The complicated relationship between Armenia and Turkey

(in collaboration with Termometro Politico)

The Resolution that recognizes the Armenian Genocide, which took place between 1915 and 1917, was recently approved by the European Parliament and has exacerbated tensions never silenced between Turkey and Armenia.


Armenia: between Turkey and Russia

Although Armenia was under Turkish rule in the early sixteenth century, the population enjoyed self-government and relative freedom to profess the Christian religion. It is in the period of decline of the Ottoman Empire, when the European powers began to practice against a high pressure to expand its borders, that the coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups became untenable.

Despite the promising beginning, the so called Young Turks progressively laid the foundation for the creation of a national Turkish State, no more multi-ethnic and multi-confessional, and “anti-armenism” has rapidly taken root in the Turkish society.

The escalation of violence reached its peak at the beginning of the First World War, in 1915. The Russian army was advancing, stimulating and benefiting from the riots occurring in the Armenian region of the Lake of Van, which is the current Eastern Turkey but was Armenian majority at that time. However, the Turkish answer was cruel. Millions of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks were deported to the Syrian desert.

In the Caucasus region, the First World War ended with the birth of the Democratic Republic of Armenia that was part of the Russian territories of Armenia given to the Ottoman Empire on the basis of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and of the areas of the Ottoman Empire, mostly populated by Armenians. The Republic was short-lived.

In 1920, a part of Armenia was absorbed into Turkey and the remaining territories into Russia. The issues raised territorial disputes between the parties. In 1921, the Treaty of Kars gave to Turkey the Ararat Mount, sacred to Christians because it is the landing place of Noah’s Ark, where the ancient Armenian capital of Ani was founded. Moreover, Armenia poorly digested the assignment of the Nagorno-Karabach region to the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic to harbor a conflict.

In the 90s, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan reflected negatively on relations with Ankara. Turkey closed its borders with Armenia, imposed the blockade and dreaded the possibility of military intervention in support of Azerbaijan, but the pro-Armenia Russian threat dampened the Turkish action. The clash ended with the victory of Armenia, which now controlled part of the Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, relations with Turkey remained tense. In addition to this, there was the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline and the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway line, that linked Turkey to Azerbaijan bypassing Armenia.

As a matter of the fact, on one hand Armenia did not officially recognize the Treaty of Kars; on the other, Turkey supported Azerbaijan on the Karabach problem, refusing the campaign for recognizing the Armenian genocide. Even the re-opening of the Metsamor nuclear power plant, on the Armenian border with Turkey, was a source of discord. Metsamor was closed after the earthquake of 1988 and then opened to increase the import of energy as a result of the block Azeri-Turkish, although the structure was so old and unusable to be in the EU black list of dangerous nuclear sites.

Erdogan, the disputed genocide, Pope Francis I

In 2002, the constitution of the Party of Justice and Development (AKP) and the progressive political rise of the current President Erdogan added an improvement in relations with ethnic and religious minorities inside the Turkish society. Applying the politics of “zero problems”, aimed at mitigating the conflicts with the neighbors, in 2009 Ankara and Yerevan signed agreements in Zurich to normalize interstate relations.

Armenia would have renounced definitively to advance the cause of the genocide and above all, recognize the Treaty of Kars. Turkey would have no longer forced Armenia to give Karabakh to Azerbaijan. However, in 2010, the Armenian Parliament suspended the ratification of the accord, due to the government’s decision to condition the pact to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem: a dispute that has not come to an end yet.

The trade blockade imposed by Ankara isolated Armenia as well, solely related to Georgia and Iran, because the borders between Russia and Georgia are closed and those with Iran rather inaccessible. It is obvious that the reopening of the borders with Turkey would allow Armenia to enjoy direct access to the European commerce, but this would especially reduce the country’s economic dependence on Russia. The benefits of Turkey cannot be underestimated, whose admission to the European Union also depends on the rapprochement of relations with Armenia and recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

The recent European Resolution about this sad page of History and the establishment of Remembrance Day on April 24th (the occasion of the centenary), has certainly not encouraged dialogue. Only the Armenian government has endorsed the possibility of restoring the diplomatic contacts with Ankara.

Turkey has expressed its opposition to the veracity of the genocide and called its ambassador back to the Vatican, following the statements of the Pope Francis I who classified the massacre of Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century”.

On the other hand, Armenia has definitely renounced to a possible ratification of the above-mentioned agreements of 2009. Disputes about this Holocaust therefore conceal the long-standing contrasts and stability in the Caucasus which depends on the balance between Turkey and Armenia, although the UE maintains a low diplomatic profile to minimize the risk of leaving open field to Putin.

Geopolitics will give or not an acceleration to the flow and normalization of diplomatic relations between the two opponents and the outcome of the elections in Turkey because, if Turkey is going through a favorable economic phase and manages interests related to hydrocarbons, which could contained Russia, Armenia has allegedly the support of Moscow too.

Federica Fanuli

Master’s degree in Political Science, European Studies and International Relations (University of Salento)

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