Turkey-Armenia talks seen as key to opening up regional transit links

Turkey-Armenia talks seen as key to opening up regional transit links
For Armenia, opening the border with Turkey would break its dependence on the two short open borders it does has with Georgia in the north and Iran in the south and provide further reliable access to the Black Sea and beyond.
By Neil Hauer in Yerevan, Javid Agha in Baku January 13, 2022

Talks between Turkey and Armenia that begin on January 14 in Moscow are seen as important not just for regional trade links but also for the prospect for eventual peace in the Caucasus.

There have been no diplomatic relations between the two countries since they mutually closed borders in 1993 after Armenia’s victory over Azerbaijan in the first war over the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

Turkey regards itself as a “brother nation” of Azerbaijan and staunchly supports Baku’s policy to retake territories under ethnic Armenian occupation. During the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Ankara supported Azerbaijan, and Turkish armed drones proved important in its victory.

Armenia has also accused Turkey of deploying military advisers in the field to run Azerbaijani battle strategy, something Ankara denied. After the conflict ended, Armenia introduced a boycott of Turkish consumer goods.

Armenia and Turkey also remain at odds over the 1915 killing of 1.5mn Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which Armenia describes as genocide.

The Moscow meeting comes as part of a renewed international initiative to normalise ties in the region, as Russia and other foreign players push for the opening of transit links. Last month, Moscow hosted the inaugural meeting of a six-way South Caucasus peace platform, proposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The platform includes Iran, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia, though Georgia refused to take part.  

Ankara, which has no diplomatic ties with Armenia, has said the 3+3 platform may help normalise its ties with Yerevan.

For Turkey, the Moscow meeting offers an opportunity to improve its international reputation, particularly with the US, with which relations have been strained over its purchase of missile systems from Russia and its poor record on basic human rights. The struggling Turkish economy also stands to benefit from improved trade links across the Caucasus.

There have already been some promising signals. On January 1, Armenia lifted an import ban on Turkish products. FlyOne Armenia and Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines have also recently received permission from both countries to operate Yerevan-Istanbul charter flights.

For Armenia, having an open border with Turkey would certainly be a major boon for the country. It would break its dependence on the two short open borders it does have (with Georgia in the north and Iran in the south) and provide further reliable access to the Black Sea and beyond. The country’s geopolitical isolation would be softened somewhat, perhaps not enough to break its absolute security dependence on Russia in the wake of the 2020 Karabakh War, but a step in that direction.

However, the primary obstacle to the Turkey-Armenia talks remains Azerbaijan’s role and the two key elements of that: Firstly, what will Baku demand from the process, and secondly, to what degree will Ankara adopt those demands as its own.

Azerbaijan has generally tended not to comment on the Turkish-Armenian process, but rather focus on Azerbaijani-Armenian normalisation, and Russia's importance in this. But when Baku has commented, it has always stressed that that the process should be seen in the context of the normalisation of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.

In an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais in December, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said: "The only way for Armenia's development is to normalise relations with Azerbaijan, to normalise relations with Turkey, to take important steps to convince people to be neighbours, to be normal neighbours, not to be enemies, and to avoid territorial claims."

Turkey has signalled in recent months that it will be closely coordinating its position during the normalisation talks with that of Azerbaijan.

"We consult with Azerbaijan on every issue and take such steps [as agreed] ... Nobody should question whether we can act independently or separately from Azerbaijan. We are one nation, two states. These are positive things that will benefit us all," Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month.

Such a standpoint threatens to derail serious hopes of progress before they even begin. Yerevan will not countenance the adoption by Ankara of any of Baku’s hardline demands as a necessity for any opening.

Azerbaijan has been pushing for a comprehensive settlement between Yerevan and Baku that would see Armenia agree to Azerbaijan’s full territorial integrity, including Karabakh; essentially, a full capitulation. Azerbaijani forces have continued to militarily pressure Armenia proper as well as Karabakh itself, shooting regularly on Karabakh Armenian civilians in a clear attempt to promote the depopulation of the territory.

In this environment, it would be foolish to expect any progress between Armenia and Azerbaijan, whether through the current Turkey-Armenia talks or otherwise. If Azerbaijan continues to hold this maximalist position, and Turkey agrees to attempt to force Armenia to agree to these terms, the talks will go nowhere.

Armenia’s line for the past three decades has been that it is open to ‘normalization without preconditions’ with Turkey, a position reiterated repeatedly by current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

In the event that Turkey does not push Azerbaijan’s demands, some limited progress is possible. The most likely are the opening of direct flights between the two countries (as well as the charter routes) and the restoration of border crossings, likely including the rail link between Turkey’s Kars and Armenia’s Gyumri.

This is something that could occur alongside further steps to reopen the Yerevan-Nakhchivan-Horadiz-Baku railway, the circuitous Soviet-era rail track whose restoration was agreed upon between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev in December.

These terms would certainly be acceptable to the Armenian side, fitting closely enough to their perception of what the current Turkey-Armenia talks should look like. Whether Ankara, under Baku’s pressure, will agree with this is the real question.