It was a turning point as some pundits described it, when the border between Armenia and Turkey opened, albeit briefly, for the first time in thirty years to deliver humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit the southeast region of Turkey. The gesture gained even more significance, given that in 1988, Turkey sent humanitarian aid to Armenia when the latter was hit with an earthquake that killed more than 25,000 people. The dispatch of the aid on February 11 was followed by a visit of Armenian Foreign Minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, to Ankara, where he received a warm welcome from his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. On February 7, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke on the phone. On February 6, Armenia's President Vahagn Khachaturyan and Alen Simonyan, President of the National Assembly of Armenia, expressed their condolences in tweets.
The friendly exchanges mark a notable shift in the typically frosty relationship between the two nations. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during the first Karabakh war in a show of solidarity with its long-time ally Azerbaijan. Since then, ties between Turkey and Armenia have remained strained.
The two countries were close to finding some common ground in 2008 after representatives from each nation met in Zurich and agreed to a series of protocols designed to normalize relations between the two countries.
Following the meeting, Turkey's then-President Abdullah Gul traveled to Yerevan to watch the first of the two qualifying World Cup matches between Turkey and Armenia. A year later, the then-President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, traveled to Turkey's province of Bursa to watch another football game between the two national teams. These visits were described at the time as “football diplomacy.”
The negotiations eventually fell through after Turkey withdrew due to mounting pressure from Azerbaijan. Armenia formally declared the protocols null and void in 2018.
A warming relationship
The second Karabakh war in 2020, changed Turkey's view on its ties with Armenia. Erdoğan first signaled Turkey's interest in renewing relations in December 2020 during a visit to Azerbaijan, where the President said, “If positive steps are taken in this regard, we will open our closed doors.” A month later, an unnamed senior Erdoğan advisor told Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas that Ankara was ready to “normalize relations with Armenia.”
Over the following months, there were a series of positive diplomatic signs between Turkey and Armenia, including a five-year action plan approved by Armenian legislators in August 2021, stating that Armenia was “ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.”
Next came announcements of mutually appointed envoys, and the resumption of charter flights between Istanbul and Armenia's capital, Yerevan. When Armenia sent humanitarian aid to Turkey via the long-closed border, Serdar Kilic, who was appointed as Ankara's envoy to Armenia, thanked the people of Armenia in a tweet:
Thank you dear @VahanKostanyan thank you dear @RubenRubinyan for your kind efforts to make this happen. I will always remember the generous aid sent by the people of Armenia to help alleviate the sufferings of our people in the eartquake striken region in Türkiye. https://t.co/4Q6PHOhsVj pic.twitter.com/NNU7r0FLow
— Serdar KILIÇ (@serdarkilic9) February 11, 2023
Similarly, during the meeting between Foreign Ministers on February 15, Çavuşoğlu also thanked Armenia for the help. “Armenia extended a hand of friendship to our people in these difficult times, showing solidarity and cooperation,” said Çavuşoğlu in a joint press conference after the meeting. Mirzoyan added, “By being in Turkey at this difficult moment, I would like to reaffirm the readiness and willingness of the Republic of Armenia to build peace in the region, especially for the full normalization of relations with Turkey, the establishment of diplomatic relations and the full opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey.”
Responding to criticism at home, Armenia's special envoy Ruben Rubinyan said in an interview with Radio Liberty Armenia Service that despite problems in relations between the two countries, “our countries are neighbors, and in the face of a humanitarian crisis, the neighbors should help each other.”
During the meeting, the two foreign ministers said they reached an agreement to open their borders for third-country nationals and diplomatic passport holders, something the two countries have been discussing since the talks resumed after the second Karabakh war. The diplomats also reached an agreement to jointly restore the historical Ani bridge, also known as the Silk Road Bridge, on the border between Turkey and Armenia. The bridge dates back to 10th or 11th century and once connected the two countries over the border river of Akhurian/Arpaçay. Current images of the bridge show two remaining stone structures on the two sides of the river, likely what were formerly the bridge towers.
There is also a chance to revive the “football diplomacy” of 15 years ago. The national football teams will be facing each other in two games, on March 25 (played in Armenia) and on September 8 (played in Turkey), as part of the 2024 UEFA European World Championship qualifiers.
Despite the warm interactions, the hopes around reviving ties between the two countries remain bleak and uncertain. Writing for Daktilo 1984, journalist Barçın Yinanç noted that Azerbaijan continues to impact the progress, which has placed Turkey-Armenia ties, “under a kind of a mortgage.” However, that mortgage may not be “as strong as before,” wrote Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan. “By reopening the border, Turkey responded rationally to Armenia's display of goodwill. [Turkey] also demonstrated a 180-degree turn in [its] strategy regarding Azerbaijan and Russia by seeking no confirmation from Armenia or consulting with Russian officials [over border opening].” However, Giragosian noted that other steps must be taken to rid the two countries of uncertainties. These include keeping the closed border open, increasing the number of crossing points, and expressing mutual political will more often, wrote Giragosian.
Another factor that may affect the relations between Turkey and Armenia is the result of the upcoming general election in Turkey. According to Tom de Waal, a Senior Fellow with Carnegie Europe with a special focus on Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, once elections are over, “the prospects look good. If the opposition manages to win the election in Türkiye there is a good chance that they will press ahead with normalization with Armenia as being in the country’s state interest and will be less inclined to allow Azerbaijan to exercise a veto.”