Noyan Soyak: Reconciliation would come after the normalization on Turkish-Armenian talks
In this episode of Turkey Uncut, Noyan Soyak, the Vice-Chair of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council and a businessman, sits down with Jared Conrad-Bradshaw to discuss the ongoing Turkish-Armenian bilateral talks in Vienna, how the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war changed Turkish-Armenian relations, and how other players — from Russia to the West to the Armenian Diaspora — shape the possibility of Turkish-Armenian normalization.
I don’t know if you want to call it the “normalization” process or the “reconciliation” process, but this process between Turkey and Armenia has started several times before, most notably during the “football diplomacy” period about a decade ago. All these past attempts have failed. Do you think the bilateral talks going on in Vienna are different?
Definitely. The previous efforts have been very successful, actually.
I prefer to use expression “normalization.” We have to normalize the relations first. Reconciliation would come after the normalization. When we have normal relations with our neighbor — opening the borders, establishing diplomatic relations, etc. — that’s normalization. [After that,] we can start to reconcile whatever we have between us.
What’s the difference this time? There’s a great difference. This time we don’t have the pressure, and the rejection, from the Azerbaijani side. In all the previous attempts, Turkey received heavy pressure from Azerbaijan. This time, from the highest levels in Azerbaijan, we’ve received messages of their positive attitude to this normalization between Turkey and Armenia. So, I believe this time, we’re on the right path, because the basic reason for having no diplomatic relations with Armenia was the Karabakh problem itself.
*Noyan Soyak is the Vice-Chair of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council. Since 1997, as part of the TABDC, he has worked to develop cultural connections, economic ties, and public diplomacy between Turkey and Armenia.
What has changed in Azerbaijan?
After the Second Karabakh War, which happened in 2020, Azerbaijan regained most of their claimed territories. The territorial problems, the territorial claims, have to be dealt with diplomatically. But thirty years of diplomacy have been unsuccessful. Unfortunately, it came to this end. Unfortunately, many lives were lost on both sides, actually. But then, after the war, Azerbaijan’s attitude towards normalization between Turkey and Armenia has changed because now they’re the winning party. Which is normal. Armenia has this unfortunate trauma to deal with right now. We have to find a diplomatic way to keep the peace in this region. One war is enough. We have to find diplomatic ways to keep stability in the region.
Do you think the Western powers have a role in this current process? Or do you think this is mainly about Armenian, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia?
I believe the initiative has been coming from Russia this time. Having troubles on the western borders of Russia, with Ukraine, and other troubles around the world, Russia wouldn’t want to have another issue on their southeast border, in the South Caucasus. After the Second Karabakh War, I believe Russia initiated this process of normalization between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as between Armenia and Turkey
Do we have Western powers’ support on this new initiative? Yes. I do believe because both Prime Minister [Nikol] Pashinyan and President [Ilham] Aliyev have been to Brussels several times. They have received a lot of support from the EU as well, both financially and diplomatically. The US has stated their support for reconciliation in the region many times. Therefore, I don’t think the world needs any other war — any other unsettled feud in the region — so they’re all supporting this initiative.
Can you talk a little bit about what exactly is going on in Vienna right now?
There are two parallel meetings. The first is between Armenia and Azerbaijan, because they had to have a certain demarcation of their borders to end the dispute and sign a peace agreement. Since 1994, those two countries haven’t had a peace treaty. They’ve had ceasefire agreements, but we have to have a peace treaty that solves all the issues between the two countries, including territorial integrity and other disputes.
Can you imagine Azerbaijan or Armenia diplomatically giving up claims to land? That seems to be the fundamental issue here. Will public opinion allow for a peace settlement where both sides feel like they get the territory that they deserve?
