Recap report: Facing public pressure

Erdoğan and Pashinyan look forward as public opinion looks back

Nareg Seferian
July 19, 2022

A canyon formed by the Arpaçay-Akhouryan river marks the Turkish-Armenian border at the Ani ruins historical site. © Diego Cupolo

On July 11, 2022, Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan held their first phone call ever. The leaders not only exchanged polite wishes for the month’s religious holidays, but also released identically-worded statements in which they “emphasized the importance” of the normalization process between their countries.

As the governments of Turkey and Armenia take cautious steps towards normalization, public opinion appears unconvinced by the process, with recent polls on both sides of the border underlining long-held negative sentiments between the two nations despite the recent progress. Along with the possibility of Russian and Azerbaijani influence on negotiations, the ongoing Turkey-Armenia talks will be no easy task, and the public knows it.

The Past is Not a Foreign Country

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Turkey was quick to recognize the independence of Armenia. However, establishing full relations faced two major difficulties. First, the public memory of the massacres and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. These events are referred to most often as the Armenian Genocide, although the term “genocide” is controversial in Turkish discourse and deemed unacceptable by the Foreign Ministry.

Second, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which began in the early 1990s. The dispute over the status of this majority-Armenian autonomous territory within Soviet Azerbaijan led to full-scale war until a 1994 ceasefire established an uneasy, though largely stable peace for over 25 years. During this time, the Armenian leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic held effective control not only over the autonomous territory but surrounding areas as well.

Given its long-standing and deep ties with Azerbaijan, Turkey consistently supported Azerbaijani sovereignty over the territory. For Ankara, a resolution to the dispute favorable for Baku served as a precondition for establishing normal relations with Armenia.

Following the outcome of the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Azerbaijan took over a part of Nagorno-Karabakh and gained control over the disputed surrounding areas. Though the conflict is not yet fully resolved, it is no longer an immediate factor for Ankara regarding the establishment of relations with Yerevan.

Parallel to the above issues, among other disagreements, Turkey and Armenia have maintained a paradoxical relationship since 1991. While they recognize one another, neither has an embassy in the other’s capital – although Armenia has a representation in İstanbul to the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). Additionally, Turkey closed the land border between the two countries in 1993 to protest the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The air border was also closed then, but it later reopened, paving the way for regular flights between İstanbul and Yerevan. (Those flights were interrupted for over two years because of the bankruptcy of the one airline serving the route and resumed with multiple airlines in 2022.) Even without full diplomatic ties, citizens of Turkey and Armenia can freely enter the other country, receiving visas at airports or border crossings.

Since the 1990s there have been attempts at moves towards normalization. The most far-reaching of these initiatives took place between 2008-2010. Dubbed “football diplomacy” because of its framing around two football matches, a preliminary agreement signed at the time did not last, largely because of strong objections raised in Baku.

Back to the Future

In contrast, the latest round of talks has seen Azerbaijan express its support for the process, especially with Ankara’s assurances to coordinate foreign policy with Baku. Words of encouragement likewise have been regularly expressed by Washington, Brussels and Moscow.

“The Armenian government is eager to ‘normalize’ with all neighbors. And Turkey feels itself in a strong negotiating position after the Karabakh debacle. As a result, both are trying to reach a deal,” said Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at the University of Athens and a long-time observer of Turkey-Armenia relations.

The most recent talks began Jan. 14, 2022, with a first meeting between special envoys, after which the foreign ministries of Turkey and Armenia issued identically-worded and generally positive statements. A second meeting on Feb. 24 followed a similar course and resulted in similar statements from Turkey and Armenia.

A third meeting on May 3, once again, produced brief, identically-worded documents from Ankara and Yerevan about “full normalization … without preconditions.” In between, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia met March 12, during the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, repeating the same formula for short, identical press releases.

Then, what was framed as a “breakthrough” came following the fourth meeting on July 1. Turkey and Armenia agreed on more concrete measures, including the start of direct air cargo transportation and the opening of their land border to travel for third-country nationals. The read-out for the phone call between Erdoğan and Pashinyan on July 11 emphasized “their expectation for the early implementation of [these] agreements.”

