Will earthquake diplomacy change anything in Armenia-Turkey relations?

The devastating earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.5 magnitudes struck southern Turkey on February 6, 2023. As of February 12, the death toll passed 30,000, while the number of wounded reached almost 100,000. More than 12,000 buildings were destroyed, and large-scale rescue operations are underway. Besides the immense human tragedy, the earthquake will have domestic and foreign policy implications for Turkey. The country faces crucial presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14. After the earthquake, discussions started about possibly postponing the elections, given the scale of destruction. 

Turkey’s authorities have declared a three-month emergency in provinces affected by the earthquake. Many wonder about the possibility of pursuing an election campaign in the current circumstances. According to Turkey’s constitution, elections should occur by June 18, 2023. Only the start of a war gives authorities a legal option to postpone elections for one year. However, some experts argue that the government may apply to the Constitutional court asking for a one-year postponement claiming that the current emergency equals the launch of military activities. It is difficult to assess what path President Erdogan will choose. Before the earthquake, Erdogan had a high chance to secure another five-year term as president, but the tragedy may bring on political misfortune. As regional and global geopolitics enter a period of volatility and unpredicted changes, no one can guarantee that internal and external conditions will be more favorable for Erdogan in the spring/summer of 2024.

Authorities have been arresting owners of construction companies, chief engineers and architects whose companies were acting in the areas affected by the earthquake. Many new buildings collapsed due to the earthquake, and Turkish society raises questions about the potential breaks of construction norms and rules. Part of this criticism is directed against the country’s political leadership and probably President Erdogan; the ruling AKP hopes these arrests will allow them to shift the blame.

The earthquake triggered an immediate international response, as many countries dispatched rescue teams and humanitarian aid to the affected areas. Armenia, which faced horrific implications from the devastating earthquake in December 1988, decided to provide humanitarian assistance to the neighboring country. Prime Minister Pashinyan expressed his condolences to President Erdogan during a phone call held on February 7; more than two dozen Armenian rescue workers arrived in Turkey the next day.

In late 2021, Armenia and Turkey launched a new attempt to normalize relations and appointed special envoys who held their first meeting in Moscow in January 2022. Several more meetings took place in 2022, including a meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Erdogan on October 6, 2022 in Prague. Armenia and Turkey reached several minor agreements, including the decision to open the land border for third-country citizens, which still needs to be implemented, and to launch direct cargo flights. However, no breakthrough was achieved after more than one year of negotiations. The primary reason for the lack of progress is Turkey’s position directly connecting the Armenia-Turkey normalization process with Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations to sign a peace agreement. In reality, Turkey continues to speak with Armenia in terms of preconditions, demanding that Yerevan accept Azerbaijani conditions on the peace deal if Armenia wants normalization with Turkey. 

In late July 2022, Erdogan publicly linked the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations to Armenia accepting Azerbaijan’s key demands. “Azerbaijan has been our red line right from the beginning,” Erdogan told Turkish media. “We have said that we will open our doors [to Armenia] after problems with Azerbaijan are solved.” Erdogan reiterated this position after meeting Pashinyan in Prague in October 2022, calling on Yerevan to sign a deal with Azerbaijan and provide a corridor via Armenia linking Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan and Turkey. Meanwhile, after the short momentum in Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations in late September and early October 2022 resulted in adopting the Prague statement endorsed by Pashinyan, Aliyev, Macron and Michel, the negotiation process stalled. No bilateral meetings took place after November 7, 2022; negotiations between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Washington and the blockade of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijan, which entered its third month on February 12, 2023, did not contribute to the establishment of a more conducive environment for the resumption of negotiations. Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to exchange ideas regarding the text of the peace agreement, and a few days ago, Armenia received a new package of Azerbaijani suggestions. However, this exchange of ideas is not a full-fledged negotiation process. 

In addition to dispatching a rescue team to Turkey, the Armenian government decided to send humanitarian assistance. On February 11, 2023, for the first time in the last 30 years, trucks passed the Armenia-Turkey land border via the Margara bridge. The Turkish special representative in talks with Armenia, Serdar Kilic, tweeted his gratitude to his Armenian counterpart Ruben Rubinyan and Armenian deputy foreign minister Vahan Kostanyan. This event stimulated discussions about the launch of “earthquake diplomacy” between Armenia and Turkey, emulating the memories of the “football diplomacy” of 2008-2009, which ended with the signature of the Zurich protocols between the two countries. It is too early to assess the implications of this short-term opening of the Armenia-Turkey land border. However, it is pretty unlikely that humanitarian assistance to Turkey will pave the way for a breakthrough in Armenia-Turkey relations, and impressed by the gesture of the Armenian government, President Erdogan would decide to separate Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations and sign a deal with Armenia prior to any Armenia-Azerbaijan agreement. Providing humanitarian assistance to Turkey may improve the image of the Armenian government in the eyes of the West, depicting Armenia as a constructive player who is ready to make additional steps towards Ankara despite the tough position of Turkey. However, it is unlikely to convince Turkey’s leadership to change its core vision on the future of Armenia-Turkey relations.   

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the founder and chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies and a senior research fellow at APRI – Armenia. He was the former vice president for research – head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense Research University in Armenia. In March 2009, he joined the Institute for National Strategic Studies as a research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Dr. Poghosyan has prepared and managed the elaboration of more than 100 policy papers which were presented to the political-military leadership of Armenia, including the president, the prime minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Dr. Poghosyan has participated in more than 50 international conferences and workshops on regional and international security dynamics. His research focuses on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East, US – Russian relations and their implications for the region, as well as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. He is the author of more than 200 academic papers and articles in different leading Armenian and international journals. In 2013, Dr. Poghosyan was a Distinguished Research Fellow at the US National Defense University College of International Security Affairs. He is a graduate from the US State Department Study of the US Institutes for Scholars 2012 Program on US National Security Policy Making. He holds a PhD in history and is a graduate from the 2006 Tavitian Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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