Examining Armeno-Turkish Relations and the Closed Common Border

Since 1993, the Armenian and Turkish land border has remained closed, constituting a barrier to bilateral trade. Although a lack of legal routes deters Armenian exports to its westernmost neighbor, Turkey manages to export its own products into Armenia via Georgia without any bilateral transport agreements (Armenian‐Turkish Business Relations, 2011, p.15). The European Commission listed Turkey as the fifth biggest importer into Armenia in 2016 and as its neighbor’s 10th largest partner in total trade (2017). The re-opening of the border would establish a more economically efficient system within and around the region by paving way for new trade markets, increasing competition in existing markets, and reducing overall trade costs by creating geographically convenient routes (Tocci, 2007, pp.10-20). Politically, an end to Turkish alienation of Armenia would strengthen Turkey’s relations with Russia and the European Union and allow Armenia to overcome its landlocked isolation (De Waal, 2010, p.3). Why then, despite geographic proximity and the mutual advantages of an already pervasive trade network, has the common border remained closed for over two decades? Following a social constructivist perspective, Armeno-Turkish interaction can achieve political normalization if each state adapts its national identity to reshape the hostile nature of current relations.

The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide, 1914-1918, largely architected the national identities of Armenia and Turkey, both of which became nations in the few years after World War I. For Armenians, the Genocide wiped three millenniums of culture, stripping the population of its ethnic homeland and its generations of constructed identity (Hovannisian, 1999, pp.13-14). With their ancestral identity destroyed, Armenian residents and those across the diaspora have conjoined under the memory of the Genocide and through it created a new collective identity (Derghougassian, 2012, p.230). This developed sense of ‘self’ has bequeathed a heightened need to preserve cultural identity, embodied by language and heritage, onto the current generation which still considers Turkey a viable and oppressive threat to Armenian security (Herzig and Kurkchiyan, 2005, pp.93-97). The Genocide invariably shapes Armenian foreign policy owing foremost to the concern that disregarding the matter would extricate perpetrators and complete the last stage of Genocide—denial (Stanton, 2013). Consequently, Armenians have globally structured their cultural identities circum-Genocide.

Secondly, the Armenian diaspora critically influences Armenian policy through essential financing for the economically struggling country. After the country’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrossian removed the Genocide from the political agenda to prioritize Armeno-Turkish neutralization and claimed that external, diasporic parties should not influence regional affairs and relations (Derghougassian, 2012, p.230). However, funding reliance from Armenians in the West, largely descendants of Genocide survivors, gave those of the diaspora political influence in the transition of state power from Ter-Petrossian to a new president who realized the diaspora’s crucial monetary and political leadership (Papazian, 2006, pp.240-242).

Armenia resultantly cemented the Genocide as a national identity emblem and as a lobbying means for international recognition of affairs (Shain and Barth, 2003, pp.449-479). Non-state agents thus seem to hold more state power than the actual state itself, and normalization of Armeno-Turkish relations relies not only on the Armenian and Turkish state interactions but also on the foreign policy approval of diasporic Armenians. To extinguish the nations’ present belligerence towards one another, the Armenian diaspora must be willing to adapt their cultural identities in support of their homeland’s needs. Seceding their Genocide agenda, they can help Armenia regain economic independence by allowing the country to improve ties with its neighbors and become less reliant on guardian states like Russia (Kassab, 2015, no pagination).

While Armenia pushes for Genocide recognition, Turkey has continuously denied the act as wartime necessity and has taken domestic and international means to dissuade Armenian “propaganda” (Dixon, 2010, pp.472). The Turkish denial policy partly stems from its modern identity development. Nationalist Young Turks rose to power at the Ottoman Empire’s decline and rallied under a Turkish-Muslim identity (Yapp, 1992, pp.154-159). Minority ‘others’, like the Armenians, threatened state uniformity and preservation of a Turkish cultural homogeneity. Modern Turkey recounts that interwar tensions aroused the civil war outbreak and resulted in both Turkish and Armenian deaths (Çetinkaya, 2014, pp.120).

