Armenia + 1 more

Türkiye, Armenia Take Tentative Steps toward Normalisation

By Olesya Vartanyan - Senior Analyst, South Caucasus

Six months of contacts between Türkiye and Armenia have brought an agreement to move toward opening their shared border and launching direct trade. But Ankara and Yerevan are far apart on many issues. The road ahead will be long.

At the edge of the Armenian village Margara, a concrete bridge spans the Araks river, which delineates this stretch of the border between Armenia and Türkiye. Rolls of barbed wire and fences of different shapes and colours block off the bridge at both ends. Dense grass covers much of the road leading up to it. This abandoned place will soon see considerably more activity if Armenia and Türkiye follow through with an agreement to open the long-sealed border, albeit to foreigners only at first. Should they do so, it would be the first practical result of direct contacts the countries resumed six months ago after a long hiatus. Special envoys from Armenia and Türkiye announced the step after they convened on 1 July in Vienna, for their fourth meeting since resuming talks in Moscow in January. Their respective leaders confirmed the deal in a very rare telephone call ten days later.

The two sides are now busy discussing the details. Armenian officials hope that the crossing can open as early as July or August, so as to give an additional boost to tourism that is already on the rise after two years of pandemic-induced decline. The ancient churches and cool mountain lakes in Armenia and eastern Türkiye may particularly attract Russians, whose choices for holidays abroad have dwindled as airlines cut back on flights out of Moscow due to the war in Ukraine. For Armenia, the opening would bring a symbolic -- and, later, it hopes, a real -- end to almost 30 years of isolation that has hampered economic growth.

A Long Way to Go

Armenia is landlocked. Its two longest borders -- with Türkiye to the west and Azerbaijan to the east and south -- are both closed due to its poor relations with those countries. Its other neighbour to the south is Iran, which is hamstrung by Western sanctions. Most of its trade passes across the northern frontier with Georgia.

If all goes well, Armenians and Turks -- and their lorries -- will eventually be allowed to cross the border at Margara, too. But for that to happen, the two countries will have to establish diplomatic ties for the first time since Armenia regained independence in 1991, upon the Soviet Union's dissolution. The Armenian-Turkish relationship has long been clouded by the mass killing and displacement of Armenians in 1915, toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the dispute over whether those events constituted genocide, as well as by Armenia's conflict with Türkiye's ally Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

An open border would turn dead-end Margara, which has a population of fewer than 1,000, into a key transport node in Armenia: it is only 35km from the capital Yerevan, and around half that distance from the Turkish town of Iğdır, a crossroads near Iran and Azerbaijan. A functioning Margara crossing could increase traffic on transit routes throughout the Caucasus.

But Margara’s residents have a hard time believing that the future is bright. “For more than 45 years, since I moved here, we have been hearing promises of an open border. But it has never happened”, Guli, 64, says as she packs her bags for a long journey. Her house is only metres from the bridge across the Araks. A month ago, her grandson moved to Russia and is now waiting for her to join him. Most young people have left Margara in search of a better income. “I never wanted my grandson to leave his homeland”, Guli says. “And now I am going as well”.

What she sees from her window is a testament to the hopes that have risen and fallen several times while she has been here. Right next to the bridge is an abandoned grey building in late Soviet style, which was supposed to be a passport control and customs office. The border post here was meant to complement the only other crossing – farther to the north – that had operated in Soviet times but which Türkiye shut down in 1993. Construction started in the 1980s, paused and then resumed in the mid-1990s, when Armenia first tried to strike a deal with Türkiye to reopen the border. The talks failed, due to mounting tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to this day only storks have used the building, which is perfect for their nests. Just outside Guli’s house is a road that Armenian authorities built some fifteen years ago, during another period of hope that faded. Instead of heavy trucks, only the cars belonging to the few remaining residents pass by.

Because of the past failures, this time around Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's government wants to see results quickly. Despite some domestic opposition to any rapprochement, the government says it has no choice but to keep trying to establish relations with Türkiye, a key regional power whose population of 80 million people dwarfs Armenia's three million.

Forty years ago, when Armenia was a small part of the Soviet Union, Ankara had diplomatic relations with Moscow and the border was open. But, in the early 1990s, war broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave that claims independence from Azerbaijan, and Türkiye shut the border in solidarity with Baku. It has stayed that way ever since.

What has changed now is that, in the 2020 war, Azerbaijan took back control of territories next to Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenians had captured in the early 1990s. The Azerbaijani gains took the sting out of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, as far as Ankara was concerned, and removed a key obstacle to normalisation of relations with Yerevan, even if Armenia and Azerbaijan are still far away from a final peace deal. Hence there is cause for cautious optimism, though a long, bumpy path lies ahead in turning the agreement into reality.

