Turkey-Armenia Talks Hold Promise of Opening Long-Shut Border
Olesya Vartanyan, Nigar Göksel, Zaur Shiriyev
Turkish and Armenian special envoys will meet in Moscow on 14 January to discuss normalising relations between these long-estranged neighbours. Crisis Group experts Olesya Vartanyan, Nigar Göksel and Zaur Shiriyev unpack how the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 opened the way for talks.
The ruins of Ani, located on the Turkey-Armenia border close to the Arpacay district of Kars. Image: Uysal Levent/Shutterstock
This article was originally published here by the International Crisis Group.
What is the significance of the envoys’ 14 January meeting in Moscow?
The launch of direct talks between Turkey and Armenia holds perhaps the greatest promise yet of establishing diplomatic relations between two countries that have never enjoyed them. This process could lead to an opening of the countries’ shared border and bring greater trade and security to the region.
Both the announcement of the talks and the appointment of special envoys signal that the two sides are serious about the possibility of normalised relations. Turkey’s negotiator is Serdar Kılıç, a 64-year-old senior diplomat last posted in Washington. His counterpart from Armenia is Ruben Rubinyan, who at 31 is the youngest member of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s inner circle.
Why don’t Turkey and Armenia have diplomatic ties?
The Turkish and Armenian states have never had formal relations. Their relationship has been clouded by the 1915 killing and forced displacement of around 1.5 million Armenians then living in the Ottoman Empire. Armenia considers the massacre a genocide. Turkey contests both Yerevan’s figures and its characterisation of the killings as a genocide. When Armenia was under Soviet rule, it conducted its diplomatic engagement with Turkey through Moscow as an intermediary. But the two countries were not entirely shut off from each other; through the end of the Cold War, at least two border-crossing points were open between the two neighbours.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the two countries made two stabs at normalisation. First, Turkey and Armenia came close to establishing neighbourly ties in the early 1990s. Talks began in 1992 and continued for some time even after fighting erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh months later. Turkey has long been a key regional ally of Azerbaijan and Baku has sought its support in the conflict. Although many differences remained, the two sides were in the final stages of drafting an accord when, in early April 1993, Turkey withdrew over the capture by Armenian forces of land populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis near Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara closed the few crossing points that enabled traffic with Armenia and has kept the border between the two countries shut over what it saw as Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions. Azerbaijan has also kept its border closed, leaving landlocked Armenia in effect walled off from both east and west for the past three decades.
A second, Swiss-led effort to normalise relations that began in the summer of 2007 gained backing from Washington and European capitals as part of a wider peace effort in the region following Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. The Swiss mediation culminated in October 2009 with the signing of agreements to open the border and establish diplomatic relations. The initiative foundered and the parties never ratified or implemented the agreements in large part because Azerbaijan pressed its ally Turkey to halt talks. Baku feared that an open border would cause it to lose leverage over Armenia in deadlocked Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.
What is behind Ankara and Yerevan restarting talks now?
The 14 January meeting comes over a year after a Russian-brokered ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia to end the six-week war that took over 7,000 lives between 27 September and 9 November 2020. Armenia’s defeat in that conflict shifted calculations in Ankara, Baku and Yerevan.
As concerns Turkey and Azerbaijan, the key development for both of them was that, as a result of the 2020 conflict, Azerbaijan regained control of all seven territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost to Armenian forces in the early 1990s. As noted above, Armenian control over these territories had been the source of Azerbaijan’s, and hence Turkey’s, key objection to normalising ties with Yerevan. With that issue off the table, Turkey began to signal its readiness for new talks with Armenia soon after the war.
Armenia ... is desperate for the economic relief it could reap from ending the 30-year closure of its western and eastern borders by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
For its part, Armenia, still reeling from its losses in the 2020 war, is desperate for the economic relief it could reap from ending the 30-year closure of its western and eastern borders by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia’s isolation has excluded it from the major energy and transportation projects in the South Caucasus, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean, the South Caucasus Gas Pipeline bearing gas headed for Europe and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail network. Because of the closed Turkish and Azerbaijani borders, Armenia has been forced to use lengthier and costlier mountainous trade routes via Georgia and Iran. An open border with Turkey would offer a direct path for Armenia to trade through Turkish Black Sea ports, relieving the need to rely on more circuitous routes.
Indeed, there are solid economic reasons for both Turkey and Armenia to want freer bilateral trade. An open border would permit Turkish goods, such as construction materials, to compete with often more expensive Russian imports in Armenia, while also allowing for the sale of Armenian produce and agricultural goods in Turkey. Opening up trade would likely also be a boon to business in eastern Turkey.
Have the key players given reason to hope that talks will be successful this time?
To some extent, yes. Having long posed the greatest impediment to a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, Baku’s public and private tone has changed dramatically in the wake of its victory. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said on 27 December that Azerbaijan “fully supports” Armenia and Turkey’s renewed attempt to settle relations. Some senior bureaucrats in Baku privately suggest that Turkish-Armenian normalisation might even help smooth their own post-war relations with Armenia by showing the benefits of shifting from a war footing to an everyone-wins focus on trade.
It remains to be seen, however, how much Azerbaijan’s own foreign policy goals will bleed into Turkish-Armenian negotiations. Baku is seeking to secure a new transit route that would connect Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan through Armenian territory. It is also pursuing a final peace deal, the outlines of which are bitterly disputed with Yerevan, and says new transport and trade links in the region must flow from that. Some in Baku are critical of the West’s response in the wake of the 2020 conflict, wanting greater financial and technical support to rebuild. While it would be a largely symbolic gesture, Baku is hoping that, in return for a constructive position on talks, it may be able to persuade the United States to repeal a law that bans direct U.S. aid to Azerbaijan, which it says is no longer relevant (although this ban can be waived if the U.S. president decides it is in the national interest, which successive presidents have done every year since 2001).