You can’t satisfy all of the public on every occasion. For example, you still have people who believe New Mexico should still be in Mexico, not part of the United States. That California should be in Mexico—
—but those tend to be much more marginal to the political process than actors in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
I don’t want to get involved with the domestic politics of both countries but I can say this much: right after the war, there were elections in Armenia and, if I’m not mistaken, the prime minister was reelected with 70% of the vote. [Note: in the 2021 elections, Prime Minister Pashinyan was reelected with 54% of the vote and won 70% of the seats in National Assembly.] If the Prime Minister is democratically chosen, then the policy that he pursues should also be publicly accepted. I’m not saying that this is a losing of territory or gaining of territory because it’s mutual. In 1994, Azerbaijan claims that they lost their territory. In 2020, Armenia claims that they lost their territory. They need to find a mutually agreed upon solution to this territorial dispute.
The two processes—the ones between Turkey and Armenia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan — somehow follow each other. As far as I can tell, Turkey does not make any moves beyond what’s taking place in the meetings between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Whenever there’s a step on the Azerbaijan side, Turkey also takes a step. Although it’s called a bilateral meeting between Turkey and Armenia, third countries are always watching over.
Speaking of other players in these negotiations, from what I’ve heard the Armenian diaspora can play a similarly complicating role in negations for Armenian side. A lot of political players in Armenia itself seem strongly in favor of normalization, under the right conditions, whereas a lot of the diaspora, especially in Western countries, seem much more skeptical of the process or even outright opposed to the process. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? What effect do you think the Armenian diaspora has on Armenian-Turkish foreign policy?
The Armenian diaspora has always been a very important factor. Actually, when we talk about the Armenian diaspora, we’re talking about people from the same lands where I grew up. We’ve all grown up in Anatolia. We belong to the same land. Whereas, when we talk about Armenian Armenians, they’ve been away from Anatolia. So I feel personally very comfortable with the diaspora Armenians when it comes to heritage and belonging.
I understand their fury, but when we think about the diaspora, the diaspora is not a single bloc. Diasporans also have their differences.
Some of my friends have worked in Armenian organizations in the United States and have explained the complicated politics of representation in these organizations. We need one person from Armenian Armenians, and we need a person who was born in Lebanon but has moved to America. We need a person born in America, but to Protestant group. There are lots of layers within the Armenian diaspora.
Also, the Armenian sections from Kayseri, Diyarbakır, and Sivas — they also all have their own communities. What I can say is, yes, I see and understand the negative reactions to the normalization process. But I’ve also seen positive reactions to the normalization process. Naturally, the negative reactions are easier to hear, they’re at a higher volume. Therefore, we hear those reactions but there’s also a silent majority who support normalization, which will actually bring a long-missed peace into this region. After this normalization, we will be able to talk about reconciliation.
When you go to New York, or Boston, or Los Angeles, as a Turkish citizen, the first place you go for food is an Armenian grocery. We know each other. We remember all our memories. We have to find a way to talk to each other.
If you could say one thing to the Armenian diaspora about the normalization process, what message would you give them?
I would say three things, all of which are very important to me. First of all, we must have integration in the region. Diaspora Armenians are living so far away. They have to give us a chance for integration into the region.
We have to coexist in this region. Coexistence is the second very important word. We can’t change the geography. We have to coexist in this region.
The third one is interdependency. We have to create interdependency between the conflicted countries so no one will be willing to break the security and stability in the region.
I would ask them to assist all the countries in the region in creating those three important points.
Do you think public opinion in Turkey is ready to open its borders with Armenia?
If you ask for opinions in a poll in Turkey, probably the majority of Turkish people would not even know if the borders are closed or open. It’s not one the primary issues in Turkey.
Whereas in Armenia, it’s a different situation. I would say Turkish-Armenia relations, the border opening, etc. have always been among the top three issue.
Thank you so much for giving us your time. We’ll hopefully talk to you again soon if there are further developments.
Thank you, Jared.
*Jared Conrad-Bradshaw is a writer based in Istanbul. His writing has appeared in the New York Times among other venues.