[OPINION] The Armenian diaspora and Turkish nationalism keep Turkey’s door to Armenia closed

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Türkmen Terzi

Turkey and Armenia appointed special envoys to normalize bilateral relations last month, with the first round of negotiations taking place in Moscow on Jan. 14. During the meeting both parties agreed to continue negotiations without preconditions aiming at full normalization. The current atmosphere appears more promising than it did at the time of failed negotiations in 2009.

The opening of the border will help Armenia, which lost the Nagorno-Karabakh war against Azerbaijan in 2020. Turkey also finds itself increasingly isolated and in a serious economic crisis; hence, both countries can benefit now more than ever from establishing ties. The Turkic country of Azerbaijan has always been a major factor in preventing Turkey from developing ties with Armenia. Turkey’s nationalists have also played a major role in spreading enmity towards Armenians.

The relations between Turks and Armenians have been strained ever since the mass killing of Armenians during the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Armenians call this killing of 1.5 million a genocide, but Turkey rejects the notion that the killings, which took place during World War I, amounted to genocide and denies that the killings were systematically orchestrated. Turkey argues that a large number of Turks were also killed and disputes the number of Armenians who died, suggesting that it was far lower than 1.5 million. The border between the two countries has remained closed since the 1990s, and diplomatic relations have been on hold. In 2009 Ankara and Yerevan signed the “Zurich Protocols” to establish diplomatic relations and reopen their joint border, but the agreement was never ratified because of opposition from Azerbaijan. Turkey and Armenia finally signed an accord aimed at ending the century-old hostility and restoring ties, but that deal as well was never ratified. Five years later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered Turkey’s first-ever condolences for the mass killings of Armenians, but Ankara and Yerevan still failed to normalize ties.

Turkey’s initiative for rapprochement with Armenia will not be independent of Azerbaijan as Ankara has long been consulting with Baku on the process of normalization with Armenia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said last year that flights between İstanbul and Armenia’s capital of Yerevan would start under the normalization and that Ankara would coordinate all steps with Azerbaijan. Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones were among the key tools in Azerbaijan’s takeover of large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Baku is grateful to the Erdoğan government.

Turkey is receiving international support for its normalization initiative as the US government is backing Turkey’s diplomatic efforts to rebuild ties with Armenia. Russia contributed to the process by hosting the recent talks. More than global or regional powers, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan needs to see normalization with Turkey as something positive that will ultimately lead to investment, economic growth, jobs and stability. Armenia is not in a strong position in the continuing conflict with Azerbaijan to recapture the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, although some opposition figures are calling for a fresh war against Baku. The landlocked country of Armenia is strategically located in the Southern Caucasus. The region is a gateway between the Middle East and the Caucasus and remains an important destination for Russia and Iran through which they transfer their oil and gas.

Armenia will not be Turkey’s strategic partner in the region as the Christian Armenians have strong ties with Russia and Iran. In contrast, Turkey’s key partners are Azerbaijan and Georgia, with Turkey using Georgia to reach Azerbaijan. Armenia has posed an obstacle to Turkey’s access to the rest of the Turkic world since 1990. In the same way that Armenia is a gateway for Turkey accessing Central Asia, Turkey is a key door through which Armenia can reach the Western world to increase cultural and economic engagement. Turkey also wants to reduce Russia and Iran’s influence on its neighbor Armenia. Iran isn’t keen on Turkey opening its border with Armenia as Armenia blocks Turkey’s activities along the Iranian northern and western borders and also in Central Asia. For Turks, Armenia stands as a hostile country between Turkey and the Central Asian Turkic world.

Despite a suitable environment for peace, the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks remains one of the greatest and long-lasting controversies in recent history, still affecting world politics to this day. Turkey hosts a considerable number of Armenian workers, but the Armenian diaspora, especially in Europe and America, have long been lobbying to have Western governments recognize the Armenian genocide and keep the Turkish hostility alive. Efforts by the Armenian diaspora have borne fruit. As of 2021, 31 countries had recognized the genocide, along with Pope Francis and the European Parliament. US President Joe Biden officially designated the crime committed against Armenians by the Young Turk movement in 1915 as genocide on April 24 2021, a recognition that angered Turkey.

The Turkish nationalist group known as the Grey Wolves has become increasingly organized against anti-Turkish groups in Western countries thanks to Erdoğan’s electoral coalition with the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). France banned the Grey Wolves in November 2020 as the group is seen as a militant wing of the MHP and the AKP.  The Grey Wolves use hate speech, calling for political violence in many European cities. They attempted the lynching of Armenians in Dijon and sent death threats to Armenians living in the German cities of Hanau, Osnabrück and Hamburg. Turkish nationalist groups also actively participate in the Khojaly massacre commemorations in many parts of the world together with Azeris. Khojaly was the mass killing of Azerbaijanis, mostly civilians, by Armenians on Feb. 26, 1992. Some Grey Wolves members chanted violent threats towards Armenians during protests in Turkey and other European cities.

Turkey may normalize its diplomatic relations with Armenia and might open the border, but the wounds between Armenia and Turkey run deep. As Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC) located in Yerevan, told Al Jazeera last month, Turkey’s talks with Armenia are just a process of normalization and not yet reconciliation.

The burning question is: Who is really responsible for preventing Turkey’s normalization with Armenia? Turkish nationalism is on the rise, while the Armenian diaspora grows increasingly motivated to convince Western countries to officially recognize the Ottomans’ Armenian genocide. The opening of the border may be the first step of a painful journey to closing the wounds between these two nations that have coexisted in the region for a millennium.

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