During an international summit in Erevan on 13th December 2013, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu defined “inhuman” the deportations and massacres of Armenians of 1915[1]. During his visit in the Armenian capital, Davutoğlu received a book with several testimonies of the survivors of the Great Crime (as the Armenians call the Armenian Genocide)[2]. We don’t know if he will read it, but this is not important: Davutoğlu’s historical statements are far more significant, because they greatly increased the hopes for a reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.

The Armenian Genocide is one of the main bones of contention between Turkey and Armenia, if not the main one. The roots of the controversy date back to the 16th century, when most of Armenia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. At that time, almost all of the Armenians belonged to an Oriental Orthodox church[3] (the Armenian Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome while keeping the Armenian rite, was established in the mid-18th century). The Sublime Porte awarded the Armenians freedom of religion and of self-government under a purposefully created Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, but relegated them, as well as the other non-Muslims, to a status of dhimmi – namely, non-Muslim populations deprived of some rights and subject to a higher tax burden in exchange of religious and self-governmental freedom.

The Ottomans’ relative tolerance was related to the actual aim of their conquests, which was not so much the spread of Islam, but rather the enlargement of the territories controlled by the Islamic countries (dār al-Islām). Furthermore, as they generally lacked a great administrative experience, the Ottoman Turks usually left in place pre-existing administrative practices. What the Ottomans demanded were the recognition of their domination and a higher fiscal burden on non-Muslims. Forced conversions to Islam were rare, although existent: the taxes paid by the dhimmis, after all, were an important source of incomes for the Ottoman state.

This led to a substantial crystallization of the religious communities. People believing to different Gods could live side-by-side, but usually conducted separate lives, and the Armenians were particularly resilient to assimilation thanks to their endogamy and their strong identity based on religion. Furthermore, in spite of their status of second-class citizens, some Armenians turned up to be particularly successful in business, trade and administration, in particular those from the prosperous community of Constantinople. One of them was Abraham Pasha (born Abraham Eramyan), a prominent Ottoman banker and diplomat and a close friend of Sultan Abdul-Aziz’s[4]. Nevertheless, since the middle 18th century, both the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the strengthening of the influence of the European powers led to a change – and, paradoxically, a worsening – in the condition of the Armenians.

Since 1839, a shrinking Ottoman Empire started a series of historic reforms leading to its final transformation from a multiethnic and multireligiose empire into a national state under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The first step were the Tanzimat reforms, which provided for a formal equality among the citizens of the empire regardless of religion, the abrogation of the millet system and the creation of a common Ottoman identity. Despite their impact could have been revolutionary  for the Ottoman society, these reforms did not lead to great changes, and many of them went unapplied because of heavy resistances in the state bureaucracy. Furthermore, the abrogation of the millet system led to a growth in the interreligious tensions, so far rather limited. Especially among Muslims, the Armenians became the target of heavy anti-Armenian feelings similar to the anti-Semitic ones of then-Central Europe. Eventually, the Russian conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh and the regions of Yerevan and Kars, all of them populated mainly by Armenians, favoured the spread of irredentist claims among the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Since the last decade of the 19th century, there were periodical clashes between Armenians and Muslims, and in 1915 the Armenians of the Lake Van, in nowadays south-eastern Turkey, stood up against the Ottoman ruler. They hoped that the advancing Russian troops would have liberated them after some days, but unfortunately they only triggered the well-known overreaction of the Ottoman troops. Starting from 24th April of that year, indeed, millions of Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks were deported from their homeland, and hundreds of thousands of them were killed during the deportations[5].

After the First World War, the First Republic of Armenia was established in the territories of the Russian Armenia ceded to the Sublime Porte after the 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and in some of the Armenian populated areas of the Ottoman Empire. The life of the Republic was nevertheless rather short. In 1920, most of its territories were reconquered by the Ottoman Empire, while in the rest the Bolsheviks settled up the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1921, the Treaty of Kars fixed the borders between Armenia – and in turn the Soviet Union – and the Turkish Provisional Government. The allotment to Turkey of the Mount Ararat, the Holy Mountain of the Armenians, and the ancient Armenian capital of Ani were two bitter pills for the Armenians, and another slap was the assignment of the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan with the status of an autonomous province two years later. Further than the usual “divide and rule”, this last decision was due to international politics considerations: the Soviet Union wanted to establish good relations with the fledgling Republic of Turkey, and awarding Karabakh to an administrative entity whose titular ethnicity was Turkic and particularly close to the Turks was all but void of significance.

