Closed borders, open minds?

Though civil society has played a key role in promoting dialogue between non-state actors in Turkey and Armenia, the border issue makes things very difficult.

Suggested Reading

Conflict Background


By Tugce Ercetin

The Caucasus region and its conflicts, cooperation, violence, peace and other dynamics are very important for international relations. The relationship between Armenia and Turkey has become a dead weight; the countries have no diplomatic or political relations and a closed border. Both have challenged each other in order to try to at least normalise their relations, but the process has so far remained unsuccessful at the state level. Though civil society has played a key role in promoting dialogue between non-state actors in Turkey and Armenia, the border issue makes things very difficult.

The relationship between Turkey and Armenia is in deadlock because the countries have competing demands. For instance, the official stance of the Republic of Armenia is that a genocide took place in 1915, and that this genocide should be internationally recognized. On the other hand, Turkey denies that genocide occurred. In 1915, 800 Armenian community leaders were executed and between 1915 and 1923, 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of deportation.

In 1991, Turkey recognised the independence of Azerbaijan, a country which has a difficult relationship with Armenia because of Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem began in 1988; Armenia says that this region belongs to Armenia and that there is a large Armenian population there. War broke out shortly after independence and during the conflict, over 200,000 ethnic Armenians were deported from Azerbaijan, and 200,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from Armenia. Retaliation and violence ensued from both sides.

At the same time, Turkey applied a trade embargo against Armenia in 1993, seen by the international community as a result of Turkey’s relationship with Azerbaijan. Their close relationship caused tension with Armenia, and “The unresolved Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh still risks undermining full adoption and implementation of the potential package deal between Turkey and Armenia on recognition.” The problem increases political conflict and distrust. The most important problem is the “enemy image” Turkey and Armenia have of each other, with all parties having a tendency to demonise the other side. ‘”Our side” is righteous and justified in doing what it is doing, whereas “the other side” is inherently aggressive and acts the way it does because “it has always been like that”.

However, the unsettled relationship between both countries has led to the emergence of various civil society dialogue and peace organisations. These channels create peaceful milieu instead of mistrust and misperception. Track two diplomacy has become influential, with reconciliation commissions, think tanks focusing on regional security, economic cooperation and business partnerships all working together. During the last decade, the significance of civil society has become much more visible, integration with the west has been consolidated and the environment has allowed for the development of new initiatives, including the use of EU funds and liberal transformation.

The main dialogue efforts were launched with the project “Support to Turkey-Armenia Rapprochement”, which aimed to hold policy and media discussions with the participation of media figures, opinion makers and former officials. Workshops, conferences and projects were organised to generate personal interaction between different actors in society. Putting aside stereotypes, beliefs, values and perceptions, they used dialogue to cross otherwise closed borders. Grassroots diplomacy can be an influential instrument for building peace. Their projects demonstrated tolerance, respect, interaction and cooperation, bringing participants together and organising exhibitions, music festivals and student exchanges which can be more powerful for a crucial sector of society: young people, those who will be columnists, politicians, teachers and so on in the future. They constructed new, more positive images instead of the different issues and parties involved.

For peace, the sides began to learn to work together by integrating at individual and civil society level. They discussed their relations, the border issue and how to build cooperation and respect. Oral history kept the human dimension in discussion. This method enriches historical perspectives, perceptions and beliefs, and provides a critical perspective for historical knowledge. When they share their common pain on the same platform, different parties can understand the “other”. Civil society leads to friendship, because it allows people to know others, to live with them. And living together is significant, because there is an Armenian community in Turkey and, because of the historical experience, they can face hate speech and discrimination. In domestic and foreign policy, the situation of relations remains very crucial. The only way for lasting peace and a borderless region is real integration, with these small but effective steps of mobility projects and putting participants at the core of activities leading to new values and a new understandings.

To know each other, civil society has aimed different communication methods at knotty historical discussions, many succeeding with an often powerful realisation of mutual respect, tolerance and benevolence; after their meetings, journalists reported that “sides broke into tears when they were leaving.”

