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As Armenia pushes for reconciliation, Turkey plays hard to get

Armenia's prime minister is willing to establish ties with Turkey without any preconditions, but many in the Armenian diaspora find accepting Ankara’s continued denial of the 1915 genocide unthinkable.
The Yerablur cemetery, where Armenian soldiers from both Karabakh wars are buried, overlooks Yerevan in this photo taken April 12, 2022.

HAYKADZOR and YEREVAN, Armenia — In the village of Haykadzor on the edge of Armenia’s long sealed border with Turkey, Boris Davutyan, a 70-year-old farmer with a sun-weathered face, says he is in favor of peace with his country’s historical foe. “It would be good for trade,” he said, gesturing toward the Akhouryan River that separates Turkey from Armenia. “In Soviet times we used to go down to the river and smoke cigarettes and drink vodka with the Turks. The genocide committed against us by the Ottomans was 100 years ago. You have to look to the future, not be stuck in the past.”

Some 117 kilometers (73 miles) southeast, at a windswept cemetery overlooking Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, Armen Poghosyan stared at his only son’s grave. His head was bowed, his body stiffened with grief. He has been coming every single day since the 19-year-old was laid to rest alongside his comrades on this hilltop facing the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat on the Turkish side.

Barsegh was killed “either by artillery fire or in a drone strike, we don’t know for sure,” a day after the war started on Sept. 27, 2020, Poghosyan said. “Turkey is our centuries-old enemy. We can’t be friends with those who got drunk on the blood of our children.”

Barsegh was among the 3,825 Armenians who perished in Armenia’s 44-day war with Azerbaijan.

The site, called Yerablur, Armenian for “based on three hills,” is carpeted with the graves of the fallen. Most of them are under 30. Their faces, engraved on dark grey basalt headstones, exude a childlike exuberance.

Turkey, with its military advisers and killer drones, tipped the balance decisively in Azerbaijan’s favor, helping its Muslim Turkic cousins wrest back large swathes of territory occupied by Armenia in a previous war three decades ago. Today, Armenia, a landlocked country of 2.9 million that long seemed invincible as much to itself as to the world beyond, is shaken to its core. At one extreme there are those like the farmer Davutyan who seek peace and at the other, people like the bereaved father Poghosyan who dream of revenge. Somewhere in the middle sits a silent majority numbed by fear and helplessness bordering on apathy.

“Yerablur used to be a place of glory,” said Ara Tadevosyan, director of Mediamax, an independent Armenian media outlet. “Now the perception of Yerablur is one of humiliation and despair.” Tadevosyan was referring to the pre-2020 era, when the cemetery symbolized Armenia’s first war against Azerbaijan. The result was catastrophic for Azerbaijan. The oil-rich nation lost 10,000 people and 10% of its territory including Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-majority enclave that was ceded to Baku by Joseph Stalin and is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

In the last round, not only did Azerbaijan claw back all seven regions seized by Armenia around Nagorno-Karabakh, it managed to recover around a third of the enclave proper, including Shusha — or “Shushi” in Armenian — where Azerbaijanis slaughtered thousands of Armenians in 1920, sowing the early seeds of the conflict.

The carnage formally ended with a Russian-brokered agreement on Nov. 9, 2020, that was signed by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Boris Davutyan, a 70-year-old farmer, favors peace with Turkey. Haykadzor village, Armenia (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Boris Davutyan, a 70-year-old farmer, favors peace with Turkey. Haykadzor village, Armenia (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Today Pashinyan is seeking — desperately, the Armenian premier’s critics say — to establish diplomatic relations and to reopen his country’s land border with Turkey. The 311-kilometer (193-mile) frontier has remained shut since 1993, when Ankara froze access in solidarity with Azerbaijan. 

“Complacency and arrogance were the first casualties of the war,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think tank in Yerevan.

Do or die

Armenia says it is willing to establish ties with Ankara without any preconditions, effective immediately. The move would include formally recognizing its current borders with Turkey as outlined by the 1921 Treaty of Kars signed between the modern Republic of Turkey and the Soviets. As for Ankara’s denial of the 1915 genocide that left over a million ethnic Armenians dead at the hands of Ottoman forces, that is Turkey’s own problem and won’t be part of the negotiations.

