Diplomatic thaw between Turkey and Armenia?
On February 6, 2023, the Kahramanmaras earthquakes struck Türkiye and Syria, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of several dozen cities and towns. Casualty figures are certain to continue to climb. Many countries responded quickly, sending rescue workers as well as food and relief supplies to assist in the rescue efforts and support people in need as a result of the devastating natural disaster.
Armenia was one of the first countries to send rescue teams to both Türkiye and Syria. This came after a phone call between Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Turkish President Erdoğan. Erdoğan thanked Pashinyan for reaching out to Türkiye in its time of need and stressed that such solidarity will go a long way in future normalisation talks between Yerevan and Ankara.  Even though Türkiye's support, which plays a crucial role in providing military assistance to its ally Azerbaijan in the 2020 Karabakh war and the ongoing military casualties on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, was not received positively in social media, the Pashinyan government was determined to support its neighbour in time of need. Interestingly, the international media also reported on the provision of support by countries with which Türkiye currently has difficult relations.
Border opened every 30 years?
On February 11, 2023, Armenian trucks carrying 100 tons of humanitarian aid for the Turkish population affected by the devastating earthquakes crossed the Armenian-Turkish border via the Margara Bridge. The opening of a border closed for decades on humanitarian grounds was described by Turkish opposition figure MP of Armenian origin, Garo Paylan, as "a historic, humanitarian and conscientious step" in the hope that it "will lead to the permanent opening of the border."  The border was closed by Türkiye in 1993 in protest of the Armenian occupation of the regions around Nagorno-Karabakh during the First Karabakh War of 1992-1994. The hope today is that this one-time border opening can finally become permanent as a result of the normalisation process between Armenia and Türkiye, which was launched in 2021. Moreover, on February 14, another amount of humanitarian aid was sent through the same border crossing.
Armenia and Türkiye: What’s next?
Armenia and Türkiye began the normalisation process in late 2021, when both countries appointed special envoys for this purpose: Serdar Kilic, a professional Turkish diplomat, former ambassador to the United States, and Ruben Rubinyan, vice president of the Armenian parliament and representative of a close circle of Pashinyan's Civil Contract Party. The end of the Karabakh war in 2020 raised some hopes for regional cooperation, such as the trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia that brokered and advanced the end of the war. The agreement provided for the unblocking of transport links, which in turn would have improved cooperation not only between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also between Armenia and Türkiye. However, it seems that the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan will not be reached overnight, so it will take some time for the two sides to come to an agreement and sign the agreement. At the same time, Armenia hopes for normalisation of relations with Türkiye. This is based on the view that the Karabakh issue is no longer a reason for Türkiye not to normalize relations with Armenia. However, the ongoing discussions and public statements by Erdoğan or Çavuşoğlu have dashed this hope that Armenia-Türkiye relations can be decoupled from Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. At the same time, it is worth noting that the US, France and other states are promoting the normalisation of bilateral relations that will bring stability to the region, which is in constant geopolitical turmoil due to Russia's traditional role in the region.
Thus, developments prior to the earthquake were small, insignificant steps, such as the opening of air links between Armenia and Türkiye, the lifting of Turkish restrictions on air cargo links between the two countries, and discussions on the possible opening of the land border to third-country nationals. However, the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye have marked a significant impulse for deepening relations. This was highlighted by the visit of Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to Türkiye on February 15, 2023. During the press conference of the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers, both spoke about the decision to restore and build a bridge near Ani (Silk Road Bridge in Çavuşoğlu’s words). After the press conference, Minister Mirzoyan visited Adiyaman, where Armenian rescue forces are currently busy searching for the trapped people.
Armenia-Türkiye Relations: Any Hope for Normalisation?
Armenia and Türkiye have made several attempts to normalize their relations. One of the boldest attempts was the "football diplomacy" in 2008-2009, which ended with the signing of Armenian-Turkish protocols in Zurich that never came to life. The current new path raises some hopes, but it is obvious that the normalisation process is quite slow and closely linked to the process between Azerbaijan and Armenia, at least on the Turkish side. The opening of the border with Türkiye represents an opportunity for landlocked Armenia to open new windows to the world. Currently, the country uses Georgian territory for transportation of goods (including to and from Türkiye). Another border that is not closed is the one with Iran, but it is under international sanctions. At the same time, history will repeat itself with another meeting of the two countries' football teams for the UEFA Euro Qualifiers in March and September 2023. We can only hope that this new stage of football diplomacy will not suffer the same fate as the previous one.
Armen Grigoryan, Programme Manager, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Armenia.
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