The State of Armenia-Turkey Relations

2018 is shaping up to be a consequential year for Turkey and Armenia. Both countries have been experiencing fundamental transformation of their social and political fabric. This short review discusses the influence of these changes on Armenia-Turkey relations. հայերեն

Political Developments in Turkey 

The current political developments in Turkey are dominated by the transition from a parliamentarian to a presidential system. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first directly elected President of the Turkish Republic in 2014, the post was mainly ceremonial. However, during his first term, Erdoğan acted as the de facto leader of the AKP government and pushed the limits of his legal competences. Transition to a presidential system has long been discussed by the ruling party, but it was only materialized in 2016 when AKP proposed 18 amendments to the Constitution. These were put to a referendum in April 2017 and accepted by 51,21% of the votes. The referendum was followed by the presidential and parliamentarian elections in June 2018, where Erdoğan received 52,59% of the votes in the Presidential elections; and AKP and its election coalition partner MHP received 42,6% and 11,1% of the votes respectively. Therefore, Erdoğan became the President of Turkey and AKP became the major party in the Parliament under the new system.

With the constitutional amendments and 17 Presidential decrees following the 2018 elections, the governance structure of Turkey has been fundamentally changed. The President obtained executive power, such as direct control over the ministries and other state institutions, as well as certain degree of legislative power, which in turn decreased the importance of the Parliament. Erdoğan formally assumed the leadership of AKP, which was not possible under the old system when the post was supposed to be neutral and ceremonial. With these and other changes, the checks and balances between executive, legislation and judiciary have been weakened and Erdoğan’s power was legally consolidated.

Another important political development in Turkey in the recent years was the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The perpetrator of the failed attempt is deemed to be the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers. During the last two years, thousands of people were purged from their jobs and/or arrested on the basis of supporting Gülen or other terrorist organizations. Many Gülenists as well as dissidents have been migrating or seeking refuge outside of Turkey. At this same period, the refusal of Gülen’s extradition to Turkey by the USA; ongoing court case of the Turkish officials in the USA for the violations of the Iranian sanctions; and the arrest of an American priest in Turkey created tensions in Turkey-US relations. In August 2018, the US President Trump has started a tariff war with Turkey, which resulted in further weakening of the already struggling Turkish Lira. The long anticipated economic crisis seems to be arriving. In this context, the government announced the return to democratic reforms and initiated new encounters with the EU leaders and officials.

In the immediate neighborhood, Turkey became involved in military operations in Syria and has been aiming to negotiate a deal with Russia and Iran, while the presence of 4 million refugees in Turkey has been increasingly causing domestic outrages among parts of the society.

All of these changes have been negatively affecting the process of normalization with Armenia, which stopped being a priority for the policy-makers following the failure of the Protocols and the removal of the former Prime-Minister Davudoğlu and his cadre from power. The post-Davudoğlu governments made it clear that their priority in the South Caucasus is Azerbaijan and trilateral cooperation between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey especially in the areas of economy, transportation, and energy. Although AKP would not mind having further economic relations with Armenia, it is clear that no such moves will made without the approval of Azerbaijan. The representation in the Parliament of MHP and İyi Parti, two nationalist parties that profess strong support for Azerbaijan, and the considerable nationalist tendencies within AKP and CHP, make any short-term political opening with Armenia very unlikely.

Political Developments in Armenia

If the recent political developments in Turkey are dominated by the transition from a parliamentarian to a presidential system and retreat from democratization process, Armenia follows the opposite trajectory. In 2015, president Serzh Sargsyan initiated the transition from presidential to parliamentary system in an apparent attempt to stay in power following the end of his second term. The move backfired. In April 2018, a movement that came to be known as the Velvet Revolution forced the president turned-prime-minister Sargsyan to resign, giving impetus to the democratization of the Armenian state and society. The new, young, and energetic government led by Nikol Pashinyan that succeeded Sargsyan presents a rare opening for the normalization of relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, as well as for the reintegration of the South Caucasus.

Sargsyan’s downfall was unexpected yet non-surprising at the same time. He came to power in 2008, as a result of fraudulent elections that were accompanied by violent crackdown on protesters. He remained widely unpopular throughout his presidency, while clinging to power thanks to the militarist rhetoric and the quasi-feudal merger of the state and the big-business led and controlled by his inner circle. The economic stagnation and the demographic decline that followed, coupled with the steady escalations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, gradually led to the development of a siege mentality among Armenia’s political elite whose only claim to legitimacy among the population was their perceived ability to maintain security. This claim too was shattered in April 2016, following the unprecedented escalation with Azerbaijan termed in Armenia the “Four-day war” that took hundreds of lives. 