His stance has left many in the Armenian diaspora aghast. “Normalizing Turkish-Armenian ties without justice for the Armenian Genocide just normalizes genocide, emboldening Ankara and Baku to double down on their drive to empty the Armenian homeland of its indigenous population,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Coalition of America, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But many in Yerevan would disagree, saying their country’s very existence is at stake.

“This is a fight for the survival of Armenia,” said Sona Dilanyan, a 29-year -old Armenian civil rights activist who lived in Istanbul from 2014 to 2021. “The government realized after the war that it had to normalize relations with Turkey.”

The alternative is “worse, it's more war,” said Hovhannes Nazaretyan, a 27-year-old investigative journalist, airing common worries that with Turkey’s help, Azerbaijan will gobble up even more Armenian territory.

“I have never spoken to an Azerbaijani person in my life. I believe there should be peace with Azerbaijan. My great grandparents were genocide survivors and I can see peace with Turkey,” Nazaretyan told Al-Monitor. “Peace is to avoid further war and shrinkage.”

But does Turkey really want peace? That is the question weighing ever heavier on official minds here.

For a while it seemed it did. Ankara extended the first olive branch in early 2021, saying it was ready to reopen the border and establish diplomatic ties in what was seen as part of its broader effort to help end Ankara’s diplomatic isolation and score brownie points with Washington and Brussels.

Yerevan swiftly responded in kind. Normalization efforts seemed to gain momentum following snap polls in June that saw Pashinyan clinch a landslide victory despite losing the war.

The two countries have since appointed envoys to oversee the talks meant to build on an earlier round of negotiations in 2009 that were brokered by Switzerland and the United States. This time, the Turks and Armenians are speaking directly to one another.

Serdar Kilic, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington, and Ruben Rubinyan, Armenia’s deputy speaker of parliament, have met twice since January, first in Moscow and then in Vienna.

Pashinyan is in parallel talks with Azerbaijan to set up a commission to demarcate their common borders and sign a comprehensive peace treaty in line with Baku’s top five demands. They include mutual recognition of borders and the renunciation of all territorial claims.

This month, he signaled that however difficult, Armenia may have to consider what his predecessors had hitherto refused: to relinquish sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, provided that the rights of its ethnic Armenian population are guaranteed.

His April 13 speech in parliament laying out Armenia’s stark choices triggered howls of treason from his nationalist rivals and angry protests from the enclave’s self-proclaimed government.

Pashinyan’s bold concessions portend game-changing effects for the balance of power in the South Caucasus. He is betting they will play in Armenia’s favor, a huge gamble, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the stakes.

A Ukrainian wrench

“The Ukraine war has shaken up the geopolitics of the wider region and everyone's watching to see how the pieces fall,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. Russia’s setbacks appear to have altered Turkey and Azerbaijan’s calculations, leaving Yerevan to operate in the dark.

Peace with Armenia might have helped Turkey convince US lawmakers with large ethnic Armenian constituencies to stop opposing the sale of F-16 jets. But Ukraine is a meatier worm on Turkey’s hook. “For Turkey a major attraction of the process was as a build-bridging exercise with the United States, but Turkey’s new status as the main facilitator of talks between Russia and Ukraine has given it extra relevance and leverage in Washington, so Erdogan may be de-prioritizing the talks with Armenia,” de Waal speculated.

The one silver lining of the Ukraine conflict is the influx of nerdy young Russian professionals milling around central Yerevan. The World Bank reckons there are at least 40,000 of them, mainly seeking relief from the impact of Western sanctions on Russia. Their presence is a boon to the local economy. But many are said to be opposed to Putin and have staged demonstrations against him, placing Yerevan in a potentially delicate position, especially if Russia emerges from the war on the winning side.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led thousands of Russians and their pets to seek sanctuary in Armenia. Yerevan, April 10 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led thousands of Russians and their pets to seek sanctuary in Armenia. Yerevan, April 10 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Pashinyan, a former journalist, led Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, overthrowing its long reigning kleptocrats with close ties to the Kremlin. When he snatched victory from the jaws of military defeat, many were surprised, including in Turkey.

It was a measure of the Armenian people’s rejection of the previous regime, whose greed and incompetence they blame for their country’s defeat.

