Turkey has closed the border with Armenia since 1993 in support of Azerbaijan in the first Artsakh war. Since then, the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations and the opening of borders has become one of the priorities of U.S. foreign policy in the region. From President Bush onwards, this priority has been maintained for all U.S. presidents who have sought to engage and accelerate the process if they find the proper environment.
Due to this circumstance the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations has always been one of the important issues in the U.S.-Armenian relations. This becomes especially evident during the very first official meeting on the establishment of the U.S.-Armenian diplomatic relations, when the American side immediately raised the issue of the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations. Specifically, during the James Baker-Raffi Hovhannisyan meeting Baker suggested normalizing the Armenian-Turkish relations, informing that having no territorial claim to Ankara and making a corresponding statement on recognizing the borders would be a serious step in terms of normalizing relations with Turkey. The U.S. active involvement is not limited to one administration, the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations has always been in the agenda of the U.S. policy in the region for all the U.S. administrations. Through normalizing the Armenian-Turkish relations the United States strives to strengthen its role and influence through its NATO ally Turkey, weakening Russia’s role and influence in the region because through the normalization of those relations the borders will be opened which will in its turn result in the decrease of the Armenia’s dependance on Russia and Iran. It will facilitate Armenia’s external communications with the countries of the European Union and will allow an unimpeded access to the sea.
Here, it should be mentioned that the U.S.-Turkey relations are not quite smooth and in many aspects their interests directly contradict. This is also voiced at a high level, more specifically, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicates that it’s no secret that the U.S. and Turkey have differences, but Turkey is a NATO ally and they are committed to working through differences to strengthen the alliance. Democracy is an important part of President Biden’s foreign policy, as for the democracy in Turkey the National Security advisor Jake Sullivan indicates that the U.S. will keep raising those issues but they are going to work at that with Turkey and other NATO allies. Thus, it should be highlighted, that despite the tension and existing problems in Turkey-U.S. relations, Turkey is U.S. ally and the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations will inevitably bring to the promotion of U.S. interests through Turkey.
An attempt to normalize the Armenian-Turkish relations has already occured in 2008, in the framework of the so called “football diplomacy,” which the U.S. largely supported. In terms of this process Hillary Clinton visited Armenia twice in 2010 and 2012.
During this period Turkey adopted “zero problem with neighbors” foreign policy within the framework of which the normalization process with Armenia started. The result of the negotiations between the sides became the Armenian-Turkish two landmark protocols signed on October 10, 2009 in Zurich, which implied establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of borders. However, the ceremony of signing was delayed for 3 hours, as there was a disagreement concerning the wording of the statements the foreign ministers were about to make and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resolved the situation through her so-called “cellphone diplomacy.” Still, according to another version, the protocols were eventually signed due to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Nonetheless, Turkey has always brought preconditions for the normalization of the Armenian-Turkish relations. In 1990s among the Turkish precondition were not only the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Turkey but also the re-editing of the declaration of independence of Armenia and the removal of the Ararat mountain from the RA Coat of Arms, the adoption of the law by the legislature of Armenia which states that Armenia refuses to bring any territorial claims to Turkey. The declassified documents also provide information about those preconditions which the minister of foreign affairs of Turkey has presented to the minister of foreign affairs of Armenia.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that following the signing of protocols in 2008, Turkey starts to raise preconditions, particularly, it connects the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the ratification of Armenian-Turkish protocols. It also pushed for Armenia to accept the 1921 treaty of Kars and that Armenia ceased pursuing international recognition of the genocide.
As a result of preconditions raised by Turkey, on March 1, 2018 the President of Armenia signed a decree on termination of the procedure of signing of both protocols. Thus, the Armenian side shows that unlike Turkey it is willing to normalize relations without preconditions.
Looking back to the deadlocked “football diplomacy” it becomes evident that Turkey was not ready to make concessions and establish relations without preconditions without raising the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and ceasing to pursue the international recognition of the genocide. Here, the Armenian side actually faced a deadlock. A very interesting option was being discussed at the time, a historic solution that the President Clinton administration applied first to Israel and Jordan, then to Israel and Egypt. These were Qualified Industrial Zones. These zones required the construction of a factory on the border with a 50% -50% investment, for example, a textile factory. 50% was invested by Israel, 50% by Jordan (the same was in case of Egypt with Israel), and the employees were equally from both sides, 50%-Israelis, 50% – Jordanians. The United States allowed the products produced in those factories to enter the American market without customs duties. This was a unique idea of the Clinton administration, which tried to reconcile the parties or normalize relations through the economic process. This was an interesting solution, and it is noteworthy that the relations between Egypt and Israel, as well as the relations between Jordan and Israel, are significantly different from the relations between Israel and other countries of the Arab world, where such programs have not been implemented. This was one of the exceptionally successful options. When “football diplomacy” failed, the idea of qualified industrial zones was put forward within academic circles as a solution that might be applicable in the case of Armenia and Turkey.
