The fact that Prime Minister Pashinyan achieved a major electoral victory afterwards and the ensuing policy shift suggests that the Armenian electorate may be more interested in peace and prosperity than in pursuing irredentist foreign policy adventures, writes Ilter Turan, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Azerbaijan’s recovery of its territories, which Armenia occupied in 1993, appears to have opened the way for an improvement in Turkish-Armenian relations. Immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey recognised Armenia. It was expected that relations would gradually advance toward the opening of borders and establishment of diplomatic relations. These hopes were dashed with the commencement of active hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which led to Yerevan seizing several Azeri regions between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Since then, Turkey has maintained steadfast support for Azerbaijan’s efforts to regain its territory.
The US, EU and Russia have all worked to introduce a modus vivendi between Turkey and Armenia to improve their relations, culminating in 2009 in the Zürich Protocols in which the parties agreed to initiate diplomatic relations and manage their differences within an agreed-upon framework. In the end, this effort failed, not only because of a strong Azeri reaction that Turkey could not ignore, but also because both sides had been pressured into an accommodation that they were not ready to accept or implement by powerful friends.
The recent recovery by Azerbaijan of its territories has transformed the context of Turkish-Armenian relations in two fundamental ways. The first and more obvious one is that Turkey and Azerbaijan, happy with the outcome, are now interested in establishing durable peace and stability in the region. This aspiration, however, cannot be achieved without change on the Armenian side. This is where the second, equally important but perhaps less obvious change comes in. Armenia appears to have shifted its somewhat irredentist foreign policy premise of acquiring territory from neighbours to construct a larger Armenia to one which prefers achieving security and economic prosperity by developing peaceful relations with them.
Armenia’s shift of the fundamental premise of its foreign policy came after clear military defeat. The fact that Prime Minister Pashinyan achieved a major electoral victory afterwards and the ensuing policy shift suggests that the Armenian electorate may be more interested in peace and prosperity than in pursuing irredentist foreign policy adventures. Whether he will be able to sustain this policy depends on the rewards it brings to Armenia’s population and the ability of the opposition to force a return to the previous policy.
Historically, Armenia’s external relations have vacillated between expansionism and good neighbourly relations. The preference for good neighbourly relations has been preceded by military failures. The efforts to build a greater Armenia during the First World War by relying on external forces ended in a multi-dimensional disaster and defeat. The first Armenian State, which enjoyed a short existence, on the other hand, reached without success to the emerging Turkish state for help to survive as an independent entity. Similarly, after Armenia became independent in 1991, its initial orientation foresaw developing good relations with Turkey. The policy was altered in relatively short order as the new country turned to settling historical scores with Turkey and acquiring territory from Azerbaijan.
Many observers have also noted that Armenian irredentism may sometimes receive encouragement through the actions of third parties that perceive benefits in Armenia’s problematical relations with its neighbours. If one were to take Russia as an example, it is often judged that Russia extended greater military support to Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan, allowing it to acquire Azeri territories. The ensuing hostile relationship with neighbours produced security concerns that could only be alleviated through the introduction of a significant Russian military presence in the country. Of course, Russia is not interested in Armenia initiating conflicts into which it may be drawn; rather it restrains the Armenian government’s risky initiatives. A strong sense of insecurity on the Armenian side, however, tends to render Russian military presence in the country indispensable. This suits Russia well, since it wants to maintain and extend its influence in the Caucasus.
Is the new opening likely to succeed? Both Turkey and Armenia seem to be interested in developing better relations. Already, Armenia has lifted its ban on Turkish products, the parties have agreed that passenger flights between the two countries would commence on February 2, and more importantly, they have both appointed special representatives to meet regularly for talks with a view to further advancing the relationship. It is important to note that the improvements in bilateral relations will be tied to how Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan progress. It is unrealistic to expect Turkey to allow the Armenian opening to harm its close ties to Azerbaijan. Turkey hopes that improvements in the short run will allow it to address highly complex problems in the long run with a more positive frame of mind. These problems include, among others, Armenia’s territorial aspirations, as expressed in its Constitution, and historical memory issues relating to the events of 1915. It is hoped that the initial progress will be rapid and bring immediate benefits, so as not to allow the currently weakened irredentist political movements to recover and set positive developments back.
The international community has so far been supportive of developments. The opening also offers Russia and Turkey yet another opportunity to enhance their cooperation and successfully manage the competitive aspects of their expanding relations.