The foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia shake hands after the signing of the Zurich Protocols — Public Domain

The relations between Turkey and Armenia have been widely covered in academic literature. It has been approached from all possible perspectives and it seems no dimension is left out from the discussions. However, since there are no diplomatic relations established between the two countries and the border remains closed, there should be an effort to continue to understand existing and emerging predicaments. Moreover, no effort should be spared to unveil those thorny questions that may help us to move forward.

For that purpose, this piece raises a number of questions concerning a few established views and interpretations about Turkish-Armenian relations. In addition, since 1991, a number of concepts, terms, and approaches have dominated the field and have been used by both parties. The need to rethink some of them is important as it may help to change the conversation and to approach the problem from a different standpoint.

At the outset, it needs to be mentioned that contrary to established views the Republic of Turkey did not close its border with Armenia in April 1993 as a result of the military operation in Kelbajar. The border between Turkey and Armenia was never truly open in the first place; instead the border gates were open only for humanitarian purposes and for the operation of the weekly Kars-Gyumri train, which had been crossing the Turkish-Armenian border since the days of the Soviet Union. Additionally, between 1993-2002, some officials were able to travel through the border gates to Turkey and to Armenia.

In December 1991, when Turkey recognized Armenia’s independence, Turkey had the chance both to open the border and to establish diplomatic relations. Back then, the conflict in Karabagh was not in its active stage and Turkey could open the border without reference to the situation in Karabagh.  But Turkey chose to do neither. This is to suggest that Turkey’s attempts to connect the closing of the border with the events in Karabagh are manipulative, yet this interpretation is widely taken into consideration by analysts and politicians without much consideration.

Establishing a link between the events in Karabagh and the closing of the border was aimed at emphasizing Turkey’s support to Azerbaijan and it is clear it had purely propagandistic objectives. However, the narrative was put into circulation and even some Armenian politicians started to employ the Turkish perspective when talking about the date and the reasons for closing the Turkish-Armenian border. The closing or opening of the border should be decoupled from the Karabagh conflict and be seen from purely bilateral perspectives.

The other issue that needs to be discussed has to do with the Zurich protocols and the methodological errors that were made during the 2009 negotiations between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey that led to the signing of two documents: the “Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey” and the “Protocol on Development of Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey.” These two documents, which jointly were named as Zurich protocols, have also been widely discussed. The opponents of the protocols criticized every single sentence and tried to undermine their credibility. Others were critical of the atmosphere by arguing that Turkey was not genuine in its efforts.

What was left out from the discussion, however, was a set of questions: Why sign two protocols when the whole purpose of negotiations was to establish diplomatic relations? And: Why put two separate issues—diplomatic relations and the development of relations—into one basket, creating much confusion and inherent problems? The decision to bring these two documents together was a methodological flaw that cost the entire process dearly.

The crux of the problem has to do with the fact that bringing together the process of normalization and reconciliation carried a risk that the two parties were not capable of overcoming. I have discussed that problem elsewhere. Likewise, one of the experienced Armenian diplomats, Rouben Shougarian, has recently discussed that problem in his newly published monograph on Armenian foreign policy. What we agree upon is that normalization of relations and the establishment of diplomatic relations between countries that have a disputed past and a troubled present requires a completely different toolbox and set of policy initiatives than the process of reconciliation. Underestimation of these significant differences had serious implications for the entire process.

When starting the negotiations, both parties had different and sometimes diametrically opposed expectations for the process. For the Armenian side, it was crucial that Turkey would continue the negotiations without any preconditions. The short-term goal for the Armenian side was to establish diplomatic relations with a hope to secure the opening of the border with Turkey, thereby removing the economic and communication blockade imposed on Armenia by Turkey. For the Turkish side, the objectives were quite different, as Turkey never concealed the true reasons for not establishing diplomatic relations and for not opening the border. Since 1991, the Turkish side has presented at least three reasons for not opening the border: Armenian Genocide claims and worldwide recognition campaigns, the border disputes between Turkey and Armenia, and the Karabagh conflict. However, since 1993, the last reason started to dominate Turkey’s list of preconditions, effectively pushing the first two into the background. This short explanation alone was sufficient to understand that the two parties sought different objectives and hence sought different strategies in attaining their goals. For the Armenian side, the normalization of relations came first, while for Turkey the conditions for the reconciliation process were much more crucial and significant. These different views were reflected in the two protocols and instead of devising a short and plain document about the establishment of diplomatic relations, the parties took the most complex road by bringing together all the complications of their relations and putting them into two documents with multiple cross-references. Thus, the failure to disentangle normalization from reconciliation has deadlocked the entire process.

This important dimension should be taken into account in all future efforts that will aim to bring these two nations together. The reasons for the lack of official relations between Turkey and Armenia have different facets and layers. Some of the existing problems may be addressed through official documents, some may be solved through mere contacts between two nations and by better knowing each other, and some may remain unsolvable for some time to come. Hence, Turkish-Armenian relations should be separated from Turkey-Armenia relations. The officials from both countries should retake the difficult road of normalization of official relations, but leave the reconciliation process to the artists, scholars, and civil society members of the two nations. The states can facilitate the reconciliation but, given the sensitive nature of relations, should not direct the process. The lessons of the Zurich protocols should not be ignored.

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan is an assistant professor at the American University of Armenia.He is also the head of the Turkish Department at the Institute for Oriental Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. He studied at the University of Bergen (Norway), Lund University (Sweden), and the Institute of Oriental Studies and Yerevan State University (Armenia). He was a visiting professor at Duke University (North Carolina), a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley (California), and a visiting scholar at the University of Washington, Seattle (Washington). He authored an award-winning monograph “Islam in the Social and Political Life of Turkey, 1970-2001” in 2008, and co-authored “History of Turkish Republic” in 2014. He has published extensively on Turkish domestic and foreign policy issues as well as on regional security problems.