It’s nice to report something positive for a change. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met in Prague on Thursday — possibly opening up a path to ending one of the modern world’s most intractable conflicts.
We aren’t quite there yet, though.
Though neighbors, Turkey and Armenian have been separated for nearly a century by the Cold War and the weight of the past — the mass killing of Armenians in Anatolia in 1915 that historians view as the first genocide of the 20th century. A Western-brokered attempt at reconciliation more than a decade ago failed, and the border between the two nations has remained sealed for decades. The two neighbors have virtually no relationship — leaving them sharing one of the last remaining padlocked borders of Europe.
To make reconciliation even harder, in 2020 a short but devastating war between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan resulted in thousands of casualties on both sides — with many Armenians blaming Turkey for its military support of Azerbaijan. The landlocked Armenia, with its old Soviet weapons and a small population of nearly 3 million, is no longer a match for oil-rich Azerbaijan, whose powerful friends include Turkey and Israel. During the 2020 war, the Armenians lost several thousand men and much of the Azeri territory they had occupied in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The cease-fire between the two countries remains fragile, and a border flare-up last month resulted in a death toll of more than 200.
All this should only increase our respect for Pashinyan’s willingness to shake Erdogan’s hand. Pashinyan understands that for Armenia to survive, it needs to have peace with its neighbors — and that it can’t rely solely on Russia, as it has for many years, to come to its aid in times of trouble. Since his rise to the top after a revolution against the pro-Russian elites in 2018, Pashinyan has consistently been messaging his desire to normalize relations with Turkey with no preconditions — shorthand for saying that Yerevan, making a clear break with past Armenian governments, was not seeking Ankara’s recognition of the 1915 genocide as a prerequisite for establishing relations.
The Armenian leader is being a realist here. Three generations of Turks have learned a warped version of the 1915 genocide that denies any official Turkish responsibility, and the country’s approach to the issue is unlikely to change. To be clear, Erdogan’s decision to meet with the Armenian leader has more to do with Ankara’s desire for regional influence than an urge to face Turkey’s past. But if there is a better climate between the two countries, historians and scholars in Turkey and elsewhere who think otherwise can be free to express their views — as was the case a decade ago, when Turkey was freer. If there is normalization, Turks and Armenians can revive acquaintance with each other through trade and travel — and discover how similar they are.
Restoring relations between Turkey and Armenia is also the key to stability in the Caucasus — and potentially undermine Russia’s supremacy in the region as the only power-broker. Reestablishing ancient trade routes could give an economic boost to Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the poor regions of eastern Turkey. We know from Russia’s war on Ukraine that economic interdependence does not always prevent aggression — but it can help lift people out of poverty. That would be significant for a region struggling with internal rivalries and Russian influence.
More important, a real reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia might help reduce tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan and invigorate the painfully slow peace negotiations between the two. Erdogan should make this a priority. There is no doubt that Turkey is party to the conflict here. With ethnic ties and the slogan “One nation, two states”, Ankara is firmly on the Azeri side; Turkey supported Baku in the recent 2020 war. But the war in Ukraine has convinced Turks that regional peace can no longer be taken for granted — and that it makes sense to push back (gingerly) against Russian influence on their eastern flank.
Erdogan should push for peace. He has been keen to reposition himself as a skillful negotiator who can secure tough deals, such as the recent grain agreement or the prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. (Turkey played an important role in both.) If Turkey can use its influence over Azerbaijan to advance peace talks and secure the release of remaining Armenian prisoners of war held captive by Baku, the result could be a huge step forward.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be happy with Thursday’s meeting. Historically, Russia has used ethnic tensions and internal rivalries among post-Soviet states to increase its power in the far corners of its former empire. The Caucasus has long been Russia’s backyard. But countries in the region, though understanding the importance of good relations with Moscow, do not want to be mere peons in Russia’s sphere of influence or peg their future solely to Putin.
Erdogan and Pashinyan must recognize the symbolism of the moment — but also the strategic importance of this handshake for their nations. They must forge ahead and open the border between the two countries, allowing others to build cultural bridges. Over the long run, that could turn out be an important move in the global chess game on Europe’s borders.
Asli Aydintasbas is a former journalist from Turkey and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.