In his recent article, Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre, an independent think tank in Yerevan, places these developments in the context of “twin-track diplomacy” with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Giragosian said the Armenian government is pursuing a final peace settlement with Azerbaijan as well as normalized relations with Turkey. These are separate processes, meant to move at their own pace, but they are interlinked.

“Armenia must do its utmost … to try to have diplomatic relations and open borders with Turkey, because relations with Turkey are the most important tools to constrain a new war [with Azerbaijan],” said Tatul Hakobyan, a journalist and author of the book “Armenians and Turks: From War to Cold War to Diplomacy.” (Disclosure: the English-language translation of this book was edited by the author of this article.)

Vox Populi, Vox Dei?

The developments above have seen both governments pursue normalization talks with renewed vigor. But how do ordinary people on either side of the Arpaçay-Akhouryan river, which divides Turkey and Armenia, feel about establishing relations?

According to the annual Turkey Trends survey conducted in Oct-Nov 2021, 66.2 percent of the 1,000 interviewees in various Turkish cities responded that Turkey should not try to improve relations with Armenia. In the same survey, 14.4 percent supported the idea while 19.4 percent were indifferent. These proportions have been more or less consistent over the past three years.

About two-thirds of respondents said Armenia was a threat to Turkey in 2020 and 2021. That number was lower in 2019, but it was still close to half, at 46.5 percent. More than half of those surveyed in 2021 responded they would not accept an Armenian as a neighbor.

Across the border, the International Republican Institute conducted a survey with over 1,500 residents of Armenia in Nov-Dec 2021. The overwhelming majority of respondents – 91 percent – characterized current relations with Turkey as bad or very bad. Likewise, Turkey and Azerbaijan were the top two countries mentioned as posing political threats to Armenia. Both also topped security and economic threat perception categories. 

Very few respondents (2 percent) considered Turkey to be a substantial economic partner for Armenia. Moreover, 5 percent of respondents considered improving relations with Turkey as a condition for Armenia’s development in general. More specifically, opening transportation routes with Turkey was perceived in a positive light by 35 percent of respondents, whereas 53 percent disapproved. Some news reports have suggested open shipping routes could flood the country with competitive Turkish products.

The following three statements presented more of a mixed picture, though still trending negative. Responding to, “Under no circumstances Armenia should pursue normalization of relations with Turkey”, 44 percent agreed while 53 percent disagreed. 

At the same time, strong majorities supported the statements, “Armenia should start a dialogue with Turkey and normalize bilateral relations, while pursuing the agenda of recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey” (73 percent agreed, 25 percent disagreed) and “Armenia must establish bilateral relations with Turkey by putting forward its own preconditions such as Turkey’s non-hinderence [sic] in Nagorno-Karabakh peace” (70 percent agreed, 27 percent disagreed).

Similar data points were drawn from the Caucasus Research Resource Center’s Caucasus Barometer 2021-2022, which surveyed 1,648 inhabitants of Armenia. Here, too, Turkey was characterized by almost half the respondents as “the main enemy of Armenia.” The trend lines since 2013 show a dramatic increase between 2019 and 2021, evidently as a result of Ankara’s participation in the Second Karabakh War. Whereas Turkey was seen as an enemy by 18-22 percent of those surveyed in the past, it has jumped to 46 percent in 2021.

“The mutual negative views of both public opinions will [compel] the negotiators to limit ... their respective ‘concessions,’” said Aktar, the political science professor.

Muzaffer Şenel, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Ankara Medipol University, also said the role of domestic politics could not be overlooked.

“Normalization is a matter that most governments on both sides have deliberately neglected,” Şenel told Turkey recap, adding the issue is used by leaders in Ankara and Yerevan to foster nationalist sentiments. He said both governments also try to convince the public “the cost of the solution is too high.”

But Şenel argued the reality is different. Normalization is expected to be mutually beneficial for both Turkey and Armenia on a number of fronts including economic prospects and security issues. Open borders, regular flights, and “interaction of the people will create positive momentum,” Şenel added.

Both Şenel and Hakobyan said public opinion may not ultimately be a major factor. It may change as the benefits of normalization make themselves clear, according to Şenel, who said normalized relations between Turkey and Armenia would boost regional stability in the Caucasus, balancing out Russian and Iranian influences, and bring in investments.