A Start for Direct Trade

Along with opening the border to foreigners, the Armenian and Turkish special envoys agreed to open their countries' airspace to cargo movement "as soon as possible". It is the first step toward starting direct trade between the two countries, by air and land. Today, all Armenian-Turkish commerce takes place via neighbouring countries.

Gevorg owns a shop at the biggest wholesale market in Armenia, a place called Meymandar some 15km from the Margara bridge. He has been selling food for over twenty years, his rows piled high with fruits and vegetables, mainly grown by Armenian farmers. Gevorg is now busy importing watermelons from Türkiye. At present, he can bring them in only if the trucks take a big northward detour via Georgia, he says, which makes the price a third dearer. "I have no clue what they will decide", Gevorg says of the conversations between the Armenian and Turkish special envoys. "But many in this market will certainly join the ranks of the richest people in Armenia, if only they can agree to open the border for at least some of us doing the trade".

Armenia's predominant interest in opening up is clear: Türkiye has the biggest economy in the region. The German Economic Team, a consultancy, estimated in June that with an open border Türkiye could account for 10 per cent of Armenia's foreign trade, up from 1 per cent today. Armenia's exports to Türkiye could amount to $185 million based on today's numbers (equivalent to around 7 per cent of Armenian exports in 2021), and Armenia's imports could be worth $678 million (some 13 per cent of imports in 2021).

Opening the border has become more urgent in face of the economic downturn that Armenia expects as Western sanctions hit Russia, to whose economy Armenia's is deeply linked. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Armenia's Central Bank lowered economic growth forecasts from 5.3 per cent to 1.6 per cent for 2022. "They want to keep a good face, but the problems are yet to come", a diplomat said of the Armenian leadership. Opening the border could be "fantastic for local and foreign businesses in Armenia", the diplomat said, "if only it could really happen".

Still, some businesspeople are concerned by the idea of more trade with Turkey. The more trade potential is talked up, the more Armenian officials face critical questions about the impact of cheaper Turkish imports on small and medium-sized local businesses. While some Armenian exporters stand to profit, cheaper imports may indeed become a problem if Armenia does not start preparing immediately. As a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), it is restricted in imposing its own custom duties that could protect some business sectors. For other EEU members, including Russia or Kazakhstan, such measures are less relevant since they have long been trading with Türkiye; they do not have to open their borders to a major, and neighbouring, economy that was previously shut out. Even if Yerevan finds ways to put special transitional regulations in place, foreign experts caution that it will likely have to remove them quite quickly in order to allow the Armenian economy to fully enjoy the growth that will come from opening the border.

Armenian officials say they will talk about this topic only when a clear prospect for larger-scale trade with Türkiye becomes visible. Some Western partners have already offered expert support, assessments and legal analyses to help prepare Armenia for a smooth transition. Yerevan has not started considering these ideas yet.

"Better Trucks than Trenches"

It's not all about the economy. Yerevan also aims to solidify its relations with Ankara to minimise the chances of direct confrontation between the two countries. In the words of an Armenian representative, "No matter where the current contacts lead us, in the end a border with trucks is better than a border with trenches". During the 2020 war in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, Türkiye supported Azerbaijan both politically and militarily, with supplies of drones and other weaponry, as well as by arranging for Syrian mercenaries to fight on Baku's side. Despite years of close military relations between Azerbaijan and Türkiye, which share linguistic and cultural ties, no one in Yerevan expected such a degree of Turkish involvement in the war. Armenian sources reported that Turkish drones and fighter jets even entered Armenian airspace at times, leading Yerevan to conclude that Ankara was ready to engage directly in fighting. Some opinion polls suggest that these fears have doubled the number of Armenians who believe that Türkiye is their country's main enemy. At 45 per cent of the population, the proportion is almost the same as it is for Azerbaijan.

Türkiye's involvement in the 2020 war was also a wake-up call for Armenian officials who had tried to block efforts to allow Ankara a role in talks about Nagorno-Karabakh. They now argue that Türkiye's exclusion from those talks and the lack of a direct channel between Yerevan and Ankara increased the risk that Turkiye would get involved militarily behind Azerbaijan. The Armenian leadership has been quick to learn from what it now sees as mistakes. Days after the 2020 ceasefire, senior officials started saying Yerevan needed to establish contact with Ankara. Weeks later, Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged their first messages via Western partners.

