Talking Points: Turkish ‘Political Earthquake’ Leaves Armenia’s Skepticism Unshaken

In “Talking Points,” World Press Review invites readers to respond in a sustained fashion to our coverage. When, in the January 2003 issue of World Press Review, we presented international reaction to the elections in Turkey. Tigran Martirosyan, Director of Programs at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., responded. We invite other readers to respond to Martirosvan or to any of our other coverage by sending submissions to The responses printed here do not reflect the opinions of World Press Review, its editors, or the Stanley Foundation.

The triumph of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Nov. 3 parliamentary elections in Turkey has been characterized as a “political earthquake.” Indeed, the Islamic-leaning AKP has achieved a decisive and unparalleled victory, gaining a majority in the Parliament sufficient to form a one-party government. But will the “political earthquake” shake up long-standing Turkish policies toward Armenia, the only neighboring country with which Turkey has no official relations?

Although the AKP has marketed itself as a religiously moderate, conservative party, it enjoys the protection of the Turkish military, a traditionally hawkish voice on foreign policy. This dual profile suggests that the AKP will have to balance a complex set of policy priorities. On the one hand, the party will pursue membership in the European Union, seek to restructure the economy, ease the state-imposed restrictions on Islam while “keeping religion inside the mosques,” and conduct a more balanced policy toward the Middle East. On the other, the AKP may face resistance if it attempts to change Turkish policies on delicate issues, including relations with neighboring Armenia.

In the south Caucasus, where Turkey is geostrategically positioned to hold the balance of power along with other interested states, Ankara’s reluctance to normalize relations with Armenia, magnified by the imposition of an economic blockade, has created an imbalance that jeopardizes regional security. The existing situation has left Armenia vulnerable to external pressure, created a deep sense of insecurity, and produced sensitive expectations about involvement of outside players, NATO among them. Armenia is consequently preoccupied with security concerns related to Turkey, as well as to Azerbaijan, with whom Armenia has an unresolved ethnic conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite its historical resentment toward Turkey, which stems from the genocide of ethnic Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, and recent disagreement over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict in which Turkey backed Azerbaijan, Armenia has tried to engage Turkey in search of regional stability. To date, Ankara has rejected such overtures, preferring to place its ethnic affinities with the Azerbaijanis above the potential economic and security interests Turkey could reap from a closer relationship with Armenia. While a direct dialogue between the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia initiated earlier this year addressed problems in bilateral relations, including the settlement of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, it produced no tangible results.

Turkish Islamists have traditionally been considered less aggressive on Armenian issues than their nationalist secular counterparts. However, given the AKP’s style, political preferences, and support base, the party is closer to Turkey’s traditional center-right and nationalist parties than to its Islamist predecessors. Although newly appointed Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Yakis Yashar declared that the AKP would stand for the improvement of Turkey’s relations and show initiative in this regard, many Armenian policymakers are skeptical about such a possibility.

What are the grounds for Armenia’s skepticism? Before the election, former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit alluded that if his party won, his government would have considered opening of the borders with Armenia. Ecevit’s party lost. The AKP, which won, has pledged to continue supporting the Azerbaijani position in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This has left Armenian policymakers suspicious about any positive change in Ankara’s policy towards Armenia. Finally, the AKP’s desire for Turkey to play a leadership role in the Muslim world is also worrying some Armenian politicians who are concerned that these goals may reflect wider regional ambitions.

Armenia, however, considers normalized relations with Turkey as inevitable because of the important role that Turkey is apt to play in the security equation of the south Caucasus. If during the last 11 years Turkey and Armenia had neighborly relations, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could have been pushed closer to settlement. Turkey’s unyielding policies on its relations with Armenia have driven the country to a dead end, and the search for a solution has become a pressing problem for Ankara. Having made its offer, Armenia will continue to wait. Whether the new Turkish government will eventually have the political courage to respond remains to be seen.

Tigran Martirosyan is director of programs at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy research center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. Martirosyan is a former senior Armenian diplomat.