Turkey and Armenia inch closer to mending ties     

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said that the nation is eager to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey and open the borders with the neighboring country in an interview with Turkish news agency Anadolu on March 15.  His statement came days after Mirzoyan met his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum that was held on March 11–13. The meeting was reported to be “productive and constructive.”

The meeting in Antalya was the first sit-down meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers since 2009 and is part of mutual efforts to establish diplomatic ties that have been severed since the early 1990s.

For the first time in the history of the two countries, both Turkey and Armenia are willing to set aside the Armenian genocide and disputes over the Nagorno-Karabakh region that have soured their diplomatic relations for decades. Turkey has refused to recognize the 1915 events as a genocide, and it also supported Azerbaijan during the Second Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020.

Although Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, the relations between the two countries severed in 1993 when Ankara closed its borders as a gesture of Turkish solidarity with its close ally Azerbaijan during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. At the time, Azerbaijan lost control over the Nagorno Karabakh enclave and seven adjacent territories.

In 2008, when Turkey and Armenia signaled their mutual interest in mending ties, the process was stalled due to Azerbaijan’s staunch opposition. As a result, the Zurich protocols — also known as “football diplomacy” — failed, leaving the two countries even further apart diplomatically.

The results of the second Karabakh war changed the fabric of their diplomatic relations. With Azerbaijan having restored control over the seven territories around Nagorno Karabakh, previously lost to Armenia, “Turkey began to signal its readiness for new talks with Armenia,” the International Crisis Group wrote in an analysis previewing the new stage in normalization.

The first round of talks was held in the Russian capital Moscow on January 14, 2022, raising hopes for normalization, including possible border opening.

The latter could impact economic, social, and cultural relations between the two countries and their citizens, according to officials in Armenia's capital Yerevan. “The opening of the borders will have a positive impact on regular communication between the two countries, trade and economic relations, people-to-people contacts and, in general, stability in the region,” Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said on March 14. He added that, according to polls, most Armenians approve of the normalization.

A recent poll by the International Republican Institute published in January 2022, 90 percent of Armenians think Turkey is the greatest political and security threat to Armenia. In an interview with Global Voices, James De Witt, director of the IRI Armenia Program, said, “Armenian society blames Turkey for the lost war [in 2020] and sees it as a continuation of [Turkey’s] policy of genocide.”

Following the January talks in Moscow, Istanbul and Yerevan resumed charter flights on February 2, 2022, and met for the second time in Vienna on February 24, where both sides reiterated their commitment to continue negotiations aimed at fully normalizing relations. The reopening of flights was welcomed in Turkey. Speaking to reporters, following the first meeting in Moscow in January and the decision to resume flights, Garo Paylan, a member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, said the resumption of flights was  “an important step” urging the politicians “to have this window of opportunity result in peace.”

“There may be problems, but we can have diplomats on both sides, open borders, launch regional economic programs that will benefit both sides [as well as] the people of Armenia and the people of Turkey,” Paylan, who is from an Armenian family in Istanbul, was quoted as saying on February 15.

Already, TABDC estimates the trade volume between Turkey and Armenia could reach USD 1 billion in three years, in addition to tourism revenue if the borders were to open.

As of February 2, Armenians and Turks can choose between the Turkish budget carrier Pegasus and the Moldovan budget FlyOne airlines for flights operating between the two countries three times a week.

Aybars Gorgulu, general director of the Istanbul-based think-tank Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies, told Global Voices,  the rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan and the opening of the borders will have economic and social implications. “Particularly in the border cities such as Kars and Iğdır, commercial and touristic vitality will be experienced, and thus social reconciliation will be achieved over time,” said Gorgulu.

Echoing Paylan, Noyan Soyak, vice-chairman of Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC), told Global Voices that open borders and the trade it entails will overcome the historical and political problems by bringing the two estranged nations closer. “Trade will be a factor to provide peace between the two societies, and it will also be another chance to re-introduce these two societies, which are living on the same land but are physically far from each other.

Soyak added that the Doğukapı Kars railway, which remains in good shape despite the closed borders, will create new opportunities for international projects such as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which promotes land-based transportation routes between Europe and China and is naturally aligned with unlocking the transit potential in the South Caucasia. “Geographical position of Azerbaijan on the Caspian shores and Armenia with the neighboring Turkey is very attractive for linking Eurasia’s two economic powerhouses: the European Union and East Asia,” Soyak said.

Additional attempts to thaw relations between the two countries are also visible. In early January, Armenia lifted an embargo on Turkish goods. Turkey invited Armenian officials to the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, where the two sides met in March 2022. Chances of Azerbaijan intervening as was the case in 2008 are also slim. In December 2021, officials in Baku reiterated the country won’t be an obstacle to the Ankara-Yerevan rapprochement.

A bottom-up vs. a top-down approach

But while leaders may be moving forward, doubters remain. Calling the new talks a top-down process, led by Turkish and Armenian political leaders, Thomas de Waal, the region’s top expert from Carnegie Europe, points out that both sides lack a strategy to win over doubters.

Philip Gamaghelyan, a long-time peace-builder from Yerevan, and the founder of the peacebuilding initiative Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, agrees. “What we have today between Turkey and Armenia is a strictly official process with practically no grassroots support,” Gamaghelyan told Global Voices, adding, “the focus today is not on reconciliation at all but on ‘hard’ issues such as border and transportation links.”

The reality is exacerbated by the lack of peacebuilders on the diplomacy scene. Gamaghelyan told Global Voices the main reason for that was the transition of the former peace-builders to the government positions in Armenia and the lack of collaboration between almost absent Azerbaijani and Turkish peacebuilding civil society initiatives.

Aybars Gorgulu is more optimistic in his analysis. For Gorgulu opening of the borders, and establishment of diplomatic relations are just the beginning of a much longer process of reconciliation, including over such traumatic issues such as recognition of genocide. Gorgulu believes these and other issues can only be resolved within the process of normalization and people-to-people connections between Armenians and Turks.

The sentiments on the ground — at least in Turkey — attest to that. İlim Göktaş, one of the residents of Kalkankale village, who worked at Doğukapı (Eastern Gate) Train Station in Kars for six years back in the 1990s, told Anadolu Agency he hoped “the gate will open, peace and tranquility will come to the region, and our [local] economy will revive.”

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