While world leaders recalled the deportation and mass murder of Ottoman Armenians a century ago that many define as genocide, others recalled on or about April 24 a lost opportunity that could have been the start of a reconciliation between Turks and Armenians: the “football diplomacy” that began between Ankara and Yerevan in 2008, and subsequent “protocols” the two capitals signed in Zurich in October 2009.
Had that “Armenian opening” worked out, Turkey and Armenia would have an open border and diplomatic relations. Moreover, there could even be some convergence in the two nation’s utterly opposite perceptions of history.
That “Armenian opening” had failed, however, like several other openings, or olive branches, that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government promised to offer in its moderate pre-2011 era. (For example, see: “The ephemeral Alevi opening.”) But until recently, the details of why exactly the “Armenian opening” had failed was unclear. Last week, speaking to a group of Turkish historians he hosted at his Presidential Palace, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made things clearer. It was a wrong initiative by then-President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan reportedly said, as explained to the media by Mustafa Armagan, one of the historians present at the meeting. It was wrong, because it “gave an upper hand to the other side and paved the way for them to exert pressure on us.”
This statement tells us a lot about the worldview of Turkey’s current president, but first it's worth recalling what exactly had happened in 2008. Turkey and Armenia have had no open border or diplomatic dialogue since 1993, when the latter occupied the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which Turkey sees as a brotherly nation. But in September 2008, President Abdullah Gul took an unexpected initiative to break this stalemate by visiting Yerevan to watch a World Cup qualifying match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who warmly hosted Gul, soon afterward came to the Turkish city of Bursa to watch the return match. The positive mood opened the way to the protocols to normalize ties between Turkey and Armenia, signed in Zurich on Oct. 10, 2009, by the foreign ministers of the two countries in the presence of the foreign ministers of France, Russia and the United States. It was an internationally celebrated icon of the more open, confident and reconciliatory “New Turkey” that the AKP was then promising.
Suat Kiniklioglu, an AKP deputy at the time, recently wrote a piece titled “Why Did Normalization Fail?” explaining the behind-the-scenes of the Turkey-Armenia protocols. In his words, “Abdullah Gul was the primary driver behind the protocols. He had always given the process great importance. Along with him, then-Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, and later Ahmet Davutoglu, spent considerable energy and effort in favor of normalization.” Kiniklioglu explained Erdogan was wary of the nationalist reaction in Turkey to the deal, adding, “[Erdogan] had not been too keen on the process anyway, as it was not ‘his process,’ but was very much driven by Gul.”
No wonder, just days after the Zurich deal, Erdogan went to Baku, met with Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev who opposed the deal, and gave a speech effectively killing any real prospects of a normalization process. Erdogan said that Turkey would not move forward on the protocols, unless Armenia withdrew its forces from the occupied Azeri territory. This was a decent ideal, but it was also putting the cart before the horses. After that point, Kiniklioglu noted, it became “extremely difficult to advance the process after Erdogan had raised the bar to such a level.” Kiniklioglu also argued that Russians acted behind the scenes as well to sabotage the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, which could make “the South Caucasus slip out of their hands.”
Erdogan’s statement to historians last week seemed to further confirm that the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement was indeed an effort driven mainly by Gul and blocked mainly by Erdogan.
The day after his initial statement about Erdogan’s take on Gul, historian Armagan spoke to the media again, and changed his earlier statement, arguing “Erdogan in fact did not criticize Gul.” Armagan might have “misunderstood” Erdogan’s remarks as he said, or perhaps he might have been asked to make such a revision out of political necessity. But in any case, the phrase in his initial statement, that the Zurich deal “gave an upper hand to the other side and paved the way for them to exert pressure on us” is still noteworthy — for it is very typical of Erdogan and it tells a lot about his view of politics.
As experience has shown over the years, Erdogan’s view of politics is based mainly on power, always preferring the show of force and defiance over moderation and consensus. In this power-based universe, which is not exclusive to Erdogan but common in Turkey, “political concession” is at best naivete and more probably treason. In this view, as I explained before:
“Political concession … is not a first step forward toward reconciliation. It is rather the first step back toward downfall. Once the malicious people on the other side see your concession, they will become only more invigorated and aggressive. So you should keep them at bay by never accepting any of their demands and showing them how tough you are.”
It's not an accident that with the total domination of the AKP by the Erdogan line, and simultaneous exclusion of the Gul line, the “openings” the ruling party has offered to its rivals have withered away. Now there is only the "no more Mr. Nice Guy" AKP, created in the image of Erdogan’s tough persona, which stands defiant against the numerous enemies and seeks success only in decisive victories.
Those victories, however, may only be pyrrhic, and thus blissful neither for Erdogan nor his party nor Turkey.