Vol. 2, No. 8 (April 15, 2009)

Turkish-Armenian border: Where are we heading?

Mitat Celikpala
Associate Professor
TOBB University of Economics and Technologies

Commentators in the Caucasus and more generally have focused their attention over the last month to the possibility that Turkey might reopen its borders with Armenia and on the consequences of such an action for the resolution of the territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  And such speculation has continued even though Turkish officials on every occasion have said that Ankara’s policies in the region remain unchanged and that Turkey cannot open the border unless Armenia withdraws from the Azerbaijani territories it continues to occupy and whose seizure was the occasion for Turkey’s decision 16 years ago to break its ties with Yerevan and to close the border between Armenia and Turkey. 
Moreover, while Turkish and Armenian officials have conducted secret talks over the last two years, the Turkish authorities have provided Azerbaijan with details on each and every one of these conversations.  But despite all that, many in both Turkey and Azerbaijan remain fixated on the possibility of Ankara opening the border, a move some see as a ploy by Turkey to win points with the European Union and others see as a betrayal not only of its own history given Armenia’s continuing demands for Ankara to recognize 1915 as a genocide but also of its allies in the Turkic world, first and foremost Azerbaijan. 
The major reason behind such speculations and debates is that there have been genuine moves toward the normalization of relations between Ankara and Yerevan.  Those moves reflect Armenia’s desire to gain another route out, but more significantly they are the product of Turkey’s new but far broader approach to foreign affairs, its effort to have “zero problems with neighbors” and to demonstrate its “pro-active role” in helping to find solutions to regional problems. 
The timing of the latest warming in relations appears to be linked to Turkey’s desire to prevent the US Congress from passing the so-called “Genocide Bill” that pro-Armenian groups submitted on March 17 and to persuade US President Barak Obama to avoid using the “g-word” not only during his visit to Turkey but more generally, especially since he had employed it during his race for the White House.  From the perspective of Turkish leaders and the Turkish public, the passage of that bill or the use of that term would do irreparable harm to Turkish-American relations.  By appearing to be ready to deal with Armenia, the Turkish government clearly hopes it can prevent either from happening. 
In addition, Ankara does not want its Security Platform for the Caucasus to be derailed, something that a rise in tensions with Washington could easily entail.  And to that end, Turkish officials, academics and opinion leaders have been travelling to the US to lobby against any change.  Their ability to point to Turkey’s new willingness to talk to Armenia is clearly something many of them believe is a trump card.  
Most commentators have suggested that if Ankara exchanges diplomats with Armenia, it will also open the border at the same time.  That could of course happen, but it is also possible that diplomatic ties could be restored before any move on borders.  At the same time, however, it is also possible that the border might be open before any re-establishment of diplomatic ties. And the order as well as the timing of these steps almost certainly will reflect conditions inside Turkey as well as its diplomatic calculations.
During the latest round of local elections, Turkey’s ruling party lost support, something that has provoked a great deal of discussion over the direction in which Ankara will move.  Not only did the opposition gain votes, but it became more self-confident and outspoken, thus limiting the freedom of action of the government itself.  At present, there are discussions about changing the composition of the cabinet. And there are indications that the Armenian issue and especially the question of opening the border is a divisive one within the government and between the government and the opposition.  Such divisions, especially within the AKP itself, make it difficult if not impossible to imagine that the government could move forward on either of these issues because the parliament would almost certainly block any such effort. 
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s decision not to take place in the Alliance of Civilizations summit was a setback for Ankara and is widely seen in Turkey as Baku’s vote on any move by Ankara toward Yerevan anytime soon.  And Turkish media have been quick to pick up Azerbaijani criticism of any warming toward Armenia, forcing the government to say it has no plans to go forward, statements that by themselves tend to make it increasingly difficult for Ankara to take any steps, despite its foreign policy calculations. 
And it remains an open question what American choices on the “genocide” bill or Obama’s statement on April 24th will mean.  On the one hand, some in Turkey will see the defeat of the bill and restraint by Obama as a victory for Turkey, leading some to conclude that Ankara has done enough and others to say it has no choice but to move forward on Armenia.  And on the other, if the bill goes through or Obama uses the “g” word, then there will be outrage in Turkey.  But again, such developments could prompt Turkey to pull back from any movement on Armenia in a huff or alternatively cause some in the Turkish government to conclude that they need to recoup their losses by moving further on Armenia than anyone now expects.