Normalization of relations is the buzz phrase that dominates international discussion of Turkey and Armenia. It is understood to be a critical step in resolving a range of important issues, most notably peace in the southern Caucuses.
It sounds like a simple matter to open a couple of embassies and stand by to collect a bounty of tourist dollars and trade duties. But nothing is simple when reason is distorted by history.
As Armenians worldwide commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Turkey continues to insist that the systematic slaughter of a million and a half innocents was merely an unintentional consequence of the First World War.
Turkey has repeatedly cited Armenia’s refusal to accept its version of events, which is rejected by the vast body of international genocide scholars, as an obstacle to normalization. But Turkey imposes far more concrete obstacles in the form of links, locks and barbed wire. The gates at every crossing on Armenia’s border have been shut tight for more than 20 years.
This is more than a symbolic gesture. It was meant to punish Armenia, and it worked.
A little background: Some 70 years after collapsing under a Turkish and Russian onslaught, Armenia wobbled back to life in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This new Armenia is landlocked, hemmed inside borders drawn by fate and Stalin.
Any chance for relations to develop with Turkey ended when war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In support of its ethnic and religious cousins in Azerbaijan, Turkey closed all border crossings to Armenia in the summer of 1993. A ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been in place since 1994, but the blockade remains.
The Turkish and Armenian governments agreed to protocols for normal relations in 2009 but the agreement was never ratified by the legislatures.
The president of Armenia recently withdrew the protocols from parliament, leaving the normalization process dead for now—and leaving little Armenia, about one quarter the size of Cuba, in a bind. With its borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan closed, Armenia’s only trade routes are across its much shorter borders with Georgia and Iran.
Which would you choose?
Both offer limited reach to the world beyond, and dealings with Iran have been limited by international sanctions arising from concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But if Georgia sounds less frightening, do a bit of Googling and you’ll be reminded that Georgia has volatility problems with separatists that led to an armed clash with Russia in 2008. Georgia and Russia remain at odds over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russia still maintains troops.
There was at least a glimmer of light along Armenia’s Western front last summer when the Turkish press reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prepared to open the border to create good will ahead of the Genocide commemoration.
Nothing came of it, but business interests on both sides have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see the barriers tumble. Some 200 journalists and scholars gathered in November at Ankara University to discuss the continued blockade. There was broad agreement that open passage would benefit both countries.
Not only do Armenians and Turks want to trade with each other, they already do—up to $200 million annually. But with no direct access, it’s all done round-about. Beyond trade, there’s the plum of increased tourism for both countries. Moreover, it’s hard to see how it could hurt either population to get more familiar with the other.
The most potent argument for a change in Turkey’s closed-border policy may be that it hurts Turkey as well as Armenia. By limiting Armenia’s access to the West, Turkey has limited its own access to the East where so much of the world’s trade is headed as Asia booms.