The rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey is in crisis. The October 2009 protocols on normalization and recognition have yet to be ratified. Meanwhile, tensions between Turkey and the United States are rising. Ankara withdrew its ambassador from Washington, following the House Foreign Affairs Committee vote recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide. As Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day approaches on April 24, a process of great historic and strategic importance is in danger of collapse.

David Phillips of Columbia University met with Carnegie scholars Henri Barkey and Tom de Waal to discuss the prospects for this historic rapprochement. Carnegie’s Ambassador James Collins moderated.

The Turkish Perspective

As far as the Turkish government is concerned, the reconciliation process is not dead, but it is on “life-support,” stated Barkey. This situation could continue for a long time, if something is not done to revive the process.

Barkey offered two main reasons why the Turkish government signed the protocols: 

  • Timing: The protocols were first agreed in April 2009 just ahead of the annual statement by the U.S. president on April 24 on the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. By agreeing to the protocols, Turkey intended to ensure that Obama wouldn’t use the word “genocide” to describe the killings.

  • Becoming a global power: Since 2002, the Turkish government has had the ambitious goal of making Turkey a significant world power. Turkey is the 17th largest global economy, and is a member of G20. It is already a major regional player and is eager to increase its role globally. The reconciliation process is important for this foreign policy objective in two ways:
    1. The Turkish president recognizes that for Turkey to achieve this foreign policy objective, it has to improve relations with Armenia.

    2. Engaging in the process of reconciliation, and getting rid of the stigma of genocide, would significantly aid international perceptions of Turkey.

Despite these reasons to sign the protocol, engagement in the rapprochement process is not popular in Turkey. In particular, the Turkish opposition has expressed disagreement with the decision.

The Role of the United States and the International Community 

All of the panelists agreed that the international community, and particularly the United States, has an important role to play in moving the reconciliation process along:

  • Supporting the process: Phillips pointed out that, without the United States playing a proactive role in the reconciliation process, Turkey –Armenian relations are not going to move forward. The fact that Secretary of State Clinton was present at the October 2009 signing ceremony, Phillips said, demonstrates the importance of the U.S. role in facilitating rapprochement. Phillips suggested that cooperation between U.S. officials in Yerevan and U.S. officials in Turkey can play a significant role in moving the process forward.

  • Ways to move forward: Given the tense regional situation, the international community has a large role to play in facilitating the process, de Waal argued. Short term achievements, such as a partial opening of the border or gestures by Ankara to the Armenian Diaspora, are needed over the next few weeks, in order to secure a more positive long term dynamic. De Waal suggested that the United States and the international community use the upcoming centennial of the Armenian genocide in 2015 and the growing debate within as an encouragement for significant improvement and cooperation between the regional players on the reconciliation process.

Phillips also explained the work of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), which was founded in 2001. Phillips stressed the independence of the commission, despite the fact that the United States was the largest funder of TARC. Working on TARC’s projects re-opened official contact between Ankara and Yerevan, as analysts stayed in close contact with officials in both countries. The commission concluded with a set of final recommendations in 2004, which are mirrored in the protocols eventually signed in 2009.

The Future of Ratification

A lot of skepticism remains about the reconciliation process, according to de Waal. In particular, many Armenians do not trust Turkey. Some Armenians want the border to stay closed. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be addressed, and is a continuing source of tension between Armenia and Turkey, who supports Azerbaijan’s claim to the region. Phillips predicted that it is unlikely that Turkey’s parliament will ratify the protocols in the next few months. He warned that Armenia, which has declared itself ready to ratify in one business day, may withdraw its signature if no progress is seen in Ankara.

Overall, the rapprochement process represents a dramatic change in Turkey since 2003 and a breakthrough in rhetoric, asserted Phillips: Turkey now openly talks about the issue of Armenia and what happened in 1915.