Dilemma in Turkey’s Armenian Foreign Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 14

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (Source: armradio.am)

Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs held its Annual Ambassadors Conference on January 5–6, where the overall vision and various aspects of Turkey’s foreign policy were reviewed and discussed (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 6). The year 2015 will be highly significant and particularly challenging for Turkey’s foreign policy because of the fast-approaching centennial date of the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians, annually commemorated on April 24. The entire Armenian diaspora as well as the state of Armenia demand that Turkey recognize the tragic events of 1915 as a “genocide,” and will jointly be maintaining strong political pressure on Ankara throughout the symbolic year of 2015 (Radikal Newspaper, January 3)

In addition, just two months after April 24, Turkey will carry out parliamentary elections. Any apparent serious foreign policy debacles, therefore, could have a direct negative impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) share of the vote (see EDM, January 15). Consequently, during this period leading up to the election, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s government has been busy devising several strategies surrounding the Armenian Issue. In an article titled “Is a ‘Just Memory’ Possible?” published in the spring 2014 issue of TPQ magazine, Davutoglu demonstrated his approach to the Armenian Issue with the key message of the article being “the need to face our past and to share our common pain.” He explained how, prior to the events of 1915, these two societies had shared numerous positive historical experiences, and he emphasized that assessing the respective histories of the Armenian and Turkish nations, while ignoring these positive historical elements, would result in an inaccurate interpretation of history (TPQ, Spring 2014). Following Davutoglu’s introduction of this concept, a group of Armenians in Turkey founded an Istanbul-based non-governmental organization (NGO) called “Just Memory Initiative” (Adilhafiza.org, accessed January 20). Their NGO commenced the development of a series of projects and articles meant to manifest these ideas between the two nations.

The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has also taken up Prime Minister Davutoglu’s “Just Memory” concept and initiated a “shift in approach” ahead of the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 events. This so-called “Armenian Opening” is the foundation for what has become known as “Ani Diplomacy.” Connecting the Turkish government with the Armenian diaspora and the Republic of Armenia, “Ani Diplomacy” is based on joint efforts to restore the ancient city of Ani, Turkey (located near the border with Armenia). This approach aims to increase mutual respect and awareness of the younger generations of Turks and Armenians who generally harbor one-sided and deficient perceptions regarding the events that occurred in 1915.

Within the scope of this multi-dimensional project, which is still in its preparatory stages, is the organization of various cultural exchange and hosting programs enrolling Turkish and Armenian youths. The Turkish Ministry of Culture also plans to reach out to third- and fourth-generation Armenian descendants (living outside Turkey) of the victims of 1915 in order to ensure their participation in this program as well. A key component involves the restoration and rehabilitation of cultural artifacts and holy sites that carry great significance for Armenians, including the ancient city of Ani itself. Coordinated by the cultural ministry, the project is executed by a team of diplomats, academics, historians, cultural experts and government officials. Within the short-, medium- and long-term stages, support from various national and international NGOs will also be included. The “Ani Diplomacy”–related project will also include a historical research component, whose conclusions will be made available to interested Turkish and Armenian audiences. Consequently, it is hoped that the joint steps and inter-cultural dialogue initiated by the Turkish and Armenian participants will help soften the tension between these two nations (Adilhafiza, January 9).

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy strategy opposes Armenia’s non-compromising stance concerning the separatist Karabakh region and other Armenian-occupied territories of Azerbaijan. As a result, Baku fears any potential warming of bilateral relations between Ankara and Yerevan, and considers this to be detrimental to its own interests. This leaves Turkey with the challenging task of striking a delicate balance in dealing with its own Armenia-related problem without neglecting the interests of its ally, Azerbaijan. Turkey has already reaffirmed that its border with Armenia will not be opened unless the seven districts of Karabakh have been evacuated by Yerevan-backed forces. However, this does not imply that Turkey feels it cannot reach out to Armenian society at all. Indeed, Ankara has taken its own diplomatic approach to establishing a long-term dialogue with Yerevan while also hoping to alleviate pressure from the international Armenian diaspora, which is expected to peak on April 24, 2015.

On January 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed to celebrate the centennial of the Gallipoli Victory and Canakkale Martyrs’ Day together on April 24, 2015. Moving these commemorative ceremonies from their usual date, normally celebrated on March 18, to April 24 indicates a conscious effort by the Turkish authorities to divert national and global attention away from the 100th anniversary of the “Armenian Genocide,” which will also take place that same day. Although this action by the Turkish president has most likely pleased his Azerbaijani counterpart, it nevertheless appears to contradict Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu’s various initiatives to resolve the Armenian Issue. Based on this fact, it would be wrong to argue, however, that the Turkish government’s policy on the Armenian Issue has altogether changed. After all, Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Omer Celik delivered an official presentation on “Ani Diplomacy” at the foreign ministry’s Annual Ambassadors Conference earlier this month, which occurred merely a week prior to Erdogan’s aforementioned meeting with Aliyev. Rather, there seems to be a visible dichotomy in Turkey’s state policy in relation to this important issue.

Turkey’s relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia and the worldwide Armenian diaspora are set to undergo profound challenges in 2015. Yet, Turkey hopes to be able to commence the “second round” of its diplomatic approach to Armenia without damaging its relations with Azerbaijan (BILGESAM, May 27, 2013). Should this diplomatic dialogue be successful, it may contribute to a positive change in the status quo within the South Caucasus region.