“Turkish Bayraktar [drones] were carbonizing 18-year-old boys. By the fourth or fifth day of the war I realized 100 people were being killed daily,” recalled Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, an Armenian writer who heads the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, with tears in his eyes. “Rich people’s sons rarely went to war,” Ter-Gabrielyan told Al-Monitor.

Fear of further bloodshed is perhaps one big reason many Armenians, particularly in rural areas, backed Pashinyan. Another is the relative prosperity he’s ushered in. It's palpable in Yerevan. Trendy cafes and restaurants now packed with Russians have mushroomed across the city. Its once skeletal street dogs are plump and microchipped. Outside the city, rutted roads have been replaced with smooth highways.

“In the June [2021] elections people were given a clear choice: freedom versus security,” said Eric Hacopian, an Armenian-American commentator. “Better to talk [with Turkey] to prevent worse outcomes,” he told Al-Monitor.

Others say that Pashinyan’s victory is proof that ordinary Armenians have ditched their values for a material world and don’t care about Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The fact that Pashinyan was reelected after such a humiliation shows that people are not bothered by Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Tadevosyan, the journalist. “Public apathy is the biggest threat to our national existence,” he fumed.

Tevan Poghosyan, a former lawmaker for the liberal Heritage Party who is from Nagorno-Karabakh, says he is disgusted by it all. “National pride has gone out of the window. Pashinyan is serving Azerbaijan and Turkey, not Armenia,” he told Al-Monitor.

Tail wags dog?

Some Armenians would argue that it’s their previous leaders, mostly from Nagorno-Karabakh, who were doing that by ruling out any concessions over the occupied territories that might have helped to avert war. “Pashinyan doesn’t want the tail wagging the dog,” said Giragosian.

Either way, Pashinyan has never made any secret of his intentions. The path to a secure and prosperous future lies through peace with Turkey, according to his Civil Contract party’s election manifesto.

Pashinyan’s ultimate goal is to loosen his country’s reliance on Russia and pivot toward the West. And that might mean ceding responsibility for the security of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The 2020 war, however, shoved Armenia, a member of the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization of former Soviet States, even deeper into Russia’s jaws. Russian forces guard the country’s borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. Thousands more are now deployed as peacekeepers to monitor the shaky cease-fire line between Armenia and Azerbaijan in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, giving Moscow ever more leverage. “We have become a complete puppet,” said Dilanyan. “We have lost the power to decide anything.”

In March, Armenia sought to prove the opposite. It abstained during a United Nations General Assembly vote on condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine and during another in early April to expel Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Russia seems unfazed, knowing that it is all that stands between Armenia and further attacks from Azerbaijan. The screech of Russian fighter jets patrolling Yerevan serves as a daily reminder of this grim fact. Moreover, Russia owns Armenia’s energy infrastructure and all of its railways.

Benyamin Poghosyan, a Yerevan-based analyst, notes that Armenia pays below-market prices for Russian natural gas, at $165 per cubic meter compared with the $1,200 Moldova is set to pay as of May 1. “Russia has leverage over the economy therefore over Armenia. A gas pipeline with Azerbaijan would reduce that dependency,” Poghosyan said.

But in recent months, tensions have escalated along multiple cease-fire lines east and south of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian officials complain that Azerbaijani forces are harassing Armenian civilians along contact lines, cutting off water flows and blaring the Muslim call to prayer from loudspeakers in the middle of the night.

Armenia believes their aim is to intimidate Armenian villagers to abandon the region and to push deeper into Nagorno-Karabakh.

Amalia Babanyan, an Armenian who was displaced from her home in Lachin, Nagorno Karabakh, vows to return, Yerevan, April 12, 2022 By Amberin Zaman

Amalia Babayan, an Armenian who was displaced from her home in Nagorno-Karabakh, vows to return, Yerevan, April 12, 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Amalia Babayan is among thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh residents who were displaced by the war. She is sheltering on the top floor of a psychiatric hospital for children in Yerevan along with two daughters, multiple grandchildren, great grandchildren and a pair of parakeets.

When the spry 89-year old goes to visit her home in Nagorno-Karabakh, she has to travel through the Lachin corridor that connects Armenia to the enclave via Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijani forces patrol the strip together with Russian peacekeepers.

