Stuck in 1915

How Turkey and Armenia blew their big chance at peace.


April 15, 2010
Source: Foreign Policy

By Thomas de Waal

Not many borders are closed in our globalized world, but the frontier between Armenia and Turkey is still a dead zone where the railroad stops. The closed border is a strange anomaly in the new Europe that stems from two old tragedies: the still unresolved conflict of the early 1990s between Armenia and Turkey's ally Azerbaijan, and the catastrophe of 1915 when the entire Armenian population of eastern Anatolia was deported or killed in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.

People on both sides of this closed border want it open. Last month I flew between the Armenian capital of Yerevan and Istanbul - the two countries do at least have an air connection. The standard look of the Armenian businessmen packing the plane was slightly menacing at first. They all had dark leather jackets and hair cut short to the scalp, concealing a cheerful friendliness toward Turks. The two men sitting next to me wanted to be able to send the carpets, doors, and windows they currently buy in Turkey, and dispatch to Armenia in a roundabout route via Georgia, directly home across an open border.

In Istanbul, the thoughtful Turkish academic Cengiz Aktar told me why he thinks that Turkey will be liberated if it faces up to the truth of what happened to its missing Armenians. Aktar initiated an Internet petition apologizing for the "Great Catastrophe" of 1915 (adopting the Armenians' own phrase for the tragedy) and expressing sympathy for "my Armenian brothers and sisters." More than 30,000 Turks have signed it - remarkable for a country whose schoolbooks were, until recently, saying that Armenians killed Turks in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and not the other way around. It is not an easy process, but the taboo on discussing the issue of what happened to the missing Armenians has now been lifted in Turkey.

For a little while it seemed as if the governments in Yerevan and Ankara were also defying their region's dark historical determinism. Last October, the Armenian and Turkish presidents, Serzh Sargsyan and Abdullah Gul, moved to sign two protocols on normalizing relations, pledging that, once the documents were ratified by their countries' parliaments, the closed border would open within two months. Six months on, insecurities and local politics are again winning the day, and the protocols are in trouble. Turkish leaders are postponing ratification of the agreements. An April 12 meeting between Sargsyan and Turkey's powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Washington on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit, was a last-ditch attempt to broker a rescue, but the initial omens from it are not good.

What has gone wrong? Ankara has gone cool on the process, saying it wants to see progress on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh - even though the conflict is not mentioned in the protocols. The Turks clearly did not expect the furious reaction the rapprochement would have with Azerbaijan, the losing side in the conflict over the disputed province in the early 1990s. One-seventh of Azerbaijan's de jure territory is still under Armenian control, and in 1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with its Turkic ally. Azerbaijan has been lobbying hard and effectively against the protocols, and its fears are understandable - it is worried that if the Armenia-Turkey border opens, a key lever of influence on the Armenians to make concessions over Nagorno-Karabakh will be lost.

Not many borders are closed in our globalized world, but the frontier between Armenia and Turkey is still a dead zone where the railroad stops. The closed border is a strange anomaly in the new Europe that stems from two old tragedies: the still unresolved conflict of the early 1990s between Armenia and Turkey's ally Azerbaijan, and the catastrophe of...