In the spring of 1945, the USSR asked the restitution of the territories ceded to Turkey after the treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Kars. They came as one of the preconditions for the stipulation of a military agreement with the Soviets proposed by the then Turkish government, with the other being the acceptance of a Soviet military base on the Turkish Straits[6]. These requests, nevertheless, turned up to be a boomerang for the Soviet government. The Turkish government turned to the Western powers in search of help, and they in turn supported the Turkish position[7]. As a consequence, the USSR had to step off, and Stalin’s death led to an official relinquishment of any territorial claims[8]. In the meanwhile, the once flourishing Armenian community of Turkey was almost disappeared, and most of those who had escaped the massacres had fled to the Soviet Union and the West (mainly France and the United States), where they have established a strong and influential Armenian Diaspora. Many of those who remained, on the other hand, had assimilated themselves to the Turkish or Kurdish population, and somebody even took on the Islamic faith.

In 1991 Turkey was one of the first states to recognize Armenia’s independence[9]. The rebirth of the Armenian state, nevertheless, was followed not only by a reopening of old issues, but also by the birth of new ones. The main of the latter was undoubtedly the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. During the final phase of the Soviet Union, the growth of irredentist claims in the region led to a series of interethnic clashes between Azeri and Armenians throughout Azerbaijan, then hosting a strong Armenian minority also outside Karabakh. In 1992, when the Soviet Union was finally over, the clashes gave rise to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the control of the former Azerbaijani Autonomous Province. If Russia, after an initial support to Azerbaijan, turned to Armenia, Turkey supported its brother country since the same outbreak of the war. Further than supplying Azerbaijan’s army with weapons, Turkey closed its borders with Armenia, set up an embargo over Armenian goods, and even threatened the country with a military intervention in case Nagorno-Karabakh wouldn’t have been returned to Azerbaijan. Only Russia’s threat to intervene beside Armenia forced Turkey to calm down[10].

The Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994 with a substantial Armenian victory, which now controlled not only most of the disputed region, but also a buffer zone between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Azeri and Kurds living in Nagorno-Karabakh and the buffer zone were killed or forced to escape, and the same happened to the Armenians living in Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. A truce was reached by Armenia and Azerbaijan under the Bishkek Protocol, but it was repeatedly violated by both sides. The Turkish blockade, nevertheless, was not useless, because it greatly contrived to Armenia’s exhaustion after the war and still poses a great obstacle to its development[11]. The country, indeed, would have subsequently recovered thanks mainly to the support of Russia and the Diaspora.

During the 90’s, the relations between Turkey and Armenia remained rather tense. On the one hand, Armenia vehemently criticized the building of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline and the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway link. According to Yerevan, indeed, one of their main aims was to isolate Armenia[12]. It should be noted that it was namely the ongoing blockade of Armenia imposed by both Turkey and Azerbaijan to cause the elongation of these links through Georgia. Furthermore, up to now the Armenian government has never acknowledged officially the Treaty of Kars. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vardan Oskanyan has stated that his country accepts its current borders with Turkey, but the regions of Kars and Ardahan are still called “Western Armenia” in both the Declaration of Independence and the Armenian Constitution[13]. On the other hand, Turkey keeps a strong support to Azerbaijan over the Karabakh dispute, and continues to deny the Armenian Genocide officially. A further bone of contention between Armenia and Turkey is the Metsamor nuclear power plant issue. Situated 17 kilometres away from the Turkish-Armenian border, the plant was closed in 1988 and reopened six years later to increase the Armenian energy supply, which was quite scarce after the war. But the plant is obsolete, and the risk of a nuclear catastrophe which would involve not only Armenia, but also Turkey and Georgia, is unfortunately rather high[14].