Even so, the current Turkish administration has inherited liability of the Ottoman Armenians’ extermination, influenced by the Young Turks’ nationalist ideology. Historian Vahagn Avedian argues that the international norm of “pacta sunt servanda,” which asserts that governmental adjustments do not alter identity, would hold the prevailing Turkish republic responsible for its predecessor’s crimes if the republic’s identity did not significantly change (2012, p.800). Turkey today emphasizes the identity discontinuity between the Ottoman Empire’s regime and current Turkey (Marek, 1954, p.5). However, its absorption of Ottoman administrative and militant organizations into the new establishment point to at least one contradiction of the claimed partition (Avedian, 2012, p.801). Turkey’s very policy of Genocide denial thence deflects international accountability norms. The state cannot claim historic liability for an event that, in its socially-constructed truth, never existed. Turkey would essentially compromise its own sense of identity if it did accept the Armenian narrative. As confirmation of its relentless position, the Turkish government just last year recalled its ambassador from Germany, which legally recognized the Genocide (McKenzie, 2016).

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Armenian Genocide controversy explains the historic antagonism between Armenia and Turkey, but the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) enclave contemporizes the related issues of identity and cultural hostilities. The Nagorno-Karabakh territorial war materialized in 1988 when an ethnically Armenian region of Azerbaijan sought succession. During the conflict’s initial years, both Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union and, interestingly, Turkey became the first country to recognize Armenian independence (Volten and Tashev, 2007, p.187). Consequently, the Armeno-Turkish border opened for the first time in decades despite a lack of formal relations (De Waal, 2013, p.218).

Escalation of the NKR war eventually led Turkey to abandon its neutral stance as Turkish public protests urged the government to aid their ethnically and linguistically tied Azeris. Unable to avoid public pressures and weary of engaging in war with pro-Armenian Russia, Turkey again closed the mutual border through which Armenia had received much foreign aid (Cheterian, 2017, pp.83-84). Non-state actors, i.e. the public, politically influenced Turkey’s foreign policy by compelling the state to take a definitive role towards ideologically aligned Azerbaijan. This alliance consolidates a Turkish identity that protects the interests of its people and those who most closely assimilate into that identity (Gömeç, 2007, p.120). Even at the urgency of the EU, which Turkey hopes to join, the state refuses to normalize relations with Armenia—including the border’s reopening—without a precondition to resolve NKR issues (Cornell, 1998, p.64).

On the other hand, Armenians argue for historic right of Nagorno-Karabakh which the Soviet had annexed to Azerbaijan (Cornell, 1997, p.3). Having already lost ethnic lands during the Genocide, Armenians today consider the strife a new upcoming of their WWI sufferings and thus fight to preserve and regain their current territories (p.6). The NKR conflict essentially reminds Armenians of the post-Genocide identity crisis and reluctance towards resolution results from their developed political and ethnic identity (Mirzoyan, 2010, pp.2-5). According to Artsakh historian Maxim Hovhannisyan, if Armenia did give in to Turkish preconditions to normalize relations then it would undermine what little political esteem it has and abandon its cultural responsibility to the people, thereby morphing a negative national identity (2017).

Current Relations

Congruent to constructivist theory, conflictual interplay between Armenia and Turkey has resulted in the current system of anarchy in spite of reconciliation efforts. In 2008, Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to accept invitation and visit Armenia. Despite any former diplomatic ties, President Gul noted the “need for mutual dialogue to remove barriers to improving bilateral ties,” indicating a potential for pacifying strained relations (BBC, 2008). These attempts showcase how collaborative openness in anarchic affairs can diminish competitive and war-prone tensions. The political actors have the ability to interpret the current system; in this case, the two presidents chose to ignore public protests and mutual distrust and step towards reconciliation. Anarchy, thus, can then be what states make of it (Wendt, 1992, p.395). The presidents’ politically successful meeting helped initiate the Swiss-mediated 2009 protocols to officially normalize relations via diplomatic relations and bilateral relations, including the common border’s reopening. These protocols symbolize the biggest leap forward in recent Armeno-Turkish relations despite a continued lack of Genocide recognition.

