Ray of hope in Turkish-Armenian relations

Daily Sabah
Ray of hope in Turkish-Armenian relations

A rare ray of hope is shining across the snow-capped mountains towering over Turkey's northeastern edge, as the first direct contact in years between Turkish and Armenian envoys is set to take place in Moscow on Friday in an attempt to mend the bilateral ties shuttered for three decades, Daily Sabah writes.

For the locals of the Turkish frontier town of Akyaka in the northeastern border province Kars, these talks could not have come soon enough. "Since the border was shut in 1993, our region has become the country's blind spot, locked on all sides. The border is our only window to the world", said Engin Yıldırım, director of the Akyaka traders' association.

Despite being neighbors, Turkey and Armenia have seen many difficulties in their diplomatic relations since Yerevan’s declaration of independence in 1991. The two countries have long been divided by a range of issues.

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence on Sept. 21, 1991. However, the Soviet Union's chaotic breakup in 1991 set off a wave of regional conflicts, sparking an all-out war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. Turkey sealed the border in 1993 in support of its allies in Baku.

Locals now refer to the Akyaka train stop, built out of black basalt, as the "station of nostalgia" – a memory of the days when trains crisscrossed in both directions, bringing the scenic region tourism and trade. "In 1991, people would flock to both sides of the border to meet up. It happened for two years," Vedat Akçayöz, a local historian recalled.

Since then, the second war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 saw Azerbaijan reverse most of its losses and Armenia agree to a Russian-brokered truce. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ankara supported Baku. The regional mood has been improving ever since.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in October last year that he saw "no obstacle" to normalizing ties with Armenia if Yerevan also maintained "goodwill" with Baku. Addressing Azerbaijan’s parliament on Jan 16, 2021, Erdoğan said peace and stability in the Caucasus will benefit the entire world, not just countries of the region. "The opening of Turkey’s borders to Armenia will bring innumerable benefits to the country,” he added.

Ankara and Armenia then appointed special envoys for the talks. Last month, Yerevan decided to lift an embargo on Turkish goods it imposed over the Second Karabakh War. In their first meeting, the envoys will exchange views on a roadmap for moving forward, including confidence-building measures. The two countries will also begin charter flights between Istanbul and Yerevan as well. Turkish and Armenian companies have also applied for permission for charter flights between Istanbul and Yerevan.

Yıldırım said the locals are closely following the diplomatic moves. "Our government is in favor of reopening the border and I believe the Armenians are too. We have no problem with the Armenians, and they have no problem with us".

Time to live in peace

The remote region's shop owners recall a time when Armenians would come across the border and gobble up their goods. "We did a brisk business with the Armenians," said Huseyin Kanık, a shop owner in the nearby province of Kars, which specializes in various types of cheese. In the Soviet era, "they would arrive with furs and samovars and returned with our products ... We are soon going back to those days".

In front of his 19th-century hotel, Gaffar Demir also bet on peace: "We have a road, a railroad, but no relations with the Armenians," he complained. Kars includes Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds and other ethnic groups besides Turks and Armenians. "For everyone, it is time to live in peace", the locals said.

Relations between Armenia and Turkey have historically been complicated. Turkey objects to the presentation of the 1915 incidents as "genocide" but describes the events as a tragedy in which both sides suffered casualties. Ankara has repeatedly proposed the creation of a joint commission consisting of historians from Turkey and Armenia and international experts to tackle the issue.

The former Kars mayor Naif Alibeyoğlu, who has always backed a rapprochement with Armenia, says: "We look alike, we laugh and we cry about the same things". His brother Alican, who founded the local broadcaster Serhat TV, adds: "I am sure the date for the border's reopening has already been set".

Russia recently announced that it supports talks between Turkey and Armenia to normalize ties, stressing that “the whole world will benefit from this reestablishment of neighborly relations.” The move is seen as part of an effort to end tensions in the Caucasus region. It is also part of Turkey’s efforts to reconcile with a number of countries it has fallen out with, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

Last month, Moscow hosted the inaugural meeting of a six-way South Caucasus peace platform, proposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Ankara has made frequent calls for a six-nation platform comprising of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia for permanent peace, stability and cooperation in the region, saying it would be a win-win initiative for all regional actors in the Caucasus. Turkey believes that permanent peace is possible through mutual security-based cooperation among the states and people of the South Caucasus region.