The electoral success of Gül and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 was followed by a moderate thaw between Turkey and Armenia. The new government strived, and strives, both to improve the status of the ethnic and religious minorities of the country and to set up positive relations with its neighbours (“zero problems with neighbours”). There is also a certain neo-imperialism in this policy, and namely in the attempt to establish a Turkish sphere of influence in the territories which were once part of the Ottoman Empire, especially the Muslim ones (neo-Ottomanism). Both this Turkish neo-imperialism and the recognition of some rights to the ethnic and religious minorities of the country, as shown by the opening of a public television channel completely in Kurdish, can be considered a partial departure from the rigidly nationalism inherited by Atatürk. The country, nevertheless, has never abandoned its target to join the European Union, and however paradoxical it may sound, the moderately Islamist and neo-imperial Turkey of nowadays is under various aspects more European than the Kemalist one. Some of the main features of Kemalism, such as its authoritarianism and the extensive recourse to history alteration (a tendency, the latter, which actually has never been abandoned), could not be considered “European”, at least if we associate Europe with the West.

Like the other main minorities, also the Armenians have been enjoying an increase in their cultural and religious rights. Several Armenian churches and buildings, some of which more than a thousand year old, have been restored, sometimes after decades of oblivion. One of them is the 10th century Cathedral of the Holy Cross, situated on an island of the Lake Van, which since 2010 holds a Mass a year[15]. In the following year, the St Giragos Church in Diyarbakır, an important city not far away from the Syrian border, became the first Armenian church permanently open after the Genocide. In the future, part of the building will host an Armenian museum[16].

Also the public mood in Turkey about both Armenians and the Genocide issue seems to be changing. A demonstration about this come from the massive participation to the funerals of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian descent who was killed by an ultranationalist. More than a hundred thousand people took part in his funerals and protested against the infamous Article 301[17], according to which the journalist was condemned for having written about the Armenian Genocide some months before his death[18].

Hrant Dink’s sacrifice marked a turning point in the Turkish-Armenian relations. The Turkish governments still denies the existence of a plan to exterminate the Anatolian Armenians, and talking about an Armenian “genocide” in Turkey is still a taboo. The Turks, nevertheless, are growing more conscientious about the issue, and the 24th April, the starting date of the deportations of the Armenians in 1915, is now commemorated in the main Turkish cities[19]. The relations with Armenia have also partly melted. In 2008, the Turkish President Abdullah Gül became the first high-level Turkish politician to visit Armenia, the occasion being the football match between Turkey and Armenia for the qualifications for the 2010 World Cup. One year later, Ankara and Yerevan signed a protocol for the regularization of their relations. According to the protocol, Turkey renounced to bind the normalization of its relationships with its neighbour with the restitution of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, while Armenia, in turn, would have officially recognized the Treaty of Kars and agreed to the establishment of a joint Turkish-Armenian commission for the study of the Armenian Genocide issue[20].

The protocol, nevertheless, so far has remained a mere declaration of intents. In 2010, its ratification was blocked by the Armenian Parliament, after the Turkish government stated that it would not have ratified the agreement before the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute[21]. Turkish-Armenian relations further worsened in June 2013, when the General Procurer of Yerevan asked the restitution of the territories ceded to Turkey under the Treaty of Kars, of the Armenian churches situated in Turkey and some material compensations for the Genocide victims[22]. The desire of pacification, on the other hand, seems to be still rather strong, as shown by the recent Davutoğlu’s statements.

The advantages coming from a possible normalization would undoubtedly be greater for Armenia. Both the war with Azerbaijan, which actually has never really ended, and the ongoing Turkish blockade make Armenia a partially insulated country. The only open land links between Armenia and the outside world are those through Georgia and Iran, but the former’s potential is greatly limited by the closure of the borders between Russia and Georgia after the 2008 War, while the one and only road linking Armenia and Iran is rather impervious. The two countries have recently agreed to build a new railway line, but its construction is still to be subcontracted[23]. Furthermore, this railway will be less useful than a reopening of the borders with Turkey, because this would give the country an almost direct access to the Russian and European markets, while, at the same time, decrease Armenia’s heavy reliance on Russia. A normalization of the relations with Turkey would also lead to an improvement of the conditions of the about 100,000 Armenian illegal immigrants living in Turkey. Up to now, their presence in the thriving Turkey has been usually accepted, but their illegal status make them targets for political pressures. In 2010, for instance, the Turkish premier Erdoğan threatened to repatriate the illegal immigrants in case Armenia would have continued its campaign for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide[24]. In the following year, nevertheless, around 1,000 children of the illegal immigrants were allowed to study in the Armenian schools of Turkey[25]. Finally, the reconciliation would implicate a lift of the ban of the importations of Armenian goods in Turkey, with all its foreseeable consequences[26].

