Heightened momentum for Armenia-Turkey normalization 

By Richard Giragosian

In the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February, the Armenian government rapidly responded to the emergency, deploying a disaster response team of experts and dispatching some 100 tons of humanitarian aid and assistance. As detailed by Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Vahan Kostanyan, the aid of critical food supplies, medicines and other relief, was delivered by a convoy of five Armenian trucks crossing a bridge over the Arax River separating the two countries.

In a public response posted on Twitter, Ambassador Serdar Kilic, the lead Turkish negotiator in the normalization talks with Armenia, expressed his appreciation for the assistance from Armenia. Adding that he “will always remember the generous aid sent by the people of Armenia to help alleviate the sufferings of our people,” thereby setting a new, more positive tone in the Turkish discourse toward Armenia.

As a result of this “earthquake diplomacy,” the Armenian response stood out as an important gesture of goodwill and offered heightened momentum for the process of Armenia-Turkey “normalization.” Such a fresh optimism was further confirmed by a sudden breakthrough on 11 February with the decision by the Turkish government to re-open the long-closed border with Armenia. Although the move to re-open the border was driven by the necessity to facilitate the urgent delivery of the Armenian aid, it is an obvious breakthrough. And with the facilitation of this initial border crossing, any move to close the border again would be very difficult to justify.

The Broader Significance

The Turkish decision to re-open the border, which has remained closed for over three decades, is particularly significant, for three reasons.

· First, in the scope of the broader process of normalization between Armenia and Turkey, the opening of the border has always been more difficult than the second, related objective of establishing diplomatic relations.

· A second important aspect of this diplomatic breakthrough is the broader context, as the Turkish leadership felt confident enough to proceed with the border opening without securing Azerbaijani approval or conferring with Russian officials in advance. This would also suggest that Turkish foreign policy toward Armenia is now much less hostage to Azerbaijan’s permission, which would be important in light of Azerbaijan’s continued threats against Armenia and its siege of Nagorno Karabakh.

· And third, with Turkish elections now set for the coming months, this decision to accept and facilitate Armenian aid and open the border only reveals that normalization with Armenia is no longer as politically sensitive in domestic Turkish politics as it once was. This can also be seen as a sign of Turkish weakness, however, as the embattled Turkish leadership, and especially President Erdogan, have been widely criticized for the lack of adequate preparations for the earthquake disaster.

A Modified Agenda

As the border re-opening now establishes a new environment much more conducive to the fulfillment of the normalization process with Armenia, there is a new modified agenda for engagement. This new agenda, reflecting this new reality, comprises four key elements:

· Despite the breakthrough in the re-opening of the border, as the immediate crisis in Turkey abates, the bilateral Armenia-Turkey border must remain open. This is imperative to sustain the momentum beyond the imperative of earthquake relief.

· Moreover, there is a need for substantial follow-up work to expand border traffic beyond the current one crossing point. This will also entail preparations for border customs, public health and other security-related measures to ensure secure border operations and mobility.

· In addition, there is a need to move swiftly to establish diplomatic relations, not only to achieve the second objective of normalization but also as a prerequisite to the effective management of the border crossings.

· Finally, with the next round of Armenia-Turkey negotiations set for March in Antalya, there should be a greater demonstration of political will by both sides. This may be best achieved in the March meeting of the foreign ministers who can then prepare for the subsequent meeting of the Armenian prime minister and Turkish president.

Risk Mitigation & Conclusion

Thus, in order to best implement such a modified agenda of Armenia-Turkey “normalization,” it is critical that the momentum from this breakthrough be sustained. More specifically, the political discourse on both sides must be mature and statesmanlike. This need for elevated discourse will not be easy, given the pre-election domestic context in Turkey and due to pressure on the Armenian side from Azerbaijan’s bellicose threats and siege of Nagorno Karabakh.

A further risk that necessitates concern and mitigation is any threat of belated opposition or interference by Azerbaijan, and any shift in Russian policy against normalization. And the new more positive environment also depends on Azerbaijan, as the continued siege of the population in Karabakh and the Azerbaijani use of bellicose threats against Armenians everywhere pose a lingering problem.

Yet the combination of a sudden diplomatic breakthrough and an opportunity from “earthquake diplomacy,” offers a genuine opening for progress. It also demonstrates, once again, that Armenia-Turkey normalization stands out as a rare positive “game changer” for the troubled South Caucasus region. At the same time, it is important to note that the objective is normalization of relations between neighbors, and not reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. But normalization is a foundation and first step toward the eventual reconciliation with Turkey, and that is where the Armenian genocide holds direct relevance.

Richard Giragosian is Director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center.