Caucasus region that some have argued may further strain Turkey’s connections with the EU and NATO.