After assuming power in May 2018, the new Armenian government led by Pashinyan prioritized changes in domestic politics, zeroing in on the fight with the systemic corruption and the reform of the electoral code. In regard to foreign policy, the new government chose the politics of continuity, including the preservation of a strong alliance with Russia, moderate scale integration into the European structures, and waiting position in regard to any change in relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Considering the announced policy of continuity, no immediate breakthrough in Turkey-Armenia relations, therefore, can be expected. Sargsyan himself, of course, came to power in 2008 with the pro-active agenda of normalizing these relations, a move that culminated in the Turkey-Armenia Protocols that famously failed after the parties involved stubbornly and unsuccessfully tried to decouple the process from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement. Following that initial failure, Sargsyan retreated and adopted a reactive position vis a vis Turkey, and toward the end of his presidency recalled the Protocols from the Parliament where they were waiting ratification. Throughout his presidency, still, Sargsyan, continued to maintain that his government remained open to “normalization without preconditions”. Similar statements were made by Pashinyan since his assumption of power as well. 

With the Armenian political leadership currently split: Pashinyan leading a minority government while the former ruling Republican party still having the largest fraction in the powerful parliament, any pro-active steps toward normalization become even less likely. At the same time, the Pashinyan’s government is different from Sargsyan’s in many respects and one of them is the ascent of what is dubbed the “post-soviet generation” to top leadership positions. If the Sargsyan government members have been predominantly educated in the Soviet Union and previously represented the Soviet “nomenklatura”[1], many of the current leaders have been educated in the West or came from the Armenian civil society sector formed in aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Further, a few top officials held fellowships in Turkey, and therefore have perspectives and relations that their predecessors could not have had, which can present an opportunity for building trust and deeper relationships. 

What Does Civil Society Do?

The consolidation of power in domestic politics and the shrinking civil space in Turkey also has an impact on the civil society activities between Armenia and Turkey. There has been cancelled activities, postponed projects, or reluctance to engage in ongoing activities with Armenia on the part of the civil society actors in Turkey. Despite these fear and caution in involving in “sensitive topics”, the engagement with Armenia is still not completely closed and new actors continue to join the field.

Having started in early 2000s as the Track 2 component of the semi-official Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission, and intensified in the period of the Protocol negotiations in late 2000s, the civil society collaborations entered a qualitatively new phase in the recent years. Decoupled from the official track and led by now well-established civil society organizations with a long track-record of cross-border collaboration, they were able to sustain and deepen the relations between the societies despite the frost in the official track.

Since 2014, the majority of civil society activities between Turkey and Armenia have been held under the umbrella of the Armenia-Turkey Normalization Process supported by the EU and the Swedish Foreign Ministry. The Program brings eight local NGOs together in a Consortium; Civilitas Foundation, Eurasia Partnership Foundation, Public Journalism Club, Regional Studies Center from Armenia; and Anadolu Kültür, the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, Citizens Assembly, and Hrant Dink Foundation from Turkey. The program provides funding for the various projects of the Consortium members on arts, media, academic analysis, travel grants, fellowships, summer schools, etc. For example, the travel grant program received 1900 applications and 562 individuals benefited from it.

In addition to the activities of Consortium members, the Program also provides sub-grants to support the cross-border collaboration of an extended group of civil-society actors. So far, 234 applications were made to the sub-grant scheme and 25 of them have been supported on the topics such as history education, environment, artistic collaboration, professional exchanges, or youth dialogues. It is assumed more than a thousand individuals became participants of the entire program to the date.

While smaller in scale, collaborations exist also outside of the mentioned consortium. One of such initiative has been the Beyond Borders: Linking our Stories . Starting from 2012, this cross-border group of women from Armenia and Turkey came together to build trust and promote peace activism. Their activities involve retreats and performances.

How the Process can be Supported?

Despite the stagnation on the political track, the interaction between the people of Armenia and Turkey continues. The civil society initiatives created socialization among people that made it possible to think, travel, work, and create together. To maintain and extend this momentum, there should be more support to the civil track.

In Turkey, the priority of many donors has been the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human right. Only few of the donors have normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations in their agenda.

The Armenia-Turkey Normalization Process Consortium mentioned above is one of the few programs in the field and proved effective in Turkey-Armenia context. While consortia of major NGOs represent a bureaucratically convenient model of funding, the donor support should not be limited to them, as the involvement of new actors and grassroots activists is key for the development of a critical mass of changemakers.

Currently, the non-Consortium members can only receive small and short-term grants, which makes it difficult to plan and implement long-term and strategic initiatives. The existing donors could consider avenues of support for long-term projects by non-Consortium members or other donors might fill this gap. On the other hand, the Program receives many applications for sub-grant scheme but can only fund a small portion of it. For the small, short-term projects, a parallel and simplified instrument similar to the EU-funded “Sivil Düşün” support for human rights-related initiatives could be developed within the existing Consortium. Diversification of the funding instruments and the involvement of new donors would help to extend the impact.

Importantly, the work on the improvement of Armenia-Turkey relations does not always need to be joint or parallel. For the most part of the last two decades, the democratization process in Armenia was stagnant and its civil society and independent academia were newborn and slow to develop. In these years, the academics and civil society in Turkey worked actively to reform their own society and to reshape the narratives in regard to Armenians and Armenia. Today, with Armenia returning to the path of democratization, the atmosphere is ripe for refocusing on Armenia, and working to reshape the image of Turks and Turkey; enacting structural changes in legislation, education, media, and other key spheres. 

With the ground laid by the civil societies, the day will come when the politics will have to catch up.

[1]  Communist Party appointees holding influential posts in government and state-run industry.