When Armenia suffered a devastating defeat in its short war with Azerbaijan in November 2020, nobody imagined anything good would come out of it. But, within a year, Armenia was on the path to normalising relations with Turkey. Following an exchange of positive public statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in 2021, regional diplomacy has returned – and, with it, the idea of normalisation between Armenia and Turkey. In what was the first high-level pronouncement of their desire to mend fences, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, met on 12 March in Antalya – smiling for the cameras and talking about “normalisation without preconditions”.
All this comes at the dawn of a new cold war between the West and Russia, following the Putin regime’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As Western leaders deliberate over the future of the European security order, efforts at de-escalation in the South Caucasus can help them achieve their stabilisation goals. Peace between Turkey and Armenia would also help limit the Russian sphere of influence on NATO’s eastern flank, by creating direct links and commercial ties between the two countries – connections that could eventually extend to Azerbaijan.
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The “no preconditions” policy
This new round of diplomatic re-engagement between Armenia and Turkey has several prominent features. It has been unexpectedly fast paced, without any significant European or US involvement. So far, it has focused on substantive progress relating to trade routes and borders, as opposed to broader historical reconciliation.
After a flurry of positive messages and statements by both Armenian and Turkish leaders, a breakthrough came in mid-December 2021, with an announcement by Cavusoglu that Turkey will appoint a special envoy to negotiate the normalisation of relations with Armenia. This was followed the next day by a similar announcement from Armenia. The sudden appointment of interlocutors by both Armenia and Turkey less than a week later confirmed the onset of their new policies of re-engagement. This built on the resumption in September 2021 of a parallel diplomatic track between Azerbaijan and Armenia with a return to negotiations. The process has led to renewed diplomatic efforts to demarcate the border between the two neighbours.
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Armenia’s position of “no preconditions” is one of the policies that has enabled re-engagement. It is a rare instance of foreign policy continuity inherited from the previous Armenian government. It consists of removing any direct linkage between normalisation efforts and other long-standing factors, including Turkey’s acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide and progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In pursuing this approach, Yerevan decided to limit the focus of relations with Turkey strictly to bilateral relations, thereby removing any demands on or prerequisites for Turkey. Armenia has expected Turkey to take a reciprocal stance and has made it clear that any last-minute demands or prerequisites imposed by Turkey on Armenia would derail the process between the countries.
The broader context
Armenia-Turkey normalisation is a significant development for several reasons. Firstly, for Turkey, normalisation with Armenia offers it important diplomatic dividends from the West, especially in light of Ankara’s strained relationship with Washington, NATO, and Brussels. Opening the closed border with Armenia would constitute a new strategic opportunity for Ankara to spur economic activity in the impoverished, Kurdish-dominated eastern regions of Turkey – which could play a key role in the economic stabilisation of these regions.
An open border with Turkey would not only offer Armenia a way to overcome its regional isolation and marginalisation but could also serve as a way for Turkey to leverage Armenia’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union. Rebooting the bilateral economic relationship would also have a positive impact on the expansion of trade and the development of more formal cooperation in the key areas of customs and border security. The establishment of diplomatic relations would undoubtedly follow these efforts to strengthen bilateral trade ties and cross-border cooperation.
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