It was Russia that brokered the deal to end the Armenian-Azerbaijani fighting in 2020, which cited aspirations to freer regional trade, but the U.S. has been leading the effort at Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. One Western diplomat said U.S. President Joe Biden is determined to support Armenian-Turkish normalisation, as he seeks to calm U.S.-Turkish relations after a period of tensions. An Armenian official added that this commitment stemmed from Washington's 2021 declaration that what ethnic Armenians suffered in 1915 was indeed genocide. According to another Western diplomat, the U.S. is keener than ever to further efforts to bring greater stability to the South Caucasus because of the Ukraine war and uncertainty about the Kremlin's next steps.

Türkiye seems to concur that the emerging contacts should lead to establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia. A Turkish official called the closed border with Armenia a "total anachronism". It will open, the official said, but the sides will have to help each other choose the right moments to make steps toward the "common goal". The West can help, too, though primarily with symbolic gestures: Ankara has already made up its mind to build bridges with Yerevan, and it wants its foreign partners to acknowledge its positive steps. On the other hand, Türkiye remains committed to its promise to coordinate its moves with Azerbaijan. "We cannot proceed with steps on this front without movement in the Armenian-Azerbaijani process", said the Turkish official. "Not necessarily because these processes are directly linked. But they are connected".

Armenia is keen to improve relations with Azerbaijan, too, partly to reopen the transport links to the east along with those to the west. But nerves are still raw after the 2020 military defeat, and any mishap could easily derail progress.

Meanwhile, Russia seems to remain supportive of an Armenian-Turkish entente. Officials in both Yerevan and Ankara suggest that, while Moscow is not now directly engaged in the discussions, it has signalled no intention to spoil the contacts. Right after the 2020 war, Russian officials spoke in favour of direct contacts between Yerevan and Ankara, which, they hoped, could help support the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow hosted the first Armenia-Turkey talks in January, and, since then, the war in Ukraine has only intensified Russia's search for alternative transport routes to Türkiye, which has not joined Western sanctions against Russia. The most-used way goes through Georgia, where the roads are choked with lines of idling trucks. Adding routes through Azerbaijan and Armenia could relieve the pressure. Moscow's increased demand for connecting roads with Türkiye has already sped up Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on resumed transport communication, which had otherwise remained deadlocked for over a year and half.

Preparing for Next Steps

Armenia wants to press ahead as fast as possible, for fear that history may repeat itself and normalisation grind to a halt. "The process is going at a snail's pace", an Armenian official said. If Ankara can move quicker carrying out its part of the first agreements on border crossings and air cargo, it will reassure Yerevan that there is more to come.

But Armenia should be patient. Even the small agreements on air cargo and border crossings for foreigners are significant -- and no mean feat at the present juncture, when Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created a crisis in international relations. The Armenian representatives are right to say that they need to seize the moment, as a lack of concrete steps now could doom to failure their hopes for eventual normalisation at a time of rising conflict around the world. But a "small step" strategy seems to be the only one possible at the moment.

Outside parties should continue supporting the process. Any spillover of the competition between Russia, on one hand, and the U.S. -- and European powers, too -- on the other into this arena could derail the tentative contacts that finally seem to be delivering results. Thankfully, at least for now, neither power seems to be letting that happen over Armenia-Turkey normalisation talks.

As for Azerbaijan, it, too, has a stake in Armenian-Turkish relations. Although it may have initially sought Armenian concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku now sees normalisation of ties as in its interest as that could help advance its own aims to establish new transport routes, outlined in the Russia-brokered deal that ended the fighting in 2020. Baku wants a rail and road link to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan through Armenia. Indeed, officials from several other countries involved in the talks say Baku has been pushing for a greater say, wanting Ankara to make its own asks from Yerevan part of the normalisation talks. But Türkiye, fearful that doing so could stall the process, is keen to keep the two diplomatic tracks moving but separate.

On their side, authorities in Yerevan should start preparing Armenians for eventual normalisation. The country's economy will need a transition period to avoid shocks. Armenian businesses need time and guidance to make use of new opportunities coming from new transit routes and access to the big Turkish market. Yerevan should begin making the appropriate plans, with support from foreign partners if needed.

For many ordinary people in Armenia, the border opening will be a personal event. Sveta, 47, lives in Margara, only metres from Türkiye, which she has never been able to visit. Some three decades ago, she climbed to a high point in the village to see what was happening on the other side of the border. She saw women gathering vegetables in the large fields. "They were like us. Almost exactly the same", Sveta says. Since then, she has occasionally checked on her neighbours. Sometimes, she can hear them singing. Sveta is still not sure what will come when the border is open, but she is keeping an open mind to something she had stopped believing would ever come to pass. "How will we live together?" she asks. "It has always been a fantasy".