Cautious optimism as first round of Turkey, Armenia normalisation talks commence in Moscow
Turkish and Armenian envoys are beginning the first round of normalisation talks in the Russian capital Moscow on Friday. Armenia expects the talks can successfully bring about the establishment of diplomatic relations with Turkey and the reopening of borders between the two neighbouring countries.
The talks are the first serious effort to restore relations since a 2009 peace accord that was never ratified.
Turkey and Armenia have been at fundamental odds over numerous issues, including the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Turkey doesn’t recognise those massacres as constituting genocide.
Turkey also backed Armenia’s rival Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Armenia lost large swathes of that enclave. Ankara had refused to normalise ties with Armenia because it contended that Armenia was occupying Azeri land in Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, after Azerbaijan’s 2020 victory, Turkey began calling for rapprochement, and there was renewed talk on the prospect of normalisation. On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Armenia must establish good ties with its long-term rival Azerbaijan.
Emre Peker, director at Eurasia Group, said the role of Russia, the broker of the ceasefire that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh war, will be critical.
“Talks are likely to pave the way for more discussions in the coming months. But delivering a comprehensive, long-term pact will prove difficult due to the multifaceted nature of the talks and domestic political constraints in both countries,” he told Reuters. “The bigger challenge will come from the question of historic reconciliation.”
The fate of the talks, in his view, hinges on “Ankara’s recognition that it must right-size its ambitions.”
An International Crisis Group report co-authored by three experts published on Thursday anticipates that these talks “holds perhaps the greatest promise yet of establishing diplomatic relations between two countries that never enjoyed them.”
The report noted that the fact the two sides have appointed special envoys signals that they both take the prospect of normalised relations seriously.
The Crisis It also noted that Friday’s meeting comes a year after the Russian-brokered Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire and pointed out that the defeat of Armenia in that war “shifted calculations in Ankara, Baku and Yerevan.”
Furthermore, for Armenia, normalisation and opening its borders for trade with Turkey and Azerbaijan could bring economic relief. Yerevan has been excluded from major energy and transportation projects in the region, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the South Caucasus Gas Pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
“Because of the closed Turkish and Azerbaijani borders, Armenia has been forced to use lengthier and costlier mountainous trade routes via Georgia and Iran,” the Crisis Group report noted. “An open border with Turkey would offer a direct path for Armenia to trade through Turkish Black Sea ports, relieving the need to rely on more circuitous routes.”
The report also anticipates that the opening of trade between Turkey and its eastern neighbour “would likely also be a boon to business in eastern Turkey.”
There are also reasons for optimism about the talks. Azerbaijan was previously the “greatest impediment” to rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan. However, as the report notes, Baku’s tone has changed dramatically since its 2020 victory.
“Some senior bureaucrats in Baku privately suggest that Turkish-Armenian normalisation might even help smooth their own post-war relations with Armenia by showing the benefits of shifting from a war footing to an everyone-wins focus on trade,” the analysts wrote.
Turkey also has a self-interest in normalising relations. It seeks to increase its influence over the region to benefit its economy. By increasing transport and trade links in the Caucasus, it hopes to, as one senior Turkish diplomat put it, “minimise the potential for tension” in that volatile region.
“As such, Ankara sees normalisation with Armenia not as an end in itself, but rather as an element of a larger regional transformation it hopes to facilitate and play a dominant role in,” the analysts wrote.
The Crisis Group analysts concluded by describing the direct talks as “a feat in and of itself” but warned that “a concerted effort will be needed to keep new talks from being cut short by older and deeper rivalries.”
It suggested that negotiators should avoid raising the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh issue to avoid derailing talks, as that issue previously did in the early 1990s and 2009. It also suggested that all involved “should work especially hard at keeping a lid on tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the duration of the talks, as any escalation will inevitably be felt in Turkey-Armenia negotiations.”
It warned that the momentum for normalisation in recent months could be lost if talks drag out without any positive developments.
The analysts concluded by warning what’s at stake if these talks fail.
“A disruption of this effort to establish neighbourly ties – only the third effort in as many decades and an important opportunity for Turkey, Armenia and the whole region – could only make that mistrust sink lower,” they wrote.