Duygu Alpan: Looking Ahead in Turkey–Armenia Relations

Both Turkey and Armenia would benefit economically and politically from prospective regional cooperation in the South Caucasus. Without normalization of official relations between these two important actors and their willingness to engage in the process, however, comprehensive regional cooperation cannot be achieved. The upcoming commemoration of the 1915 tragedy constitutes a new window of opportunity for both countries to find common ground for rapprochement by overcoming historical issues. In order to achieve an inclusive solution to the deadlock in Turkish-Armenian relations, efforts at regional cooperation should be undertaken at the civil society level and in the media; and at the political level simultaneously.


Bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia have always been complex due to complicated history as well as domestic, regional and international political developments. With the declaration of Armenian independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey was among the first countries that recognized it. However, despite Turkey’s recognition at an official level, bilateral relations have been largely stagnant since 1993, and currently there are no formal relations between the two countries. Neither Armenia nor Turkey has been entirely innocent as to why official relations have been stuck for years; both countries have had their respective political and diplomatic interests, which run in completely opposite directions. While politics are dominant in determining the stalemate in relations, misperceptions that Turkish and Armenian societies have against one another are also influencing bilateral ties. As such, the state of affairs between Turkey and Armenia is a multi-dimensional issue that is marked by conflicts and disagreements on different levels and should be approached by considering the variety of factors corresponding to it.

After many years of deadlock, the first initiatives taken by officials from both countries were the reciprocatory visits of the Turkish and Armenian presidents for football matches played by their national teams respectively in Turkey and Armenia. This so-called “football diplomacy” period was a sort of opening for bilateral relations between the two countries to be moved forward. [1] The signing of the Protocols on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and on the Development of Relations between Turkey and Armenia in 2009 in Zurich, Switzerland, preceded by the football diplomacy, was perhaps the biggest opportunity for the long closed borders between the two countries to be re-opened, and the normalization of official relations. Shortly after the signing of the Protocols, however, they were discouragingly suspended by Armenia and then removed from consideration in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. After the failure of this latest attempt, there has not been further official development of bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Domestic, Regional and International Dimensions

It would be misleading to accuse only one side for the failure of the rapprochement process, as there have been various domestic, regional and international factors on both sides that have hindered the process from going further. From the Turkish perspective, one of the main concerns that bring into question the attempted normalization efforts is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On the Armenian side, the 1915 tragedy, and especially the position of the Armenian diaspora on the deportations and mass killings in 1915 is a main reason for why relations have stayed frozen. [2] The Armenian side claims that its relations with Turkey can only be normalized once the 1915 incidents are officially addressed as genocide. Similarly, the apparent reason for Turkey to close its land borders with Armenia in 1993 was, among others, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as it claims a kinship with Azerbaijan. It has long been claimed by the Turkish side that the first condition for any attempts at normalization, starting with the opening of the borders, should be a settlement on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Behind the positions that blocked the normalization process, the main reason is likely nationalistic motivations furthered by state-centered historical writings and narratives on both sides. The signing of the Protocols preceded by the “football diplomacy” overlapped with the conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008 and the changing balances in the South Caucasus. The rapprochement efforts initiated in 2008 were to some extent interconnected with the aim of finding an alternative route for energy and communication transit than through Georgia both for Turkey and Armenia. [3]

There is no doubt that the South Caucasus region plays a significant role for Turkey in terms of economy, trade, and politics. As a neighbor of this region, connecting Western markets with the Middle Asian energy resources and supporting peace and stability in the South Caucasus are of strategic importance to Turkey. Turkey is dependent on an imported energy supply, having only around 26% of its energy demand met by domestic resources. [4] In this respect, it aims to diversify its energy supply routes and source countries. Moreover, Turkey wants to be an energy hub for energy transit from the Caspian region to Europe. Its problematic relations – or rather lack of relations – with Armenia, however, prevent wider cooperation in the region, and limit the benefits that both countries may gain from mutual, and thus regional cooperation.

In order to strengthen political and economic ties in the whole region, the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations may play a crucial role. From this point of view, both sides need to moderate their policies towards one another. Turkey’s biased stance to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prevents it from being a mediator. This stance also drives the normalization process into deadlock with Armenia. Therefore Turkey should aim at normalization first, in order to be able to act as an intermediary for contributing to a peaceful solution of this conflict involving both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In this context, Turkey should take its responsibility of addressing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict objectively rather than subjectively.