Following the 2020 Artsakh war, when one of the most important preconditions was satisfied, the Armenian authorities started making statements on normalization of relations with Turkey. The Armenian authorities’ willingness to normalize relations with Turkey is implied by Erdogan’s announcement of September, 2021 that Armenian Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan through Georgian Prime-Minister proposed a meeting. In response Erdogan raised a new precondition, the Zangezur corridor, stating that the Armenian side should take steps in this direction: “It is puzzling that on the one hand Pashinyan states that the Armenian side does not discuss the issue [of the Zangezur corridor], on the other hand he expresses a wish to meet with me. If he wants to meet with Tayyip Erdogan, clear steps must be taken… If they are sincere in their desire to enter into a dialogue through the Prime Minister of Georgia and ready to take steps to start a new process, we will go ahead and start diplomacy.”
However, in this process, according to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu statement Turkey consults “with Azerbaijan on every issue and takes such steps within the knowledge of Azerbaijan. Nobody should question whether we can act independently or separately from Azerbaijan. We are one nation, two states. These positive things will benefit us all.”
According to the claims of Armenian current authorities, they are led by the principle of “no preconditions” in the normalization of relations with Turkey. More specifically, the MFA spokesperson claimed that “The Republic of Armenia has repeatedly stated about its readiness to normalize relations with Turkey without any preconditions. In this regard, I should note that Armenia’s approach has not changed; the same position is reflected in the 2021-2026 program of the Government of Armenia. In our opinion, the Turkish government also shares the approach of starting the dialogue without preconditions.”
In line with its foreign policy priorities in the region, the U.S. is also widely interested in this new process. More specifically, according to the leaked information from Bloomberg, it was Joe Biden who urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to open the border with Armenia during meeting in Rome. This was the meeting of October 31, 2021, on the margins of the G20 meeting. According to official statement, during their meeting Biden and Erdogan also discussed diplomatic efforts in the South Caucasus.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have also kept this issue under their attention in recent months. This is evidenced by the fact that recently, during the meetings and telephone conversations with their counterparts, the Armenian-Turkish relations have also become a subject of discussion. In particular, South Caucasus was among the topics discussed during Sullivan’s September 22 meeting, October 27, November 19 and January 10 telephone conversations with Ibrahim Kalin, Chief Advisor to the Turkish President.
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy also spoke about the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations in particular, noting that “it is very important to consider the prospect of reconciliation with Turkey and to keep in mind and think about it. We must repeat and understand that it can not happen within one day, for that great diplomatic efforts and discussions will be required. However, it is very encouraging to hear expressions that were made [Erdogan’s and Pashinyan’s statements]. Let’s see if there will be opportunities to pursue in practice, to take action after those words.”
A few months later Armenia and Turkey appointed special envoys on the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations. Turkey appointed the former Turkish ambassador to the United States and a denier of the Armenian Genocide Serdar Kılıc as a special envoy. Meanwhile, Ruben Rubinyan, who does not have the necessary diplomatic experience, was appointed as a special envoy from the Armenian side. After these appointments the U.S. Secretary of State Blinken welcomed that step and expressed support in his twitter account. And on January 3, 2022 during the phone call with Cavusoglu Blinken once again welcomed the appointment of the special envoys on the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations. During a December meeting between the Secretary of Armenian Security Council Armen Grigoryan and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the latter welcomed the appointment of special envoys by Armenia and Turkey for the normalization of the relations.
The next shift in the process of the normalization after the appointments of the special envoys happened on January 14, when the first meeting between the special envoys on the normalization of the Armenian-Turkish relations took place in Moscow. According to the information disseminated by the Armenian MFA “Parties agreed to continue negotiations without preconditions aiming at full normalization.” It is interesting that the text of the disseminated information of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the statement of the RA Foreign Ministry were exactly the same.
Starting from 1992 the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations has been a priority for all U.S. administrations. This policy is also important for President Biden’s administration as a regional priority. This policy is based on the conviction and strategy that as a result of the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border and the establishment of diplomatic relations, a more independent political and economic environment from Moscow will be formed for Armenia. This, in turn, means the expansion of influence of U.S. ally Turkey at the expense of Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus, which in the long run could lead to the withdrawal of the Russian military base from Armenia because in such situation an attempt will be made to substantiate that there is no other threat to Armenia from Turkey and thus the Russian military presence in Armenia is meaningless.
It is noteworthy that the other two South Caucasian countries, Georgia and specifically Azerbaijan, are already largely dependent and interconnected with Turkey in politics and economy: this region has historically been either under Turkish or Russian influence. Thus, the only gateway for the United States to gain influence in the South Caucasus and enter this region is the Turkish gate, as the Iranian and Russian gates are closed to the United States. In other words, Armenian-Turkish relations are not simply normalization of two neighboring countries for the U.S., but it will serve the U.S. interests in the region, the main aim of which is the decrease of Russian influence in all South Caucasus.
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