Special envoys appointed by Armenia and Turkey to normalize bilateral relations held their first round of negotiations on January 14.
Moscow hosted the meeting between deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament Ruben Rubinyan, the youngest member of PM Nikol Pashinyan’s inner circle at age 31, and Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kılıç, a 64-year-old diplomat and former ambassador to the United States. The foreign ministries of Armenia and Turkey released virtually identical press releases following the meeting.
“During their first meeting, conducted in a positive and constructive atmosphere, the Special Representatives exchanged their preliminary views regarding the normalization process through dialogue between Armenia and Turkey. Parties agreed to continue negotiations without preconditions aiming at full normalization,” reads the press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia (MoFA).
Armenia’s borders with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan have been closed since the 1990s. The recent negotiations mark the third effort within the past three decades to establish diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey.
The initial round of talks began in 1992 amid the first Artsakh War. In April 1993, Turkey withdrew from the negotiations in response to the capture of Kelbajar by Armenian forces and closed its border with Armenia.
In 2009, the countries signed two bilateral protocols brokered by France, Russia and the United States. The Zurich Protocols would have opened the border, established diplomatic relations and created a joint historical commission to study the Armenian Genocide. However, the protocols were never ratified or implemented under pressure from Azerbaijan, which opposed normalization of relations without a resolution of the Artsakh conflict.
Last summer, Armenian and Turkish leadership suggested a renewed interest in talks on establishing diplomatic ties. During a cabinet meeting on August 27, 2021, PM Pashinyan said he had noted “positive public signals from Turkey,” to which Armenia was ready to respond “with a positive signal.”
Two days later Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey “can gradually normalize relations with Armenia.” “Even if there are disagreements, neighborly relations should be developed on the basis of respect of territorial integrity and sovereignty,” he told the Turkish press.
The countries have taken further steps in the past months that suggest a thaw in relations. On December 30, 2021, the Ministry of Economy (MoE) of Armenia announced the end of an embargo on imports of Turkish goods. The ban had been instituted one year earlier in response to Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan during the 2020 Artsakh War.
The MoE justified the end of the embargo based on its “significant impact on inflation” and “requests from our businesses to lift the ban.”
Turkish imports to Armenia far exceeded Armenian imports to Turkey prior to the embargo. In 2019, Turkey exported $255 million to Armenia, as opposed to $4.86 million from Armenia to Turkey, according to the Observatory for Economic Complexity.
Deputy chair of the economic affairs committee of Armenia’s parliament Babken Tunyan says that Turkish goods had bypassed the ban to enter Armenia illicitly.
“Economically, unfortunately this ban led to a situation where Turkish products were entering Armenia through different ways, because carrying out customs administration and control is practically impossible, and this simply led to prices of clothes, household items and other products in Armenia to grow, because these products are going through more complicated ways. Meaning, the objective we’d initially set politically doesn’t serve its purpose,” he told Armenpress.
Armenian and Turkish aviation authorities also granted permission earlier this month to Armenian and Turkish airlines to conduct roundtrip charter flights between Yerevan and Istanbul. The first flight by FlyOne Armenia is scheduled for February 2nd. Turkey had previously banned aircraft registered in Armenia from entering its airspace since September 2020.
Ahead of the January 14 meeting, spokesperson for the MoFA of Armenia Vahan Hunanyan said that he expects that diplomatic relations will be established and the border between the countries, which was “unilaterally closed by Turkey in the early 1990s,” will be opened.
“In fact, this is an introductory meeting. It could hardly be expected to have tangible results as a result of one meeting, but it will mark the launch of the process,” he told reporters.
Critics of the negotiation process warn that Turkey might not agree to open the shared border without extracting concessions contrary to Armenia’s interests. Preconditions to normalization could include renunciation of Artsakh to Azerbaijan and of the campaign for greater international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Indeed, in the past months Erdogan has made public statements connecting the restoration of diplomatic ties to the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor,” connecting Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan through Armenia without passport or customs controls.
On November 20, 2021, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said that Turkey had introduced new preconditions to the normalization process.
“We have always said that we are ready to normalize our relations without preconditions,” he said in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro. “We have heard positive signals from Turkey to reopen the dialogue, but it remains difficult. Ankara sets new conditions. Among these is the ‘corridor’ linking Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan and Turkey.”
The two parliamentary opposition factions, the Armenia Alliance and the I Have Honor Alliance, have been vocal critics of the negotiation process. During a press briefing at the National Assembly on Tuesday, Armenia Alliance deputy Ishkhan Saghatelyan said that the faction is not opposed to the establishment of Armenian-Turkish relations, yet concerned with at what cost it would be settled.
“Turkey is the same Turkey, but Armenia is not the same Armenia after the war. Therefore, they are leading the country into a new, very dangerous cycle. If as a result of initial negotiations between leaders we lost most of the territory of Artsakh, in this case the existence of Armenia is already put in question,” Saghatelyan said.
The United States and Russia have each expressed their support for the establishment of diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey. On the day of the January 14 meeting, which was hosted in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Russia’s approval of the negotiations.
“We certainly support these efforts and are actively involved. They contribute to the normalization of the situation in the South Caucasus and help create the right conditions for the remaining political problems to be resolved more expeditiously and productively, through the development of economic and other cooperation between the three countries in the region and their three large neighbours: Russia, Turkey and Iran,” Lavrov said during a news conference.
Azerbaijan has also conveyed its support of the negotiations. On December 28, 2021, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said that Azerbaijan “fully supports” normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s opposition to a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement has been the greatest impediment to previous efforts, according to the International Crisis Group.
“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 normalizing ties with Yerevan. With that issue off the table, Turkey began to signal its readiness for new talks with Armenia soon after the war,” a January 13 report by the International Crisis Group reads.