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armenia-turkey normalization: a hope for real progress

Armenia-Turkey Normalization: A Hope for Real Progress

Author: Sam Harshbarger

Feb 8, 2022

Image source: Sam Harshbarger

Armenian and Turkish diplomats met in Moscow on January 14 to discuss a path towards normalizing relations between the two countries and re-opening land borders. This meeting represents the start of a third attempt to re-open relations between the two states and follows months of indications that Armenia and Turkey would seek such a move.

While Turkey was among the first states to recognize Armenia’s independence, in April 1993 Turkey unilaterally closed its borders with Armenia in response to the Armenian occupation of Kelbajar, a region of Azerbaijan. Following that step, efforts to restore relations and re-open the border failed due to Azerbaijani objections over normalization between Armenia and Turkey in the face of the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. With Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Baku has determined there is no longer reason to object to improved relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Already the thaw has resulted in concrete measures to open transit between Armenia and Turkey. Flights between Istanbul and Yerevan, cancelled amidst the 2020 war and concurrent COVID-19 pandemic, have resumed on February 2 with Fly One Armenia sending a flight to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport in the morning and Pegasus, a low-budget Turkish carrier, flying to Yerevan from the same airport in the evening. Residents in border communities such as Kars in eastern Turkey have eagerly awaited the restoration of border crossings and trade. The potential re-opening of the land border will allow Armenians and Turks to more directly trade and interact with one another.

Moscow’s role as host for Armenia and Turkey on January 14 was significant. In 2021, Moscow consolidated its gains in the South Caucasus, including by sending peace-keeping troops following the 2020 war. A strong rapport has emerged between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a number of fronts, even as the two countries supported conflicting sides in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.

On January 24, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan restated Armenia’s policy, held since 1991, that Armenia seeks to normalize relations with Turkey without preconditions and expressed interest in Armenia’s attendance at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in Turkey in March. Armenia does not demand any preconditions to re-opening the border. The Turkish statement, echoing the Armenian, affirmed a new commitment to “negotiations with the goal of full normalization without preconditions.” The mirror statement from Armenia and Turkey indicate that the two countries are on the same page as they work towards greater engagement.

As Armenia expert Richard Giragosian stated, the past 30-year period of complete paucity of relations between Armenia and Turkey should be viewed as “an aberration and not the norm.” For Armenia, new relations with Turkey will open new transit and trade opportunities while potentially even shifting, even if ever so slightly, Turkey’s calculus in the South Caucasus down the line. For Turkey, opening borders and relations will dramatically expand Turkish commercial opportunities in Armenia and earn good will from Brussels and Washington. For Russia, it’s bowing to the inevitable.

The normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey will not, for the foreseeable future, resolve all areas of disagreement between the countries. Turkey’s government and leading opposition parties refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Turkey remains a close economic, political, and military strategic partner of Azerbaijan. The clamp-down on civil society in Turkey interested in bringing Armenians and Turks together also challenges a deeper, inter-societal reconciliation. There is opposition among some Armenians as well to normalization. Nevertheless, there is broad support for normalization throughout the international community and the constructive approach of both governments can mean real gains in terms of regional security and development.

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