After the end of the 44-day Karabakh war, Ankara thought that relations with Armenia could now normalize. As a matter of fact, it should be remembered that in 1993, when the Kelbajar Rayon, an Azerbaijani territory located in the west of Nagorno-Karabakh, was occupied by the Armenian Army, the Demirel Government at the time cut all relations with Yerevan and closed the border unilaterally. With the entry of Karabakh and adjacent Azerbaijani Rayons under the control of Armenia, an era of “no war, no peace” ensued and lasted for almost thirty years. During this time the Ankara-Yerevan relationship did not advance a millimeter, except for the Football diplomacy and the 2009 Protocols that ended in a fiasco. Now, when the de facto situation in Karabakh was ended by war, at the end of 2020, one of the obstacles to Ankara’s non-existent relations with Yerevan has been removed. This is probably the argument that Erdoğan’s advisors use to unlock the status quo while seeking to eventually please Washington.
However, that is only one of the obstacles… Thus, let’s try to forecast the shape the normalization can take or cannot take and its potential outcome.
Towards the end of 2021, Ankara and Yerevan announced that they started a new process. Both capitals appointed a representative. The first meeting was held in Moscow on January 14, 2022, and after the meeting, some concrete declarations were heard from the Armenian representative, Ruben Rubinyan, who said: “Armenia has always expressed its readiness to normalize, open the border and establish diplomatic relations. The Armenian side is interested in solving the main problems such as opening the border”. Ankara’s representative, former ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kılıç, did not say anything substantial. The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs verbally announced the second meeting to be held in Geneva. Before the talks started, in December 2021, Yerevan made a gesture by lifting the embargo it had introduced during the Karabakh war, for the free movement of Turkish goods.
So far, we do not know how things will evolve, but the potential blockages are there. I see three of them.
First, is the Azeri, or Azeri-Turkish factor. It remains to be seen how Ankara will conduct the talks and whether the Turkish side is ready to work with two other protagonists, the Azeris and the Armenians on an equal footing.
It does not seem plausible that Baku would accept Armenian-Turkish normalization without getting its way through the Armenian Syunik region, called Zangezur in Azeri Turkish, establishing thereby a corridor between the Azeri Nakhijevan enclave neighboring Turkey and the Azeri territory proper. Ankara is also interested in this famous corridor to realize its dreams of the Silk Road (China’s Built and Road Initiative – BRI) and create an uninterrupted road between Turkey and Central Asia.
The post-victory attitude may be decisive here and I do not see how this ukase, consisting in pressuring for the opening of the corridor in Syunik, could be endorsed by anyone in Yerevan or for the matter within the Armenian Diaspora. As a matter of fact, in his speech in the parliament, Armenian Foreign Minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, underlined that “There can be no corridor on the territory of the Republic of Armenia”, dismissing any intention towards the crossing of the Armenian territory for whichever purpose.
One should also bear in mind that the Armenian public opinion, through a recent poll by International Republican Institute, although generally positive about the new process with Ankara, has sounded dubious regarding its outcomes as not being necessarily positive for Armenia and the Karabagh region.
Secondly, the Turkish domestic factor itself. The country has been in political, economic, and social chaos for some time. The regime functions in a state of crisis but is not ready to give up power. The AKP’s ruling partner, the MHP, but also the majority of the opposition consisting of CHP and the İYİP, are not political formations likely to endorse any normalization agreement with Armenia, especially in these times of elections. Unless Ankara succeeds in getting the famous “Syunik/Zangezur corridor” and the annihilation of Article 11 of the Declaration of Independence of Armenia, which states: “The Republic of Armenia supports the cause of international recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Western Armenia and Ottoman Turkey”, it goes without saying that such concessions look rather unrealistic from the Armenian political class’ standpoint and have zero chance of getting accepted by the Armenian public opinion, in or outside the country.
Thirdly, the poor Turkish diplomatic capacity is a factor to be taken into consideration. The Turkish diplomacy that the world knew does not exist anymore and everything is arranged in the presidential palace where all decisions on any subject are taken. Diplomats specializing in the Armenian issue are no longer there or no longer consulted. The institutional memory of the Foreign Ministry has vanished with early retirements, blacklistings, and multiple resignations. Serdar Kılıç, the diplomat who has been appointed as the envoy, has no specific knowledge of the dossier and is rather known for his heavy-handed methods against anti-Erdoğan demonstrators in 2017 in front of the Turkish Embassy in the American capital, which are evil acts that are currently being tried in the United States.
To these potential blockages, a worrisome risk shall be added, which was being discussed in mid-January among well-informed Western chancelleries: the likelihood of a new Azeri-Turkish military operation from Nakhijevan towards the east to occupy Syunik and to establish the territorial continuity between Turkey and Azerbaijan. A railroad has just been built from the Turkish side penetrating Nakhijevan, and that is probably not intended to increase the trade between the Azeri enclave and Turkey. In other words, in Erdoğan’s frantic search to stir up his Islamo-nationalist electoral base and thus ensure his stay in power, Armenia remains a prime “prey”.
Finally, whether it is normalization with Armenia or any other negotiated solution regarding the ongoing conflicts with the military involvement of Ankara in the neighborhood or within Turkey itself, it seems almost impossible to reach any solution as long as the Ankara regime remains in place.