The Turkey-Armenia border opened, albeit briefly, for the first time in three decades to allow passage of Armenian humanitarian aid destined for victims of the massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
Armenia’s deputy foreign minister, Vahan Kostanyan, tweeted video on February 11 of Armenian trucks crossing the narrow bridge between Magara, in Armenia, and the neighboring Turkish village of Alican.
"Trucks with humanitarian aid have crossed the Margara bridge on the border and are on their way to the earthquake-stricken region,” he wrote.
The crossing was the first time in three decades the border had been used; Turkey closed it in 1993 during the first Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey’s close ally. Following the second Karabakh war, in 2020, efforts to normalize relations – including reopening the border – have been revived, though they have not borne significant fruit so far.
Armenia sent five truckloads of 100 tons of aid including food and medicine, said Serdar Kilic, a senior Turkish diplomat who has been Ankara’s envoy in the ongoing normalization process. “I will always remember the generous aid sent by the people of Armenia,” he wrote on Twitter.
The move engendered hope that it could lead to a more permanent opening of the border. “Let’s get some good out of this great disaster,” tweeted Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian member of Turkey’s parliament, reporting the news of the aid convoy crossing the border.
The opening was “a historical, humanitarian and conscientious step,” Paylan told Turkish news agency Anka. “I hope this humanitarian step will lead to the permanent opening of the border."
But the border will not remain open for now. “This was a one-time opening for humanitarian purposes,” an official at Armenia’s Foreign Ministry told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity.
Last July, Kilic and his Armenian counterpart Ruben Rubinyan agreed to a sort of pilot project of opening the border, allowing third-party nationals to cross, as well as to start allowing air cargo flights between the two countries.
That pilot border opening was expected to take place in the fall, but the normalization process stalled following an escalation in tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan following a major Azerbaijani attack against Armenia in September.
There was some small progress at the beginning of 2023, when Turkey agreed to start allowing cargo flights, with negotiations continuing.
“Currently there are talks” on implementing the border opening, the Armenian official said. “Hopefully this agreement will be implemented as soon as possible.”
Turkish Foreign Ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to the aid, Armenia also dispatched 27 rescue workers to Turkey, along with 29 more to Syria. Rubinyan reported on February 12 that the team, along with Turkish and American counterparts, had rescued two young women in the city of Adiyaman.
In Yerevan, there are few expectations about the border opening, but some hope that the earthquake aid may shift policies in Ankara, said analyst Mikael Zolyan. “There are moderate expectations that Turkey may less aggressively support Azerbaijan, and there might be a moderate shift in public opinion there,” he told Eurasianet.
The Turkey-Armenia normalization process has been going on parallel to talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan on reaching a comprehensive peace agreement to resolve their conflict. While officials from Ankara and Yerevan both officially deny that the processes are formally linked, they are at least indirectly connected.
When Armenia and Turkey reported in July that they were planning to tentatively open their border, Azerbaijan announced that it was closing its own border with Turkey, citing the Covid pandemic. That latter border has only recently reopened, without being formally announced.
Turkey closed the border with Armenia in 1993 during the first Armenia-Azerbaijan war, in protest of Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory at the heart of the conflict.
There were attempts over the years to restore ties and reopen the border, most notably in 2009 during the process that became known as the Turkey-Armenia protocols. That effort failed, however, due to pressure from Baku on its Turkish allies.
In the 2020 war, the formal reason for the border closure – Armenia’s occupation of territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh – was effectively resolved, as Armenia agreed to cede control of those territories as a result of its defeat to Azerbaijan.
Senior officials, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, began talking publicly about the prospect of normalization in the summer of 2021. The two sides appointed their special envoys for normalization in December 2021.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.