Assessing the factors at play, Şenel said for Turkey, normalized relations with Armenia could help consolidate its position in the region and make more in-roads into the Caucasus and Central Asia, including in terms of energy transportation.

For Armenia, security concerns remain on top of the agenda, with normalization allowing for some possible movement outside of the Russian orbit. For both countries, improved ties will strengthen relations with the West, as capitals on both sides of the North Atlantic have consistently supported such initiatives.

Hakobyan agreed, saying negative public opinion can at most create marginal challenges in either country.

“They cannot have any effect if the states decide that they are establishing relations,” Hakobyan told Turkey recap. “I think that today the conditions are such that, if there is political will, it will be possible to establish relations.”

Precarious Path Ahead

Currently, there is indeed clear political will in Ankara and Yerevan to move forward with the normalization process even though public sentiments might materialize in various ways, such as in Turkey’s 2023 elections. Armenia held extraordinary elections in 2021, leaving the government in Yerevan in a more secure position, although protests and domestic political squabbling continue to test the nation’s political landscape.

Domestic politics aside, some external factors may prove decisive. One bear in the room is Russia. Hakobyan emphasized Armenian foreign policy is highly influenced by the Kremlin, adding the Turkey-Russia relationship carries its own irregularities.

In the report cited earlier, Giragosian wrote the war in Ukraine “dramatically overturned the already complex geopolitical calculus.” At the time of writing, that calculus remains in flux. The “cooperation, competition, and compartmentalization” that characterizes ties between Ankara and Moscow are present in the Caucasus as well. 

Discussions over big-picture arrangements regarding Ukraine, Libya, Syria, trade and tourism and, for example, the S-400 anti-aircraft system could spill over into Russia’s position on the Turkey-Armenia normalization process (and, indeed, on what remains of Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh, to be patrolled by Russian peacekeepers until at least Nov. 2025).

Azerbaijan’s future moves could also present fresh obstacles. Both Aktar and Şenel said Baku has much to gain and would play the role of a reasonable participant in the process. But Hakobyan believes Azerbaijan has significant leverage, arguing it was no coincidence that, on the day the Turkish and Armenian envoys last met, Azerbaijan closed its border with Turkey. 

“Why did they do it? So that [Azerbaijani Pres. Ilham] Aliyev does not lose the position he now holds,” Hakobyan said. “Because, if relations are established between Armenia and Turkey, it is clear that Armenia will become more important as a regional player, its independence and sovereignty will slightly increase. Azerbaijan does not want that.” 

Giragosian noted the Turkey-Azerbaijan border – a roughly 10-km stretch between the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and Turkey’s Iğdır province – was the only land crossing kept open by Azerbaijan since the start of the Covid pandemic. In sum, while there is no current rhetoric from Moscow or Baku actively opposing Turkey-Armenia normalization, there remains a potential for Russian or Azerbaijani spoilers in the future.

Additionally, the two “breakthrough” decisions on July 1 pose a different set of challenges. First, why should the land border between Turkey and Armenia be open strictly for third-country nationals alone? The Armenian diaspora and members of Turkish communities in Europe and elsewhere could take advantage of the opening as tourists. But there was no explicit reason given as to why ordinary citizens from both countries would not be allowed to cross the border at this point.

Second, why is only air cargo transportation being allowed? Turkey has, on various occasions, even in recent years and months, prohibited the use of its airspace for flights to and from Armenia. Ground transportation via Georgia, meanwhile, has long been used for trade between Turkey and Armenia. Air cargo is far more expensive. According to one report from Armenia, it does not really make business sense. 

Perhaps both of these steps are initial, confidence-building measures or precursors to full openings. All the same, they reflect the precarious nature of the diplomacy underway. Indeed, the first meeting of the envoys was held in Moscow, the latter three in Vienna. Calls by the Turkish leadership to hold a round in Yerevan or Ankara remain unanswered. A telling, though unconfirmed local report claims Turkey has begun de-mining border areas with Armenia. Any steps across the Arpaçay-Akhouryan river will continue to be taken with care.

Nareg Seferian is pursuing a doctorate at the School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech.