The role of the devastating earthquakes in the normalization of Turkey-Armenia ties
DENIZ WILSON- The earthquake that caused tens of thousands of people in southeastern Turkey to lose their lives also brought with it some unexpected diplomatic developments. Neighboring Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties, extended a helping hand during the earthquakes, even though the land border is closed due to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Providing both search and rescue teams and humanitarian aid when needed, Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ararat Mirzoyan also visited Turkey.
Following the February 6 earthquakes, many countries with which Turkey experiences foreign policy conflicts lent their extensive support. Like Mirzoyan, the Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Dendias and Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen were among the ministers who visited Turkey to show their support.
The Turkey-Armenia “rapprochement” experienced in the aftermath of the earthquake raises questions regarding the longevity of diplomatic efforts for the normalization of ties.
Armenia’s reaction to the earthquake
Following the magnitude 7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes experienced on February 6, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan released a statement of condolence:
“Saddened by the news of the devastating earthquake in #Türkiye & #Syria that resulted in the loss of so many lives. Our deepest condolences to the families of the victims and we wish a speedy recovery to the injured. Armenia is ready to provide assistance.”
Later, Pashinyan called President Erdogan to express his condolences to the Turkish public and convey his message of solidarity. President Erdogan also thanked Prime Minister Pashinyan for their solidarity and noted that the Turkish government held Armenian support in high regard, emphasizing that the dialogue between these two countries would be further developed.
Armenia was among the many countries that sent search and rescue teams. The Armenian team that joined the relief efforts in the province of Adiyaman contributed to the rescue of two young women.
Armenia went a step further to deliver approximately 100 tons of relief supplies to Adiyaman and Maras on February 11. The trucks delivered the aid by crossing the Margara/Alican border between Armenia and Turkey which was closed in 1993. A border that had been closed for exactly 30 years was opened once more for the sake of humanitarian aid. The Alican border crossing was last used in 1988 by the Turkish Red Crescent which was delivering aid after the earthquake in Armenia.
The timing of this aid is particularly significant, as it comes after nearly two months of the blockade of the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh caused by Azerbaijan’s closing of the Lachin corridor that connects the region to Armenia. The humanitarian crisis and the shortage of food and medicine brought on by the blockade has led to reactions among Armenians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.
Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vahan Kostanyan shared the video alongside the following statement: “Humanitarian aid from #Armenia crossed the Margara bridge on #Armenia-#Turkey border heading to earthquake-stricken region.”
Serdar Kilic, the Turkish Republic’s special representative to Armenia, responded to the post with these words: “Thank you dear @VahanKostanyan thank you dear @RubenRubinyan for your kind efforts to make this happen. I will always remember the generous aid sent by the people of Armenia to help alleviate the sufferings of our people in the earthquake-stricken region in Türkiye.”
Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mirzoyan visits Turkey
Another historic development took place on February 15 with the visit of Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ararat Mirzoyan to Turkey. Mirzoyan met with Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. During the meeting, Cavusoglu remarked that, “Today’s visit and the solidarity they have shown and support they have given during these hard times are incredibly meaningful in our eyes,” and added:
“If [Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey] take sincere steps, we can establish lasting peace and harmony in the South Caucasus, and the permanent stability of the South Caucasus is extremely important for the economic development of this region. Especially after the covid pandemic and the Ukraine war, the East-West Central Corridor has become extremely important. Therefore, as countries on this path, we can make important contributions not only to the stability and development of our region, but also to the steps that Asia and Europe can take to increase cooperation."
Noting that Armenia had extended a hand of friendship during these difficult days, Cavusoglu said, “Armenia also sent relief supplies to our country during the Golcuk earthquake. The 1988 earthquake in Armenia still retains its place in our memory; after that earthquake, Turkey's aid was delivered to Armenia through the Alican border crossing. Humanitarian aid from Armenia came to our country through the same crossing. We need to continue this solidarity.”
At the meeting, Mirzoyan said, “Our meeting today is about the disaster that caused the loss of many lives. However, by being in Turkey at this difficult moment, I would like to reaffirm the readiness and willingness of the Republic of Armenia to build peace in the region, especially for the full normalization of relations with Turkey, the establishment of diplomatic relations and the full opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey.” Mirzoyan also added that the countries had agreed to jointly repair the historical Ani Bridge, which lies on the border between the two nations, and to deal with the related infrastructure before the border is fully opened.
Regarding the visit of Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to Turkey, Toivo Klaar, the European Union's Special Representative for the South Caucasus, remarked on his Twitter page that, “This is a historic visit following Armenia's decision to support its neighbor in need. Hopefully a harbinger of developments to come in the Turkey-Armenia relationship.”
The Ani Bridge is to be repaired, the normalization process is to be accelerated
Ruben Rubinyan, Armenia's Special Representative for the normalization of relations with Turkey, said, "Normalization will first ensure stability and peace in the region, and secondly, economic cooperation and cooperation in other fields. We came here from Ankara. During our meeting with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, we reached consensus on some issues. For example, we agreed to jointly rebuild the historical Ani Bridge, part of which is located in Armenia and the other part in Turkey, and to accelerate the normalization process to open the border completely.”
Although his anti-Armenian views are well-known, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party which supports Erdogan's government, also thanked Armenia in his speech.
Can normalization be sped up?
Some experts have indicated that these diplomatic steps after the earthquake would contribute positively to the ongoing Turkey-Armenia normalization efforts.
When Armenia gained its independence, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize it. However, Turkey closed its land border in 1993 after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The relations, which were at a standstill for a long time, were revived after the process known as football diplomacy in 2008-2009, and protocols were signed in 2009 towards normalization. However, due to the pressure exerted by the Azerbaijani government on Turkey, relations were shelved once more.
While Turkey lent considerable support to Azerbaijan in the war it started against Armenia in 2020, the ceasefire signed after the war and the "Karabakh obstacle and the six districts" issue obstructing good relations were de facto "solved," and normalization talks with Turkey and Armenia resumed.
Is a second football diplomacy in the works?
The two countries fell into the same group in the European Football Championship Euro 2024 qualifiers. The national teams of the two countries will play against one another in Armenia on March 25, 2023 and in Turkey on September 8, 2023. Many experts think that a form of football diplomacy may occur as leaders of the two countries attend the matches, as was the case 15 years ago.
Presidential and parliamentary elections are slated to be held in Turkey in May or June. The country is going through a major economic crisis and the Erdogan administration wants to restructure relations with Western countries in particular. Therefore, it wishes to form a positive agenda with Armenia and to score points with Western capitals.