By Michael Rubin,
Fifteen years ago, a Turkish nationalist shot Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink point-blank in the head, shouting to horrified onlookers in the heart of Istanbul that he killed the “infidel.”
The murder made international headlines and shocked not only Armenians but also liberal Turks. There was a silver lining, though, as the Turkish government sought to change the narrative by addressing its bilateral tensions with Armenia.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan invited his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gül, to a soccer game in Yerevan, and more such exchanges followed. Finally, in October 2009, Armenian and Turkish negotiators agreed on two bilateral protocols that created a roadmap to formalize diplomatic relations, opening the border to end Turkey’s unilateral blockade and setting up a joint committee to address the Armenian Genocide.
Within days, however, optimism turned to defeat. The Turkish parliament refused to ratify the Zurich protocols, absent a greenlight from Azerbaijan. It was a nonsense excuse: Ankara commands Baku, not vice versa. It was also classic Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He feigned diplomacy to avoid accountability for the violence that logically flowed from his nationalist and extremist excesses.
At the same time, Erdogan sought advantage from a lack of relations. The Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia forced Armenia to rely on Iran as its economic outlet to the world. Partisans then pointed to these ties as reasons to ally with Turkey and Azerbaijan over Armenia. In reality, this policy was like an arsonist setting his neighbor’s house on fire next door and then complaining about the smoke. Nevertheless, in Washington, such tactics work, both because the Turkey cadre at the State Department far outnumbers employees assigned to manage the relations of other regional countries and because Azerbaijan and Turkey’s embassies have traditionally been more active than Armenia’s.
History repeats. As Turkey today faces triple-digit inflation and looming bankruptcy, Erdogan again signals a willingness to bury hatchets and talk. Whereas he once berated Israeli President and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres as a murderer, he now welcomes his Israeli counterpart to Ankara. And whereas he once promised he would stop at nothing to hold Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) accountable for the murder of Saudi journalist and former intelligence operative Jamal Khashoggi, he welcomed MBS to Ankara last month after ordering the court case against him dropped. That Riyadh played hardball with Erdogan and forced his retreat raises questions about why Washington and Brussels always opt for a softer approach and then wonder why it never works.
Now, it is Armenia’s turn to be the subject of Turkey’s diplomatic turn. Almost two years ago, Azerbaijan, along with Turkish Special Forces and Israeli drones, launched a surprise attack on Artsakh, the Armenian-populated republic in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region whose status they had pledged to resolve diplomatically. That the attack occurred on the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman assault on the Armenian-populated region was no coincidence. Erdogan repeatedly framed the attack in religious terms as a jihad against Christians.
Today, however, Turkey signals renewed interest in negotiating with Armenia. On July 1, Turkey agreed to open the border for cargo and non-Armenian, non-Turkish passport holders. Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke directly as a result. While Turkish officials said they were coordinating with their Azerbaijani counterparts, Baku has been generally cool to Turkey’s diplomatic moves. The looming question now is whether Turkey truly wants to normalize ties with Armenia or, conversely, just wants to appear moderate.
There are ways to find out.
Rather than meet in Austria or other third countries, Turkey and Armenia can resume their talks in Ankara and Yerevan. Turkey signals willingness. Should Turkey be sincere, Turkish negotiators should pay their respects at the Armenian Genocide Memorial. They can also signal that they support a fair solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute by encouraging Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to resolve it rather than supporting his attempts to eliminate the Armenian population and erase their cultural heritage. The elimination of cultural heritage and restraint from ethnic cleansing should not be something over which Turkey should seek to bargain. Indeed, there is hypocrisy about Erdogan complaining about the treatment of Muslims while presiding over the elimination of Christian presence in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and even northern Syria.
It is in the interest of all parties to resolve disputes in the South Caucasus diplomatically. To do otherwise only benefits Russia and Iran. If the State Department wants to show diplomacy to be back, however, it can play a role. First, rather than reward Ankara for signaling conciliation, it should instead judge Turkey on the substance of its actions. Never again should Turkey reap the benefits of a policy it has no intention to implement. Second, it should appoint someone with ambassadorial rank to succeed U.S. Minsk Group Co-Chair Andrew Schofer, who has rotated into a new assignment. That the French and Russian co-chairs were ambassadors, but Schofer was a self-inflicted wound to U.S. influence. Third, maximalist approaches will never bring peace. Only cultural and political autonomy will. Artsakh is not Donetsk; it is not an artificial creation. Instead, it predates and has survived Ottoman, Soviet, and Azerbaijani attempts to erase it. It is time to embrace the Kosovo model.
Expert Biography – Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.
Written By Michael Rubin
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).