“The [Azerbaijani] Turks boo and hiss at me. They shout ‘grandma’ and then make this sign,” she told Al-Monitor, running a purple-varnished fingernail along her throat. “I tell them to fuck off.”

At least three of its fighters died and 15 others were wounded on that day alone, the self-declared government of Nagorno-Karabakh said. Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Azerbaijan had used Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones.

Azerbaijan said that it had entered the village based on an agreement between Russian peacekeepers and local authorities and blamed the clashes on “Armenian provocations,” according to an International Crisis Group report.

“The war is even closer now. Armenia is in the weakest position it’s ever been,” said Artur Khachatryan, a member of parliament for the nationalist opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation party.

Armenia clearly has no interest in reigniting the conflict.

Azerbaijan rising

 Azerbaijan has turned a deaf ear to calls from Washington, Brussels and Moscow to withdraw its forces from beyond the cease-fire lines and refuses to free some 38 Armenian prisoners of war. Ankara has not uttered a peep.

“Currently it looks as though Azerbaijan feels more confident, with Russia weakened and distracted in Ukraine,” noted Carnegie’s de Waal. “The war has partially delegitimized the presence of the Russian peacekeeping force in Karabakh. It has strengthened the case for the 'Middle Corridor' transport route running between Turkey and China via Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea and bypassing Russia and made Europe keener to buy Azerbaijani gas.” 

Baku now feels it can use the energy card to press Russia to help it extract further concessions from Armenia, de Waal added, saying, “I think all of this has slowed down the Armenia-Turkey normalization process.”

Just as well, some Armenians say. “Forced normalization is like forced marriage,” said Vahan Tumasyan, who runs the Shirak Center, a social development organization that operates along the Turkish-Armenian border. “The traces of the genocides are in our genes,” he told Al-Monitor.

Haykadzor village, Armenia, April 14, 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Haykadzor village, Armenia, April 14, 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long asserted that Armenia would need to hand back the seven Azerbaijani territories that it occupied around Nagorno-Karabakh before ties could be forged. Azerbaijan won back five of them and Armenia ceded the remaining two after the Nov. 9 cease-fire.

Yet Turkey has done nothing to advance things, other than to restore air links to Armenia after Armenia scrapped a ban on Turkish imports that was imposed at the start of the war. It even refused to make an exception for Armenian diplomats to use the land border to cross into Turkey. The message from Ankara is, “Let’s not rush.”

It remains unsettlingly unclear where and when the next meeting of the Turkish and Armenian negotiators will take place. Cavusoglu says talks should be held in either Armenia or Turkey reinforcing suspicions that Ankara
is more interested in the advertising process than securing results. Armenia wants what it calls a confidence-building gesture on the border first.

Independence Square by night, April 14, 2022 (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Yerevan's Independence Square by night, April 14, 2022 (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Ukraine aside, there may be several reasons for Turkey’s skittishness. Firstly, Turkey is loath, as Cavusoglu himself declared, to do anything that would upset Azerbaijan.

The 2009 peace effort, which resulted in the signing of the so-called Zurich protocols, failed largely because of Azerbaijan. Baku threatened to torpedo a multi-billion-dollar gas project while mobilizing nationalist opinion in Turkey against the deal. Ankara caved.

Azerbaijan has since expanded its economic hold. Its state oil company, SOCAR, is the largest single foreign investor in Turkey. A twin oil pipeline carrying Azerbaijani oil via Georgia to export terminals on Turkey’s Mediterranean shore and another carrying natural gas to Turkey and on to Europe are big sources of revenue.

Azerbaijan's petrodollars are also alleged to be in play. For example, Mubariz Mansimov, an Azerbaijani-Turkish billionaire who was once closely allied to Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev, gifted Erdogan with a $25 million oil tanker in 2008, as the journalists collective European Investigative Collaboration revealed.

“People underestimate the extent to which Aliyev and Erdogan are intermarried. There are a lot of business interests,” noted Hacopian, the Armenian-American commentator.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are due by mid-2023 and Erdogan’s poll numbers are ebbing as his government battles Turkey’s worst economic crisis since 2001. Erdogan may not want to risk further Azerbaijani wrath, nor his hero status on the streets of Baku that bolsters him back home.

