Turkey’s Border with Armenia: Obstacle and Chance for Turkish Politics

in Studies on Iran and The Caucasus
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The strained relations between Turkey and Armenia are dominated by two issues: firstly, the events of 1915 which are declared as genocide by Armenia while Turkey rejects that term; and secondly, the questions around the Armenia-supported declaration of independence of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, a country with which Turkey feels the bonds of brotherhood, thus demanding the restitution of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Other topics such as the course of the border, last determined in the Treaty of Moscow and Kars in 1921, irritate their relations further as Turkey sometimes suspects that Armenia might raise claims to those parts of Turkish territory that were historically inhabited largely by Armenians.

With the signing of two protocols, or roadmap, in October 2009, however, hopes were high that Armenia and Turkey would finally embark on the road to rapprochement and mutual understanding. Those hopes were soon deceived, though, as pressure on both governments finally led to a de facto abandonment of the protocols. A resumption of the process of rapprochement receded into the distance again. Still, many voices demanded a political solution to the pressing issues—although perceiving politics in that regard generally as not being overly successful, but rather caught between various pressures from the outside.

To understand the relations between the two nations and to identify the chances of a rapprochement, an analysis of the perception of the common border can be helpful, as in the concept of borders two important dimensions, separation and contact, are inherent. The interplay between these two dimensions and the possible emphasis of one of them inform us not only about the different approaches to the Turkish-Armenian border but can suggest possible paths for future relations. Even if today the border appears to be a clear separating line between the Turkish and the Armenian populations of the region, the complex relations between the two nations cannot be understood by consulting simple dichotomies as there exists a deeper layer of shared history and collective memory, including long and fruitful periods of coexistence of the two peoples—not only in today’s border zone but throughout large parts of the Ottoman Empire.

When analysing today’s perspective of the Turkish political establishment and of the ideologically rigid parts of society in general, the Turkish-Armenian border is often perceived as monolithic or hard, as a border of separation, particularly if one of the issues of conflict is touched upon. On the other hand, when looking at the non-official, less rigid views, conveyed by the sometimes influential columnists of newspapers, the border is at times rather perceived as porous, soft and a border of contact. If both, politics and the influential parts of society, would encourage a border of contact, the border population could extend its identity beyond the borderline, and possibly develop an enriched identity distinct from the common national Turkish identity. This would contain the chance to (re-)create a common cultural basis with the Armenian side of the border, which might eventually even have an effect on the country as a whole. One sign of this are the projects and activities between the two countries—although few in number—which are generally perceived in a positive manner.

It remains to clarify to what extent those projects and the constructive and soft approach towards the border can influence the political establishment of Turkey in terms of a resumption of the efforts concerning the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.

Studies on Iran and The Caucasus

In Honour of Garnik Asatrian

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