Armenia-Turkey: same old or new opportunities? Interview with Thomas de Waal
Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe Thomas de Waal comments for JAMnews on Armenia-Turkey relations after the Second Karabakh War.
JAMnews: Building new transport corridors linking Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia – what are the ups and downs?
Thomas de Waal: In general, any kind of new economic connectivity is positive. Anything that connects Nakhichevan with the rest of Azerbaijan, which have been separated geographically and economically for 30 years, is obviously positive. It opens up new economic connections, hopefully it will increase prosperity. That would be good for small business people that we get back to regional connectivity.
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There are questions, of course. Economic connectivity cannot proceed without any kind of political agreement. If there is no political trust between Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey – then, for example, people will throw stones, will stand beside the road and throw stones on tracks or trains which are passing on these new transport routes. Recently, I’ve heard of incidents of stone throwing in Karabakh, which is to remind people how the things started in 1988 with Armenians and Azerbaijanis throwing stones on vehicles on the roads.
Unless there is some political trust, then this economic connectivity cannot proceed. Also, if this economic connectivity leaves out Nagorno Karabakh itself, the Armenians there, if the new road across Meghri is seen not to benefit Armenians, then, again, it will be to no avail.
Economic connectivity is good but it needs to have the good will and contribution of everyone to work effectively.
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JAMnews: How would the new transit opportunities affect the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway?
Thomas de Waal: Of course, this will be competition for the Tbilisi-Baku-Kars railway. I do expect eventually that there will be a new rail connection that will go Baku-Khoradiz-Meghri-Nakhichevan-Yerevan-Kars, for example. It is a natural connection with also a route down south to Iran, along the river and there are no mountains there to cross. It’s the natural route that was there 30 years ago.
As for competition to the Georgian route, it’s inevitable. But Georgia has a few years to bear in mind what is going to happen with the reopening of these routes. Georgia has over the years a bit taken for granted that it is the only a natural transit route across the Caucasus. Georgia will have to work a bit hard on this, for example, on the Anaklia port project [in Western Georgia]. It is a kind of a wake up call for Georgia to improve its infrastructure, its customs and so on.
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JAMnews: Has Turkey’s presence in the Caucasus been strengthening? Are there any reasons Armenia should feel threatened?
Thomas de Waal: I can understand Armenia’s perceptions, given Turkey’s active role in the recent war, the use of Turkish drones, which was obviously decisive in the Azerbaijani victory and the Armenian defeat; the president Erdogan’s participation in the Victory Parade on December the 10th in Baku. And he even mentioned Enver Pasha, one of the three leaders who destroyed million Ottoman Armenians in 1915.
All of these factors have obviously increased the perception of threat in Armenia towards Turkey, and I can understand that. But I don’t personally think there is a real threat to the Republic of Armenia from Turkey. I think, on the level of rhetoric, we can see some kind of increase in Turkish interest in the Caucasus. But I still don’t believe that the Caucasus is a priority area of interests for Turkey or for the president Erdogan.
During the conflict, he made a lot of statements about how he wanted to dissolve the Minsk Group; how he wanted Turkey to be one of the mediators. There was talk of a joint peacekeeping force. None of that happened. We’ve ended up with the Russian peacekeeping force and 50 symbolic Turkish monitors outside, a long distance from the Karabakh Armenians.
I don’t believe there is a serious new regional strategy from Turkey towards Armenia and Caucasus. I think the Middle East, Cyprus and other areas are far more important to Mr Erdogan. It is more of a symbolic gesture towards his big ally Azerbaijan. We are also seeing some contrary suggestions from Turkish officials about opening the border with Armenia.
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JAMnews: Turkish economic expansion in Armenia – how real is the prospect?
Thomas de Waal: Turkish business is quite strong, Turkish products were until last year very popular in Armenia, coming through Georgia. It all depends on the willingness of Armenians to consume, to buy the goods. It depends on the willingness of Armenian landlords to lend their properties to Turkish companies.
There can be no big economic intervention in Armenia without the consent and will of the Armenians, and I don’t think that is going to happen at the moment. In general, it would be economically beneficial for Armenia for the border to open. Obviously, more Turkish goods will be coming in, and Turkish businesses. It is also a new land route to the West for Armenia. If the road is open, thеn they don’t have to go North to the Black Sea, to Batumi. Armenian goods could go directly across Turkey towards Europe.
And also, Yerevan is a much bigger regional centre than any of the Eastern Turkish cities. Few years ago, I heard one of the ambassadors in Yerevan saying to me that some big companies have been interested to see if they could base themselves in Yerevan. And they decided – not, because the Armenian market was too small. But they said, if that western company could also serve Eastern Turkey, then suddenly the market would be much bigger.
Yerevan would be more attractive investment centre for big international companies, if they could serve not just Armenia but Eastern Turkey.
I think, economically, there is a lot to be said for opening of the border and cooperation. But obviously I am not naive and I know there are psychological problems, historical and political problems between Turkey and Armenia. That is why I am not talking about the near future, but I am talking about five-ten years time. I think it could be very positive, if the political climate is improved.
On the massacre of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, recognised by many countries as the Armenian Genocide
Thomas de Waal: It’s a very important question that requires a long answer. I wrote a whole book entitled The Great Catastrophe, which very much dealt with this issue.