Turkey views the proposed corridor as a strategic game-changer, giving it long coveted access to Azerbaijan proper and on to Central Asia without having to go through Iran.

Armenia has agreed to the restoration of rail links between Azerbaijan and its western outpost as part of the Russian-brokered agreement. But it is balking at the highway connection. There are lurking fears that Turkish tanks might roll down the highway to help Azerbaijan grab the territory separating it from Nakhichevan, which shrunk from 130 kilometers (81 miles) to 23 (14 miles) as a result of the 2020 war. This would cut off Armenia from its ally Iran.

Zaur Shiriyev, an Azerbaijan researcher for the International Crisis Group, dismisses such fears, saying Baku would never risk the global censure that would likely ensue. “This would isolate us and lead to [US] sanctions. Besides, Russia would never allow it,” Shiriyev told Al-Monitor.

But who is to say that Russia won’t press for the connection as it wants alternative routes to Turkey other than through Georgia, Poghosyan argued. Having its troops oversee the route would give it even more control.

A brighter past

Such cold-hearted reasoning is a far cry from the mid-2000s, when Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party embarked on peace with Armenia as part of a broader process of democratic reforms. In that spirit, Turkey’s former President Abdullah Gul sat alongside his counterpart Serzh Sargsyan to watch their respective teams play a World Cup qualifier in Yerevan.

Public debate of the Armenian Genocide became accepted but not without violent pushback from Turkey’s then-powerful ultranationalist deep state. In January 2007, Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor, was gunned down outside his office in the heart of Istanbul. More than 100,000 Turks, many of whom had not even heard his name before, marched in solidarity with the slain journalist.

A man walks toward the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan on April 24, 2021 as Armenia marks the 106th anniversary of World War I-era mass killings. (Photo by KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A man walks toward the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan on April 24, 2021 as Armenia marks the 106th anniversary of World War I-era mass killings. (Photo by KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

Hundreds of students, academics and artists from Turkey and Armenia met in cultural exchanges, many organized and financed by Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala. A clutch of intrepid Azerbaijanis joined in.

On the centennial of the genocide in 2015, Armenians from across the world flocked to Turkey to commemorate the tragedy. Not a single violent incident was reported. The year before, Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to acknowledge “our shared pain” with the Ottoman Armenians in a letter of condolence addressed to their patriarch on April 24, which marks the start of the mass killings 107 years ago. Similar versions have ensued since including this year.

The gestures did not go unreciprocated. Hayk Demoyan, an Armenian historian who headed the Genocide Museum Institute in Yerevan until 2018, softened the language in the texts of its exhibits. “The new and expanded museum exhibition also shows Turkish history and memory, offering Turkish people to view what is impossible to deny,” said Demoyan.

Given the circumstances, Turkey’s outreach to Armenia has left many of its own Armenians cold. “Coming on the heels of Armenia’s heavy defeat with Turkey’s physical participation, the Armenian psyche is not in the least prepared for this peace,” said Rober Koptas, an Armenian-Turkish publisher in Istanbul. “Those who see this as an imposition are in the majority,” Koptas told Al-Monitor. The silence of Turkey’s intelligentsia throughout the war has added to feelings of bitterness among their colleagues in Armenia as well, says Demoyan.

Most of these Armenian college students oppose peace with Turkey, Gyumri April 14, 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Most of these Armenian college students in Gyumri oppose peace with Turkey, April 14, 2022. (Al-Monitor/Amberin Zaman)

Still, the results of a commonly cited survey carried out by the International Republican Institute, suggest that more Armenians support normalization with Turkey than not, even while naming Turkey along with Azerbaijan as the biggest threat to its national security.

In Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city that borders Turkey, of a group of 13 female college students only two responded positively when asked whether they would like peace with Turkey. “If Turkey were to ever apologize for the genocide our wounds wouldn’t heal, but this peace process will help Armenia to survive,” said Ani Kumasyan, who is in her second year of development studies.

But how long can such positive feelings be sustained in the absence of any concrete steps?

Ankara may think “tiny Armenia” doesn’t matter enough. Armenian officials rightly say that if Turkey is to cement its role as a regional superpower it needs to have relations with all of its neighbors. However, the moral argument, modern Turkey’s duty to make amends for the crimes of its imperial predecessors, ought to be the most compelling of all.