Since independence, Armenia’s presidents and ministers of foreign affairs have repeatedly stated that the country is prepared, without preconditions, to normalise relations and open the borders with Turkey. Within Armenia, Turkey has always been seen as the cause of current tensions with special focus on its support of Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, as long as normalisation was not seen as a realistic option, the issue was hardly ever discussed. Once in a while, official reports would mention that Turkey was unfairly blocking land communication to Armenia, yet public attitudes to Turkey were mostly determined by history, not the present. To date, there is no research to sustain this view but the impression, that the past of Armenian-Turkish relations has been much more frequently discussed than their present state, is shared by many.
Stuck in the past ?
The situation only began to change after the election of Armenia’s third president, Serzh Sargsyan. Yet it was not Sargsyan who initiated the process: Rapprochement had been made possible by many years of latent changes in Turkey, the entire region, as well as in Europe and in the U.S.
The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia brought home to Armenians the vulnerability of their situation. The bombing of a single bridge in Georgia caused a panic in Armenia. Afraid of fuel shortages people began hoarding petrol and petrol stations had to ration sales. This panic over petrol coincided with a thawing of bilateral relations: The Turkish president Gül visited Armenia to attend a football match in Yerevan.
The 2008 war in Georgia
Immediately after the match, Armenians began to discuss the pros and cons of opening the border between the two countries. Ever since, Armenian-Turkish normalisation has been an omnipresent issue in the media and in political circles. The prospect has many supporters but some opponents, too. Some economists fear that opening the borders may leave Armenian producers vulnerable to competition from Turkey. Most experts, though, believe that the economic benefits will outweigh the damage.
Some hardliners within Armenia insist that before normalisation Turkey would have to recognise its responsibility for the genocide of Armenians perpetrated towards the end of the Ottoman Empire. However, among politicians such views are marginal. The ruling coalition is generally sympathetic towards an opening of the borders - with the exception of the Dashnaktsutyun Party which is traditionally very sceptical towards Turkey. Yet even the Dashnaktsutyun Party has remained in the coalition and raises its protests from within the establishment. The opposition both within and outside parliament, although in many respects very critical of the government, supports normalisation with Turkey.
Wide-ranging support for normalisation
Within the Armenian political elites there is little to no opposition to rapprochement. This makes sense: Many windows in Yerevan offer a good view of Turkey, and most people realise that it is neither normal nor desirable to have two out of four land borders sealed. Geographically, Armenia’s way to Europe is via Turkey, a fact most politicians realise.
A re-opening of the border with Turkey would not make existing historical and mental burdens disappear. Free travel and direct contact may even aggravate some problems. Yet, it is crucial that the issue be depoliticised - only then will it be possible to lay to rest historical legacies and memories and pave the way towards normalisation and co-operation between the two nations.