“Are you Armenian?”
An Italian-Japanese woman asked Celil, the driver of our shared mini-van. Together with three other Swiss travelers, we were headed towards the Armenian border from the Turkish city of Kars. We wanted to see the ruins of Ani, the capital of the medieval Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia from 961 to 1045 CE.
I cringed when I heard the question. Relations between Turkey and Armenia have been strained for much of their histories as independent republics. Calling a Turk an Armenian might be the gravest insult one can levy.
Fortunately, Celil was not peeved by the question. “No, I am Turkish” he said, rather nonchalantly. He then explained to us that the border is currently closed and that it is politically impossible to reopen it today.
Indeed, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in response to the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which started when the ethnic Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast seceded from the newly-independent Republic of Azerbaijan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It took six years of fighting before a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994 ended the war. By then, Nagorno-Karabakh was under the complete control of Armenian forces. While the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh became de facto independent, it is still recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the United Nations.
Given that the Azerbaijanis have a Turkic cultural identity, Turkey naturally sided with Azerbaijan during the war. Together, the two countries imposed an embargo on Armenia, resulting in the closed Turkish-Armenian and Azerbaijani-Armenian borders until today.
After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in 2002, Turkey adopted a foreign policy centered on the principle of “zero problems with neighbors.” This new policy direction was the brainchild of Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor before becoming foreign minister and, just recently, prime minister.
As a result, there had been some rapprochement with Armenia under the AKP since, exemplified most noticeably by Turkey and Armenia signing normalization protocols in Switzerland in 2009. Unfortunately, both countries failed to ratify the protocols in their respective parliaments—a reflection of not only strong domestic opposition, but more importantly, the depth of the complexities surrounding Turkish-Armenian relations. That said, it should be no surprise that the disputes regarding Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian genocide remain the two largest obstacles to the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is at present a frozen conflict, although Azerbaijan’s growing resource wealth is making it more bellicose in recent times. Moreover, Turkey’s present dependence on Azerbaijan’s natural gas has given the latter more sway over Turkish foreign policy. While Erdoğan’s declaration to the Azerbaijani parliament in May 2009—that the accords will not be ratified unless the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was settled—definitely assuaged Azerbaijan’s concerns, it effectively stalled the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
Likewise, the issue of the Armenian genocide remains highly contentious between the two countries. Armenia seeks recognition for the events of 1915, during which up to 1.5 million Armenians perished in a series of massacres and forced deportations by the Ottoman authorities and their proxies. Turkey, however, refuses to acknowledge those events as genocide, insisting that the deaths were the unfortunate outcome of the chaos and carnage following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. It fears that any acknowledge of genocide will legitimize Armenian claims to its eastern territories. As it turned out, the politics of genocide recognition did have a significant role in galvanizing domestic opposition to the protocols on both sides.
Stumbling across the desolate ruins of Ani today, one cannot help but feel the weight of history in this forlorn place, where the reverberations of the past still echo today. From the perimeters of Ani, I can see the fence running along the Akhurian River that marks the Turkish-Armenian border. The broken bridge that once lay across the river is a stark reminder that the two communities on both sides had been riven apart by conflict over the years.
Celil mentioned that the livelihoods of the impoverished people in both Armenia and eastern Turkey would improve if the border was opened. Unfortunately, this is a distant possibility today. As I stand atop the citadel in Ani overlooking the steppe plains beyond the Akhurian River, Armenia just seems so far away.
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