Armenia and Turkey’s frosty relationship thaws amid earthquake diplomacy

After a devastating earthquake killed tens of thousands of people in Turkey, its border with Armenia was opened for the first time in three decades. 

On February 11 and 14, the Armenian-Turkish border opened to allow convoys of trucks carrying food, water, medicine, other humanitarian materials, and 27 rescue workers to make their way from Armenia to Adiyaman in southern Turkey. A few days later, those rescuers returned to Armenia via the same land border.

These openings were the first in three decades and came amidst both ongoing negotiations to normalise Armenian-Turkish relations and a large-scale regional response to the February 6 earthquake that has so far killed 42,000 and left two million people in Turkey and Syria without homes. 

Normalising relations 

Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan, and Armenia’s borders with the two neighbouring countries have remained closed since the displacement and expulsion of 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories – internationally recognised as Azerbaijan – by ethnic Armenian forces during First Karabakh War of the 1990s.  

The implementation of the 2009 Zurich Protocols between Turkey and Armenia were meant to normalise relations, but their implementation was stalled due to Azerbaijan’s objections. Turkey maintained that the return of contested territories to Azerbaijan was a precondition for establishing diplomatic relations. 

Soviet-era rail routes that passed from Turkey through Armenia have ceased operation. New pipelines and railways connecting Baku to Turkey go out of their way to bypass Armenia by transiting Georgia instead. 

Another important sticking point in past talks between Turkey and Armenia has been Armenia’s efforts to promote international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Following the massacres of hundreds of thousands of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians in the mid-1890s and 1909, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) faction of the Young Turks ordered more massacres and the forced deportation Turkey’s Armenian population to the Syrian Desert in 1915. Over one million Armenians were killed in these massacres and death marches. The position of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that “it is factually problematic, morally unsound and legally unfounded to call this episode a ‘genocide’”. 

However, in 2020 during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan retook much of the territory held by Armenian separatists and began the resettlement of displaced Azerbaijanis.  

In December 2021, Armenia and Turkey appointed special envoys to begin the normalisation process. They met in Moscow in January 2022 to begin talks. 

Turkey lifted its ban on direct cargo flights to Armenia on January 6. 

The Armenian and Turkish Ministers of Foreign Affairs met in Ankara on February 15. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, expressed gratitude for Armenia’s earthquake relief, and both officials announced the Armenian-Turkish border would open to third-country nationals and holders of diplomatic passports ahead of the 2023 tourist season. Both governments will also cooperate on the restoration of the historical Ani bridge over the Akhuryan River on the border of the two countries. 

“We must maintain this solidarity in the South Caucasus,” said Cavusoglu. “We highly appreciate Armenia’s humanitarian assistance, and I believe that it will also support the process of normalisation of relations between Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia.” 

His Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, was equally cordial. “I want to reaffirm the readiness and aspiration of Armenia to establish peace in the region and, in particular, to fully regulate relations with Turkey, to establish diplomatic relations, and to fully open the border between Armenia and Turkey,” he said. 

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Regional response to tragedy 

Armenia’s aid to Turkey has attracted international attention due to the historical and political context, but other regional actors have sent even larger rescue teams in shows of support for Ankara.  

To date, Azerbaijan has sent the most rescue personnel of any country. Baku sent 420 rescue workers to Turkey on February 6, the day of the earthquake, and another 227 on February 8. Azerbaijan has also sent a mobile field hospital, medical team, tents, bedding, and rescue dogs.  

Interestingly, Israel sent the second largest rescue cohort to Turkey – two teams totalling 450 aid workers and 60 tonnes of humanitarian materials.  

Israel is a close ally of Azerbaijan – an alliance that has provoked neighbouring Iran’s ire – and is an increasingly important actor in the South Caucasus. However, while Azerbaijan is close to Israel, Turkey and Israel have had significantly frostier relations. Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen met with Cavusoglu in Ankara on Tuesday to discuss earthquake aid and, together, announced the resumption of direct flights between Israel and Turkey. The first direct flight between the countries in 15 years departed the following day.  

Nevertheless, while both Armenia and Israel sent rescue teams to Turkey amid thawing relations, the two countries are increasingly at odds as Israel increases military aid to Azerbaijan and Armenia deepens ties with Iran. 

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