“During our communication and interaction, each of us has so-called “culture studies” which is important for all of us, but we do not talk too much about it, usually only in silent observations. During our communication, however, we discovered much about each other’s culture and the phrase “we also have it” became the most common phrase among us, and we took for granted that if we said: “We have this,” our Turkish friends would say in turn: “We also have it” or vice versa. Recently a funny incident occurred: we were tasting guhta (biscuits), and our Turkish friends said: “This is really tasty,” an Armenian friend asks: “Don’t you have ‘guhta’?,” the Turkish one responds: “No” and the Armenian shouts with hands up: “Yeah! Finally! ‘Guhta’ is only ours… I can now say for sure that ‘guhta’ is Armenian.”

Turkish-Armenian relations remain in deadlock at the state level, but this does not mean that both countries cannot engage in their rapprochement. Civil society experience has proved their willingess to be part of confidence building.

Tugce Ercetin has both a Bachelor’s and Masters degree in international relations, and is looking to work within academia.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.



6 Responses


    Please allow me to express my strong opposition to the ill-informed, incomplete, flawed, and naïve presentation of the Karabagh problem and Turkish-Armenian history above. It distorts and disregards many important facts about the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and thus insults millions of Azerbaijanis and Turks.

    The facts are clear: In 1991, Armenia has invaded neighboring Azerbaijan using a claim of self-determination for the Armenian minority in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In the ensuing warfare, 30,000 were killed and Armenia occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts, altogether comprising one fifth of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized sovereignty. Over 800,000 ethnic Azeris forcibly expelled by the Armenian forces remain in refugee settlements. After several U.N. Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, calling for cessation of the Armenian occupation and return home the of the Azeri refugees. Instead of heeding these international demands, Armenia established an illegal mono-ethnic “NKR” regime on the occupied territories, which neither the United States nor any other country, not even Armenia, recognizes.

    Every year on 26th of February, Azerbaijanis solemnly commemorate the anniversary of the largest mass killing of civilians in Europe since World War II. On that night in 1992, during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenian forces supported by Russia’s 366th infantry regiment attacked the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly and massacred its fleeing residents. According to Newsweek, “many were killed at close range while trying to flee; some had their faces mutilated, others were scalped.” 613 civilians, including 106 women and 63 children, were tortured to death, hundreds more went missing. More than 1,000 people received permanent health damage, and 1,275 people were taken hostage. More than 150 children lost one or both of their parents.

    Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Associated Press and many other sources attested the fact that the Armenian forces carried out the massacre. Armenian field commander, Monte Melkonyan, gave a shocking witness account of the Khojaly “killing fields” in his diary, rebuking fellow Armenian fighters for the war crime. Finally, Armenia’s incumbent president, Serzh Sargsyan, admitted in an interview that his forces acted in revenge to “break the stereotype” of Azerbaijanis. Yet, the official Armenia and the Armenian-American lobby deny these facts; instead they push a myth that Azerbaijanis massacred their own citizens. When dealing with Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, one must pay respect to the recognition of its largest atrocity if healing and reconciliation are really the motives. In the recent years, the legislatures in Massachusetts, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Florida and Connecticut recognized the Khojaly Massacre.

    On the Turkish-Armenian relations, again Armenians are the ones who are still fighting a 100 year old war. Turks forgave and forgot Armenian terrorism (1862-1922 and then again 1973-present,) Armenian revolts (1882-1920,) and Armenian treason (1877, 1894, 1896, 1909, 1914-1922.) Turks moved on with hope and renewal to forge a new nation out of the remnants of a collapsed empire, create a democracy based on rule of law, and a free market system boasting the 16th strongest economy. Armenians, on the other hand, chose to stay stuck in 1915, cultivating hate and vengeance, and created a land-locked, poverty-stricken, corrupt and violent country whose citizens are abandoning it at alarming rates. These are the plain facts.
    Armenians think they have the backing of Western countries and can exert political pressure on Turks and Azerbaijanis to force them to accept the status-quo. They are sadly mistaken, as they were back in 1914 when they chose to backstab their own country and take up arms against their own government in the hopes of creating Greater Armenia–which if they succeeded would be the first apartheid of 20th Century where a tiny Armenian minority would try to rule over a massive Muslim majority (making a mockery of Wilson’s 14 Principles.)

    Peace and prosperity can only come from facing history honestly, not making waves with crude public relation stunts like the article above.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons