Turkish-Armenian détente: A plus for regional stability and transatlantic strategy
WASHINGTON -- On Saturday, the Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Armenia met in Zurich and signed accords aimed at establishing diplomatic relations and opening their closed border. They also agreed to a series of consultations and confidence-building measures to resolve longstanding disputes and foster closer cooperation. These protocols still need to be ratified in Ankara and Yerevan, and implementation is very far from certain. But these new accords -- finalized after some critical last-minute diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- could prove transforming for regional stability around the Black Sea and beyond. They are also very good news for American and European interests. Last week's breakthrough was a direct result of the opening established last September when Turkey's President Abdullah Gul took up an invitation from Armenian President Serzh Sargysan to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Yerevan. The visit was groundbreaking, and will be followed by a reciprocal presidential visit to Turkey. In a more fundamental sense, the prospect of Turkish-Armenian détente flows from years of quiet, unofficial dialogue among senior intellectuals and opinion-shapers on both sides. The changed atmosphere also shows the influence of business leaders keen to capture the benefits of bilateral trade and enlightened policy figures anxious to take a longstanding problem off the table.
The potential geopolitical implications are substantial. Turkish-Armenian rapprochement will produce clear benefits for the region and transatlantic security interests. First, an open border will contribute to the economic development of Armenia and rebalance the country's position between East and West. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict pitting Russian-backed Armenia against Turkish-backed Azerbaijan, and the closure of Turkey's border with Armenia in 1993, Yerevan's ties to the West have remained underdeveloped. Normalized relations with Turkey will give Armenia new options on the international scene and contribute to the development and stability of the country. So far, Russia has supported a process of détente that is likely to spell less influence for Moscow in Yerevan, possibly because closer ties to energy-rich Azerbaijan now loom larger in the Russian calculus. Second, improved relations between Armenia and Turkey can set a precedent for the resolution of other longstanding disputes.
Multiple flashpoints and "frozen conflicts" around the Black Sea underscore the dangers of resurgent nationalism against a backdrop of economic strain. The conflict between Russia and Georgia, and looming tensions between Russia and Ukraine, highlight the risk. Open borders and confidence-building measures can encourage the emergence of a more integrated Black Sea region. The alternative is a retreat to inward-looking, nationalistic postures. If Ankara and Yerevan can change course and resolve disputes long seen as intractable, this could offer a positive example for crisis management from the eastern Mediterranean to the Caspian. Third, for Turkey, a genuine opening to Armenia will reinforce the country's new approach to foreign policy. In recent years, Turkish leaders have pursued a "zero problems" approach to relations in the Balkans, the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Middle East. By and large, Ankara has succeeded in transforming its often troubled relations with neighbors as diverse as Greece, Bulgaria, and Syria. Western observers may be ambivalent about some aspects of this Turkish strategy, not least Ankara's improved ties to Iran and Russia. But Turkish-Armenian détente is another matter. Like the rise of Turkish-Greek détente over the last decade, normalized relations with Yerevan should be an undiluted benefit for Turkey's transatlantic partners. At a time when Turkey's European Union candidacy faces serious challenges, the opening to Armenia can also remind Europeans that Turkey is a producer rather than a consumer of security in Europe's neighborhood. Finally, the roadmap set out by the parties envisions the establishment of a commission to review the contentious history of 1915 and its aftermath that has bedeviled Armenian-Turkish relations for almost 100 years. It would be surprising if this initiative manages to reconcile strongly held and competing historical narratives. Yet a formal dialogue about the tragic events of 1915 will extend the trend of recent years in which both societies have become more comfortable with frank discussion about Armenian-Turkish relations, past and present. From the perspective of American and European interests, there is much to be gained from a climate in which pressing contemporary issues -- including Iran, Russia, and energy security -- can take center stage in relations with Ankara and Yerevan.
The prospect of genuine Armenian-Turkish détente can help make this a reality. Events in Zurich show that American activism and a European context matter in this critical region. Moves toward Armenian-Turkish détente deserve the continued and unreserved support of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.