The International Community and Armenian Diaspora

The 1915 incidents, which is the other foremost factor blocking normalization between Turkey and Armenia, are also subject to disagreement in the international community, even though there are certain countries that have recognized it as genocide. Turkey has its standpoint in the United Nations Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and is currently willing to form a committee of historians in order to discuss historical evidence and to reveal what occurred during the 1915 incidents based on investigating the archives accessible. [5] However, Turkey’s determination on this matter, after also taking part in the Protocols signed in 2009, has been criticized by the Armenian diaspora as this attempt would question the issue of genocide per se, which is an unquestionable fact in their opinion. [6] Bearing in mind that the Armenian diaspora, which generates its identity upon the promotion of the existence of genocide against Armenians, is one of the most influential actors on the direction of Armenian foreign policy, a solution to the deadlock in Turkey-Armenia relations cannot be overcome without considering its strong presence. Hence it is important to approach and establish dialog with Armenian communities abroad at least at the non-governmental level. At this point, it should be mentioned that Turkey’s position on the issues related to relations with Armenia has moderated over the last few years. While previously it was taboo to question the legitimacy of the Armenian deportation in 1915, now this issue is being discussed in public as well as on the political agenda. Moreover the inhuman character of the deportation is being recognized. [7]

The Role of Civil Society and the Media

As mentioned above, rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia cannot be sustained only in the lobbies of governments, since this dilemma also has its roots in the people’s personal and collective memories and consciousness. On both sides, historical stereotypes and a lack of knowledge and understanding of past events feed the deadlock in bilateral relations. In order to solve this long-lasting issue, it is crucial to focus on Armenian and Turkish societies and their respective perceptions against each other as a parallel to official political actions. The role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media is crucial in this process. Importantly, NGOs should implement projects bringing together young people especially, with a long-term perspective to overcome the misperceptions in their societies. Projects of NGOs should aim at breaking stereotypes in education systems, particularly history teaching, by increasing awareness and putting pressure on policy makers in both countries. Thus, projects focusing on the rapprochement between the societies of Armenia and Turkey and producing effective and feasible policy recommendations for both governments would be more fruitful and long lasting.

Firstly, while referring to the significance of the role of civil society, not only NGO lobbyism but also a wider civil involvement should be aimed at. In other words, without ignoring the importance of NGOs in contributing to the normalization process of Armenian-Turkish relations, they should be tackled critically, since their projects may not necessarily address the peoples themselves; instead, their activism may be confined within their own institutional structures. The initiatives that NGOs take, such as second-track diplomacy, are critical. However, a broader platform of civil participation also outside of NGO work may be the first priority. This includes exchanges between students or youth at large, academic research, and journalists from both countries, working to maintain this civil political involvement. Secondly, the media holds great importance in breaking misunderstandings on the general consciousness of people, as the mass media essentially penetrates the way that people perceive any social and on-going political developments. Therefore, the media should strongly avoid hate speech and should use a discourse encouraging dialog, and understanding between societies.


In conclusion, Turkey and Armenia need to broaden their political perspectives, underlying their bilateral issues to take into consideration the potential benefits from regional cooperation in the South Caucasus in terms of energy, economy and politics. As mentioned above, the problems between Turkey and Armenia may only be eliminated with a multi-dimensional approach, which particularly includes a focus on regional interests. Without the involvement of Turkey and Armenia, respectively, attempts towards regional cooperation in the South Caucasus will likely be difficult to achieve. Therefore a possible normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations in a way that features societal, political, and diplomatic needs is of great importance for both countries to meet their regional interests and to contribute to regional cooperation. Moreover, in order to influence the Turkish and Armenian governments’ foreign policies, in a process for rapprochement; civic engagement and the constructive role of both countries’ civil society and media are crucial.


[1] For a detailed overview please see David L. Phillips, “Diplomatic History: The Turkey-Armenia Protocols”, March 2012, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, p. 41-44, [2] For a more detailed overview please see Susae Elanchenny & Narod Maraşlıyan, “Breaking the Ice: The Role of Civil Society and Media in Turkey-Armenia Relations”, April 2012, GPoT Publications, (http://www.gpotcenter.org/dosyalar/BreakingTheIce_ElanchennyMarasliyan_April2012.pdf). [3] Aybars Görgülü, Sabiha Senyücel Gündoğar, Alexander Iskandaryan, Sergey Minasyan, “Türkiye-Ermenistan Diyalog Serisi: Kısır Döngüyü Kırmak”, TESEV-Kafkas Enstitüsü Ortak Raporu, TESEV Publications, January 2010, p. 11 [4] Turkey’s Energy Strategy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey, (http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkeys-energy-strategy.en.mfa) [5] Aybars Görgülü, “Towards a Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement”, 2009, Insight Turkey, Vol. 11/No.2, p. 22 [6] Susae Elanchenny & Narod Maraşlıyan, “Breaking the Ice: The Role of Civil Society and Media in Turkey-Armenia Relations”, April 2012, GPoT Publications, p. 11. [7] Cansu Çamlıbel, “Turkish FM: 1915 Armenian Deportation Inhumane”, Hürriyet Daily News, 13.12.2013, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-fm-1915-armenian-deportation-inhumane.aspx?pageID=238&nID=59487&NewsCatID=355


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