First of all, it’s the important thing to say that I call it the Armenian Genocide. It happened in 1915, there were 2 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and then a few years later, there were almost none. They were either destroyed, killed, forcibly isolated or deported. They went to the Middle East and became the Armenian diaspora in places like United States.
As a result of that active mass killing during the First World War, it was the worst atrocity of the First World War against civilians. I think this is the first thing to say. It happened, and one can read dozens of history books and memoirs, and journalistic accounts.
At the time, it was no secret. The denial really only happens because there was a long silence about it, both among the Armenians themselves and in Turkey. It was kind of forgotten and then remembered in the 1950-60s, and than denied in Turkey during that period. But there was no doubts about it at the time.
I think the important thing is to say that there were two kind of connected but parallel issues here.
One is what happened to the Ottoman Armenians, that they were destroyed, murdered and deported. There is a question of justice for that.
And another is the debate about the word ‘genocide,’ which was invented 30 years after the killing of the Armenians. It was invented in the shadow of the Holocaust. I understand why it is important for Armenians to use the word ‘genocide.’ But it is a shame that is has become the only question. When we talk about the Holocaust, there is not a focus on the legal, technical word genocide, when it comes to the Holocaust.
In the Armenian case, unfortunately, it is this that one legal technical word genocide has taken up all the debate. Personally, I would call it the Armenian genocide, but I’d hope for bigger debate about justice, about history, about memory, about reconciliation, all those things. And I think the genocide debate has crowded out those discussions.
It is quite possible that the US government will use the word genocide, and I think they probably should. But that should not be the end of the story, that should be the beginning of wider discussion about history, about what happened in the First World War. Also what happened to the other people during that period. Many Turks, Kurds and Azerbaijanis also suffered during that period.
I would like to see a broader discussion. And I would also hope that people who start to use the word genocide officially for the first time, understand there could be some negative replications in Turkey, particularly for the small Armenian community in Istanbul, possibly even some negative replications for the Armenian monuments in Turkey all over. I hope that won’t happen.
It is important to remember that the coalition partner of the current government in Turkey is the very nationalist MHP (Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party).
It would be normal if the US government calls this genocide, almost everyone does around the world. But they would be naive to expect that this would not have some kind of impact.
I hope it could be part of a bigger discussion about justice and memory for the Armenians and reconciliation with Turks rather than just a kind of one small political gesture on behalf of the US government.
It can be maybe natural that Azerbaijan and Turkey would want somehow to retaliate to such a move in the US by showing flags on the Mount of Ararat, which could be seen from Yerevan.
I think we can expect this kind of war symbols unfortunately to occur. I think this is the big shadow still overhanging the Armenians and also the Turks and the whole region really. The fact that this story of the destruction of almost all the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 was never really talked about properly at the time, there was no justice for it.
I think it needs to be tackled and maybe a big statement from US government would cause some short term problems, but could be helpful maybe in the longer term.
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JAMnews: Armenia and Turkey accuse each other of refusing to open up the archives; how big is the problem?
Thomas de Waal: The situation is a bit different on each side. First of all I think we know an enormous amount, I think we know 95% of the story of what happened. Armenian church archives have been opened, there are lots of Turkish documents, there are masses of diplomatic documents from US and British diplomats and aid workers and journalists and thousands and thousands of memoirs and oral history.
But I think there is one specific issue on the Armenian side which is the Watertown [the Boston suburb, home to many descendants of Armenian survivors] archives. In fact I’ve been in the very building, where those archives are found. There in a basement full of the archives of the Dashnaktsutyun government of the first Republic of Armenia from 1918-1920.
Those archives are in the basement and basically very few people have access to them, and those archives undoubtedly have information. Not so much actually about the Turks but about the mistreatment of the Azerbaijani community, Shia community in the first republic, in 1919-1920. Many of them were thrown up from villages in Armenia, and some of them were killed to make “eye for eye” for Ottoman Armenians.
So those are the dark secrets I guess. Not so much about 1915, but about the period 1919-1920 that is for sure. And maybe there is some other, lots of other interesting information as well, we just don’t know.
On the Turkish side, talking to historians, my impression is there was lots of circled spring cleaning of the Ottoman archives and lots of important documents from the Ottoman archives were simply destroyed maybe in the 1970-1980s. It would be good to have those archives opened up. You have to read the Ottoman language, Ottoman script, which is very difficult. So maybe there is some secrets there but I don’t think we should hope too much for those archives.
JAMnews: How have Russia-Turkey relations changed since the Second Karabakh War? How might the escalation in Eastern Ukraine echo in the South Caucasus?
Thomas de Waal: Obviously it would be very negative if there was a big military escalation in Donbass [Russia’s involvement in the war in the Eastern Ukraine]. There has already been a small one. But I don’t think it would have a big impact on the Caucasus.
I think President Erdogan has quite a good mutual understanding with President Putin. The two men, they talk, they disagree on a lot of issues, but they understand each other, they think in quite a similar fashion. They are both quite cynical real politic politicians and I don’t believe that President Erdogan really cares about Ukraine.
He hasn’t gained much sympathy for Crimean talk. Many people expected him to show much more sympathy for them. So I don’t believe that he is going to make a big issue of a new escalation in Ukraine. I don’t believe the Armenians want to get involved. They still have diplomatic relations with Ukrainians.