As for Armenia’s internal dynamics, while the leadership in Yerevan will no doubt face reproach from nationalists and the political opposition for pursuing talks with Turkey, criticism will perhaps be less strident than in the past. Prime Minister Pashinyan’s party won June 2021 snap elections, handing him a fresh mandate despite the blow of the country’s losses during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian diaspora may also be less of an obstacle than it has been in the past. Previously, Armenians in the diaspora vocally opposed normalisation, fearing that rapprochement with Ankara could weaken their long campaign to persuade governments to recognise the 1915 atrocities as a genocide. But recognition statements by U.S. President Joe Biden in 2021 and French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 – on top of prior recognition by Russia and others – were big wins for that movement and may have helped ease its concerns.
Ankara sees normalisation with Armenia not as an end in itself, but rather as an element of a larger regional transformation.
For its part, Turkey is seeking to increase its regional influence through greater transport and trade links that will benefit its economy, which is already by far the largest in the region. It also hopes that expanding these links will, in the words of a senior Turkish diplomat, “minimise potential for tension in the Caucasus”. As such, Ankara sees normalisation with Armenia not as an end in itself, but rather as an element of a larger regional transformation it hopes to facilitate and play a dominant role in.
How are other actors in and outside the region responding?
There is quite a bit of support for normalisation among outside powers, including Russia and the U.S., that have traditionally competed alongside Turkey for influence in the strategic region. Many of these actors would benefit economically from an end to Armenia’s isolation, which has stifled potential infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus – a region that lies at the crossroads of key trade and oil and gas transit routes from Central Asia and Russia to Turkey and Europe. Diplomats from Washington to Moscow to European capitals also believe an increase in trade and transport links will lead to more mutual dependencies and greater stability.
A former two-way railroad, which connected Armenia with Azerbaijan during the Soviet times, lies disused in the town of Meghri. April 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Olesya Vartanyan
In October, President Biden reportedly urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a meeting in Rome to normalise ties with Armenia. While France and other European Union (EU) members are not as involved as they were in talks leading to the abortive 2009 agreements – with EU diplomats saying they have less leverage now in light of their own strained relations with Ankara – they also have made clear that, if talks move forward, they could provide technical support for rebuilding trade and transport links.
Russia, which offered to mediate the talks, strongly backs a reopening of transport and trade links in the region. Indeed, it pushed to include the promise that “all economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked” in the ceasefire deal that it mediated between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow, which has deployed peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the 2020 ceasefire deal, is also looking for ways to lighten the burden it shoulders as a mediator and security provider in the South Caucasus, and believes that easing tensions between Armenia and Turkey will mean fewer regional headaches for it to manage. There is little concern in Moscow that agreement might also empower Turkey in a way that would displace its own influence in the region. To the contrary, by hosting the first meeting between the special envoys in its own capital, Russia is both projecting confidence in its regional position and demonstrating its influence: it is inviting the guests and deciding what seats they can take.
A handful of other key regional players are more tepid in their views about what the talks could yield. Georgia and Iran, in particular, are wary of geopolitical shifts in the region that could affect the economic and strategic benefits they reap from the status quo. With east- and westbound trade foreclosed to Armenia, the northern route through Georgia has been the main transit corridor connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey, Armenia and Russia. Meanwhile, Iran provides vital routes for Turkish goods to reach Azerbaijan and Central Asia as well as the only land bridge between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan, which is sandwiched between Armenia’s western border and Iran. While neither Tehran nor Tbilisi has strong objections to talks, both fear losing out in the longer term and want a voice in any plans to develop new regional economic and transport links.
How can the parties help keep talks on track?
That Ankara and Yerevan will begin direct talks in Moscow is a feat in and of itself after decades of trying to scry each other’s intentions from political statements, often made for domestic consumption. But a concerted effort will be needed to keep new talks from being cut short by older and deeper rivalries.
One important way to insulate this effort would be for the negotiators to refrain, as much as possible, from raising contentious issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of their dialogue on normalising ties. Just as that conflict derailed talks in the early 1990s and 2009, it could do so again.
Both [Turkey and Armenia] should work especially hard at keeping a lid on tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the duration of the talks.
In this connection, both parties and outside actors with influence in Yerevan and Baku should work especially hard at keeping a lid on tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the duration of the talks, as any escalation will inevitably be felt in Turkey-Armenia negotiations. The peace that followed the 2020 war is fragile, and the front lines that separate the parties zigzag through civilian settlements, with some people living in the line of fire. At least 96 soldiers and civilians have died since the 2020 ceasefire, both in tensions along the front lines and from mine explosions. The deadliest area has been the state border between Azerbaijan’s Kelbajar and Armenia’s Gegharkunik regions, as shown in Crisis Group’s visual explainer of the conflict. Plans by Yerevan and Baku in November to restore a direct communication channel between their defence ministries to prevent escalations like two that took place in 2021 (in July and in November) are essential to keep violence in check, as are their attempts to resume peace negotiations, including within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which oversaw their talks before the war.
The parties and their outside partners should also bear in mind that the longer negotiations drag out without positive developments to point to, the greater the risk that the momentum of recent months will dissipate or be overtaken by outside agendas. The 14 January meeting in Moscow is expected to focus on setting a roadmap for future discussions. Armenia’s decision in December to lift an embargo on Turkish imports and the governments’ joint decision to allow for the resumption of charter flights between Istanbul and Yerevan are important signals. More such stepping stones will be needed to help rebuild low trust between the sides. A disruption of this effort to establish neighbourly ties – only the third effort in as many decades and an important opportunity for Turkey, Armenia and the whole region – could only make that mistrust sink lower.