The pressures of international norms may contribute to the willingness to engage in the protocols. Economically, relations would harmonize if the states’ formed shared interests in developing new markets and competitively expanding current trade networks (Walt, 1985, p.17). As evidenced by Turkey’s desire to join the EU, the norm of economic liberalization shapes state politics; Armenia and Turkey both want to become embedded within the world economy and their desire has led to a reconciliation attempt that would stimulate regional economic growth and later increase international economic participation (Barigazzi, 2015; Rajabova, 2015). Loosening cultural ideologies that pronouncedly shape state affairs would therefore allow Armeno-Turkish relations to economically cultivate.

Nevertheless, though promising protocol signings, Armenia and Turkey have continued a habit of mutual distrust. Turkey introduced new protocol preconditions, namely the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which resultingly blocked ratification in 2010. Moreover, political upheaval in the last three years has led Turkey to deprioritize improving relations with Armenia and mutual distrust continues to escalate, evidenced earlier this year by Turkey’s camera installations on the common border (Poghosyan, 2017; ArmenPress, 2017). Public perception, too, feeds political distrust. Armenians, still seeing themselves as victims of genocide, and Turks, perpetuating a media-driven anti-Armenian sentiment, have divorced themselves culturally and ideologically from the ‘other.’ A 2011 study in Turkey demonstrated anti-Armenianism in almost three-fourths of respondents while a similar study in 2007 revealed a slightly larger percentage of Armenians perceiving Turkey as a threat (Hürriyet Daily News, 2011; International Republican Institute, 2007). Without changing the peoples’ perceptions, Turkey and Armenia will likely maintain their same century-long social identities that have prevented normalization and retain the ongoing state of anarchy.

Where Constructivism Falls Short…

Constructivist theory supports the roles of state identity, non-state actors like the diaspora and general public, and international norms that play into the Armeno-Turkish dilemma. Nonetheless, both Armenia and Turkey have shaped their cultural identities from intersubjective realities whose lack of empirical facts constitute challenges in analyzing state affairs (Gol, 2005, pp.121-122). Because identity plays into culture as well as politics, there exists an inability to completely sever one conflictual arena from another. Moreover, constructivist theory does not explain the mutual distrust between the states as well as realism, which notes the prominence of the “self-help” system to maximize state security (Mearsheimer, 2001, p.33). Defensive realism better evaluates Armenia’s mistrust of Turkey: having already lost territory to its western neighbor, Armenia maintains a caution questioning of Turkey’s motivations to ensure state preservation. Fundamentally, the state follows a neo-realist survival agenda wherein it desires a balance of power to ensure continuation amidst its more economically robust neighbors (Derghougassian, 2006, pp.2-3).

Realist theory addresses material factors like power and trade whereas constructivist theory, inclined to accentuate ideational significance, falls short. For instance, Turkey’s alliance with Azerbaijan persists as both an ideological partnership and a play in power politics. Azerbaijan holds key economic value for Turkey in terms of extensive regional trade and access to natural resources, and thus the benefits of a Turco-Azeri alliance override Turkey’s incentives to broaden its South Caucasus dominion and reopen the Armenian border (Krikorian and Görgülü, 2012, p.2). As a result, even with increased Armeno-Turkish interaction and a regeneration of state identities, the two nations could progress collaboration but still fail to achieve political normalization by virtue of existing political and economic security concerns. Constructivism, therefore, may clarify modern Armeno-Turkish politics but still fail to provide a reliable, predictive means for the nature of future relations. For this reason, social historians must look to other political ideologies like realism to structure a potential Armeno-Turkish reconciliation.

 

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