ANKARA—Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia have been frozen for almost three decades due to longstanding historical animosities and Turkish support for Azerbaijan, Armenia’s perennial foe in the Caucasus region. But relations have thawed in recent months, with both countries taking tentative steps toward normalizing ties and reopening their 311-kilometer border.
“Armenia’s continued isolation in the region is unsustainable,” Talha Köse, a professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul’s Ibn Haldun University, told The Epoch Times.
“Normalized relations with Turkey would bring new opportunities, including Armenia’s integration into the regional economy.”
As a first step towards reopening the border, which has remained shut since 1993, mine-removal activities began last month in Turkey’s northeastern Kars province.
“It’s unclear how long the process will take,” Naif Alibeyoğlu, a former mayor of the city of Kars (located 30 kilometers west of the border), told The Epoch Times. “But local communities on both sides of the border hope to see the resumption of bilateral trade and tourism.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh Factor
In 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Ankara formally recognized Armenia as an independent nation. Relations soured soon afterward, however, when Armenian forces captured the Nagorno-Karabakh region from neighboring Azerbaijan, which, like Armenia, had been a Soviet socialist republic until 1991.
Cultural affinities between Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which are ethnically and linguistically Turkic, run deep. So when Armenia seized the territory from Azerbaijan, Ankara responded by severing ties–and shutting its border–with its majority-Christian neighbor to the east.
An attempt was made to mend relations in 2009 when the two countries signed the Zurich Protocols, which called for a gradual restoration of ties. But the protocols were never ratified by the two countries’ parliaments, and the initiative eventually stalled.
“At that time, in both Turkey and Armenia, there was little public support for normalization,” Köse, who specializes in regional conflicts, said. “What’s more, Azerbaijan wasn’t part of the process and feared being sidelined, so it pressured Turkey to drop the initiative.”
The logjam was finally broken in late 2020, when Azerbaijani forces, with Turkish support, retook most of the territory lost to Armenia in the early 1990s. In the months following the 44-day conflict, signals began emanating from Yerevan that it was prepared to consider normalizing relations with Ankara.
“We must make peace with Turkey,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in August of last year in a televised interview. “The lack of diplomatic relations… and the closed border are adversely affecting regional stability.”
Turkey, for its part, was quick to respond, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the conflict had yielded “new opportunities” for the prospect of normalization. “If Armenia responds positively to these opportunities,” he said, “we will take the necessary steps.”
Another obstacle to normalization is the ongoing debate over whether Turkey committed genocide against the Armenian people during the First World War. While Ankara concedes that hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished amid the intercommunal violence that wracked Turkey at the time, it rejects the notion that this amounted to genocide.
“Members of the Armenian diaspora tend to be very passionate about this issue,” Köse said. “But our counterparts living inside Armenia recognize our common interests and appear to be more pragmatic in this regard.”
According to Köse, Pashinyan’s overture reflected a desire on the part of the Armenian public to end decades of hostility with its two Turkic neighbors.
“The 2020 conflict provided an opportunity to finally break the status quo,” he said. “Despite the military loss [in Nagorno-Karabakh], the Armenian people appear to welcome the prospect of normalization with Turkey.”
Unlike the situation in 2009, Köse added, “there’s more public support [for normalization] this time around, while Azerbaijan is more involved in the process.”
The drive towards full normalization gained momentum last December, when Ankara and Yerevan both appointed “special envoys” to follow up on the process. Since then, the envoys have met on four separate occasions to reiterate their respective countries’ desire to normalize ties “without preconditions.”
The two sides reached another milestone in mid-March, when Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan met with his Turkish counterpart in the Turkish city of Antalya, the first visit by a high-level Armenian official in more than a decade.
During the visit, Mirzoyan voiced hope that normalized ties would lead to “an era of peaceful and sustainable development in the region.” Opening the border, he said, would have “a positive impact on connectivity, trade, and economic relations between the two countries.”
Alibeyoğlu, who served as mayor of Kars from 1999 to 2009, echoed these sentiments. “There used to be lively trade between Kars and Armenia,” he said. “All that changed when the border was closed.”
“The people of Kars, especially traders, want the border reopened as soon as possible,” Alibeyoğlu added. “Along with rejuvenating the local economy, this would bring the two peoples together and ease longstanding tensions.”
On the regional level, according to Köse, an open border would serve to “stimulate commerce throughout the Caucasus and create a trade corridor linking Central Asia to Europe.”
On August 3, limited clashes erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. As of the time of writing, it remained unclear what effect this would have on the Turkey-Armenia normalization process.