The year of 2014 tested both Turkey’s foreign and domestic politics. The security threat originating from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at its doorsteps and the domestic political turmoil challenged Turkish politics throughout the year. The foreign and the domestic issues that emerged during the year of 2014 are likely to continue during 2015.
However, among several foreign policy issues, Armenia seems to be the most significant issue that would dominate Turkish politics in the first half of 2015. Given the importance of 2015, the centennial of the tragic events of 1915 that led to the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Turkish-Armenian relations is expected to go through a hard test.
The tragic events of 1915 are a greatly controversial matter in Turkey and Armenia as Armenians describe the events as “genocide” while Turkey says the events do not amount to genocide and that both Turks and Armenians were killed. April 2015, for this reason, will be very significant for both Turkey and Armenia. Armenians, who will be commemorating the centennial of the 1915 events, are engaged into several efforts for the international recognition of this tragedy as a “genocide”. On Turkish side, in response to the Armenians' efforts for 2015, Turkish government plans to commemorate the centennial of the Çanakkale (Dardanelles) campaign on April 24-25 in order to counter the adverse effects of Armenian efforts.
Weathering the storm
According to Richard Giragosian, the director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center (RSC), there are both challenges and limits in 2015; however, he believes that the Turkish government would seek to “weather the storm” of 2015, and only after the commemoration passes, would consider returning to the process of diplomatic engagement with Armenia.
Giragosian, in an interview last May in Yerevan, stated that Turkish side was exaggerating the importance of the year 2015 to be greater than it actually need be. “This is a psychological burden created by Turkey in terms of making the year 2015 a big issue. Turkey overreacting to the anniversary will only make the issue a bigger one," he said. Agreeing with Giragosian, I believe that rather than considering 2015 as a panic year, Turkey should consider it as a year for opportunity to resume efforts at normalizing relations with Armenia. Turkey can take some significant steps, like it did in 2014, for the normalization of relations with its neighbor in 2015.
Armenia seems to be the most significant foreign policy issue that would dominate Turkish politics in the first half of 2015Sinem Cengiz
Last year witnessed unprecedented, significant and historic developments in Turkish-Armenian relations. However, the most important step from the Turkish side came by then- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current president of Turkey, who issued a historic and a timing message of condolences about killings of Armenians in 1915. Erdogan’s statement came on 23 April, a day before of 99th anniversary of the tragic events.
For the first time in the history of Turkey, a Turkish leader offered condolences to the descendants of Ottoman Armenians. Such a message would have been unthinkable a decade ago. It was a very momentous indication of how the taboos regarding the Armenian question were breaking in Turkey although the official stance regarding the issue remains unchanged. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, with exception to many other issues, has taken important steps regarding the lifting of the taboos on freely discussing 1915 when compared to the previous Turkish governments. As Giragosian puts: “That statement not only offered a “safer space” within which to discuss the genocide issue, it also broadened the constituency for dialogue by sending a message not only to Armenians but also to Erdogan’s own base of supporters. And it established an important new precedent, whereby every Turkish prime minister will be expected to make a similar statement timed with each April 24th commemoration of the Armenian genocide.”
Also in 2014, Yerevan positively responded to Turkish invitation to take part in the Erdogan’s presidential inauguration ceremony. Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandyan, who attended the ceremony, also invited Erdogan to visit Armenia on April, 24 2015. It is difficult to make a prediction whether Erdogan will visit Armenia or not but there are some steps that Turkish government can take in Armenia-Turkey rapprochement. Firstly, acknowledging the fact that Turkish-Armenian relations are multifaceted, Ankara can pursue a multidimensional policy in relations with Armenia. The Turkish-Armenian border, which has been closed since 1994, could be open as a gesture of good will. The long-awaited opening of the border between two neighbors would serve significantly in opening the mental borders between two societies. Secondly, the restoration of the diplomatic relations between two countries and the ratification of the frozen protocols signed between two countries in 2009 is a must for the improvement of the bilateral ties.
In the last days of 2014, Etyen Mahçupyan, the top adviser for theTurkish prime minister, stated that a priority for the future should be establishing relations with Armenia as well as the millions-strong diaspora rather than expecting to resolve a long-running dispute within this year. Mahçupyan, who considers 2015 as a “tough year” because of the anniversary, said “I don’t think we need to hurry 100 years on. What happens later on should proceed more healthily.”
The improvement of the relations between two countries is not easy to be achieved within a year, as it requires further time for the both sides to make their societies ready and to take confidence building measures. The both sides should not consider 2015 as an end, rather it should be considered as a start or the efforts to normalize the ties between two countries in the post-2015.
For both Ankara and Yerevan, there may be hard limitations in moving toward normalization; however, dragging out the process is not in interest of neither side. The normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia will be best for the interests of the two sides as the peace and the stability at their doorsteps and in Caucasia is of great importance to both Yerevan and Ankara.
Allow me to conclude with a quote from former Turkish Ambassador to UK, Ünal Çeviköz, who believes that Turkey should bring out a new initiative to overcome the deadlock in Turkish-Armenian relations. “When I think of Turkish-Armenian relations, I am inclined to characterize it as “history of missed opportunities” that has done injustice not only to the two nations, the two peoples, the two countries, but also to the whole Caucasus region. Unless there is normalization in Turkish-Armenian relations we will have serious difficulty in talking about an environment of sustainable peace and stability in the Caucasus.”
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz