Ankara has suddenly begun to court Yerevan, and the latter appears to be interested.
Within three days of each other in mid-December, the two capitals appointed special envoys for talks aiming to revive bilateral relations frozen since 1993. If the negotiations, to be sponsored by Moscow, are successful, they could lead to a meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former told Sputnik news on 24 December.
However, despite such steps, prospects of success seem far from certain, according to Fehim Tasktekin in the website Al-Monitor. “Nagorno-Karabakh may no longer be an obstacle to Armenian-Turkish normalisation, yet political and psychological stumbling blocks remain intact,” he said.
Ankara sees Armenia as a permanent thorn in its side, with the “Armenian lobby” in Washington and other Western capitals constantly raking up the humanitarian tragedy that befell Armenians under the former Ottoman Empire and exhorting them to pressure Turkey to own up to what it was: genocide.
Ankara sticks to its own reading of that history, saying that the Turks had founded a new republic in the 1920s and therefore should not be associated with the crimes of the Ottoman Empire. Besides, atrocities were committed by both sides, it says.
The Armenians refute that claim and counter with reams of testimonies and historical accounts thoroughly documenting the forced marches, massacres and other cruelties that led to hundreds of thousands of Armenians dead and attesting to a deliberate policy of annihilation.
Although no political party in Turkey is prepared to recognise the Armenian Genocide, apart from the progressive pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), there has been a degree of softening and introspection in some political quarters, especially the more Western-oriented ones that share the views of many NGOs and rights groups.
At a more pragmatic level, some believe that their country’s attitude towards the Armenian question is an obstacle to international and regional acceptance. They realise that keeping the matter unresolved does not serve Turkish interests in the US and Europe. The only solution, therefore, is to break the taboo on the subject and discuss it rationally in the hope of arriving at some sort of “compromise”.
This could entail activating the stalled 2009 agreement that called for the establishment of an international commission to investigate the mass killing of Armenians during World War I.
Although discussions of the matter in Turkey have received little attention in the predominately government-dominated press, they appear to have support among academic circles in universities and research centres, as well as in some quarters of the public at large, especially those affiliated with the People’s Republican Party (CHP), Turkey’s largest political party.
Despite the government’s iron grip on the press, the CHP and other opposition forces, which can reach the public through the Internet and social media, have been drawing voters away from the dwindling ranks of Erdogan’s ruling AKP.
Indeed, a main reason behind his initiative to kickstart normalisation talks with Yerevan was precisely to pull the rug out from under the opposition’s feet.
It is no coincidence that the initiative was launched at the height of the Turkish lira’s unprecedented nosedive, with its implications in terms of runaway inflation and the worsening economic straits of the vast majority of Turkish citizens.
Against this backdrop, the pro-government media has billed the rapprochement with Yerevan as a prelude to Turkey’s political and economic expansion towards the Caspian Sea and Central Asia via linkups through a proposed corridor between Turkey and Azerbaijan passing through the autonomous Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan along the Turkish border.
Erdogan also calculates that the initiative could reduce tensions with both Brussels and the US, which would have payoffs for Turkey’s beleaguered economy. Pashinyan might be operating on a similar calculus which, as Tastekin observes, seems to rest on opening Armenia’s borders as a means to strengthen its economy and eventually reduce its dependence on Russia.
However, even if it takes off, the normalisation drive will run up against walls of resistance among nationalists on both sides. Pashinyan is in a stronger position, having survived a bid to vote him out of power in early elections in June 2021. But in Turkey, the situation is a little more complicated.
The ultranationalists, as represented by the extremist National Movement Party (MHP), are not that numerous, but they are vocal and, more importantly, they are the AKP’s junior partner in the People’s Alliance and the key to the parliamentary majority that Erdogan relies on.
If the MHP fell out with Erdogan over the normalisation question to the point of rupturing their electoral alliance – though this is unlikely as it would be tantamount to political suicide – it would set the country on the path to early elections.
The AKP would be unlikely to perform well in those, and judging by recent opinion polls, the opposition would prevail and then follow the path towards normalisation.
A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.