Nevertheless, also Turkey would greatly benefit from a reconciliation. The main ones involve international politics. Two of the main prerequisites posed by the European Union to Turkey for the accession to the European Union are indeed the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the establishment of regular relations with Armenia. Furthermore, the re-establishment of Turkish-Armenian relations would greatly contrive to stabilize the Caucasus: it should not be surprising if the 2008 Russian-Georgian War were somehow tantamount for the intensification of the talks between Turkey and Armenia. The economic benefits, on the other hand, should not be underestimated. They concern mainly the Eastern regions, closer to the Armenian border and rather excluded from the economic boom of the latest years. The border reopening is a potential opportunity for them: the former major of Kars Naif Alibeyoğlu, for instance, stated in an interview for The Economist that it would stimulate the growth of tourism, especially the Armenian Diaspora one, towards the ruins of Ani, which are not far away from Kars. The touristic development would mean not only millions of dollars of new incomes for Kars, but also, as stated by Alibeyoğlu, an occasion for the Armenian tourists “to meet Turks and realise they are not so evil as they imagined”[27]. And, of course, the other way round.

So, there is plenty of reasons to support reconciliation, but this process is actually hindered by a number of issues with a strong emotional meaning. For both Turks and Armenians, the other is often an enemy, and sometimes “the” enemy. Most Armenians heavily grudge the Genocide and the Turkish official position around it, and many criticize even those who visit Turkey for a simple trip[28]. Turkish nationalists, on the other hand, respond to the Armenian accuses of genocide pointing the finger to the ethnic cleansing of Karabakh Azeri and calling it “genocide”[29]. Furthermore, if Turkey improved its relations with Armenia, it would automatically worsen those with Azerbaijan, which greatly relies on Turkey to put pressure on its archenemy. For many Turks, the Azeri are brothers for both ethnic (they are both Oghuz Turkic peoples, and their languages are mutually intelligible) and religious reasons (Turks and Azeri are both Muslims, although the former are predominantly Sunnite and the latter mainly Shiite), and risking to compromise their special relationship with Azerbaijan to make peace with Armenia would be rather unconceivable.

The confrontation between Turkey and Armenia remembers an attrition war, and making any forecast about the winner is very difficult. The main aces in the hole of Turkey are now a booming economy, a certain support from the Islamic countries, some of which, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, don’t even have official relations with Armenia, and the Western strategic interests (business opportunities, pipeline routes and containment of both Russia and radical Islam). Armenia, on the other hand, can rely on its strong alliance with Russia, its influential Diaspora and the solidarity of many Western intellectuals. The evolution of the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus, the Near and Middle East and the Former Soviet Union states will probably be crucial in defining winners and losers.


[3] The Oriental Orthodox churches (not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox ones) are those churches recognizing only the first three ecumenical councils. They are namely the Assyrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Coptic Churches of Egypt and Ethiopia.

[5] D. Hiro, Inside Central Asia, Overlook Duckworth, New York/London 2011, p. 70.

[11] S.P. Huntington, Lo Scontro delle Civiltà e il Nuovo Ordine Mondiale, Garzanti, Milan 2000, p. 444.

[17] The Article 301 is an article of the Turkish penal code providing for up to three years in prison for anyone publicly denigrating Turkishness, the Republic of Turkey and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Because of this article, several prominent personalities who publicly mentioned the Armenian Genocide have been charged of “insulting Turkishness”: further than Hrant Dink, some of them are the writer Elif Şafak and the Nobel laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk. In 2008, one year after Dink’s murder, the article was reformed: the controversial formula “insulting Turkishness” was replaced with the more moderate “insulting the Turkish nation”, the penalty aggravation for the Turkish citizens who denigrate their country abroad was removed and any case needs now the approval of the Ministry of Justice before proceeding.

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