Armenians ponder a post-Erdogan Turkey
Analysts say that, while an Erdogan defeat would be a preferable outcome for Armenia, a change of power in Turkey would not necessarily be a game changer.
Armenia is watching the campaign ahead of the May 14 election in Turkey with great interest and guarded expectations.
Most Armenians view Turkey as an enemy and a threat, but the prospect of mending ties with their historical rival and vastly larger neighbor holds undeniable economic opportunities.
Armenian analysts would prefer to see the defeat of incumbent strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who oversaw Turkey's extensive military support for Azerbaijan in the 2020 Second Karabakh War.
But they also warn against pinning hopes on a major change in Turkey's foreign policy should the opposition coalition's candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, pull off an upset win.
Turkey and Armenia have never had diplomatic relations and their border has been closed since 1993, when Ankara shut it in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the First Karabakh War.
Azerbaijan's victory in the second war opened the door to Armenia-Turkey rapprochement talks which got underway in early 2022 and have proceeded fitfully since then. Several rounds of talks produced the resumption of direct passenger and cargo flights, and an agreement, not yet realized, on opening the land border to citizens of third countries and persons with diplomatic passports.
The Armenian government has already allocated funds for renovating the Margara checkpoint on the border with Turkey.
But just days ago, Turkey announced the closure of its airspace to some flights from Armenia in retaliation for the erection of a monument in Yerevan commemorating a plot to assassinate the early 20th-century Turkish leaders who orchestrated the Armenian genocide.
This negotiation process, with its ups and downs, has been overseen on Turkey's side by President Erdogan and his long-ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Ergodan has close ties to Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's autocratic leader who regularly engages in threatening rhetoric against Armenia. (Aliyev has campaigned for Erdogan, and Azerbaijan's government-aligned media has shown an unusual amount of enthusiasm for Erdogan's re-election.)
So naturally Armenians are not particularly optimistic about the prospect of Erdogan staying in power.
Turkologist Ruben Safrastyan thinks that if Erdogan manages to extend his 20-year rule, Turkey could further boost its support for Azerbaijan and further subordinate Armenia-Turkey rapprochement to the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Turkey, in exchange for opening the border with Armenia, will not only seek to resolve the Karabakh conflict in accordance with the interests of Azerbaijan, but will also require Yerevan to officially recognize the Kars Treaty of 1991, according to which the current border between the two states was determined. Turkey will also demand that Armenia renounce seeking the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and open communication through the Syunik region of Armenia, which is called the 'Zangezur corridor' in Azerbaijan and Turkey. Through it, Turkey wants to freely communicate with Azerbaijan, and further with the Turkic countries of Central Asia," Safrastyan told Eurasianet.
Armenia should not have any problem recognizing its state border with Turkey even though some Armenians, particularly in the diaspora, regard parts of Turkey as traditional Armenian lands. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced in parliament on May 3 that Yerevan had no territorial claims on neighboring states.
And despite deep historical resentments, particularly in the diaspora, the Armenian state does not precondition setting up diplomatic ties with Ankara on Turkish recognition of the genocide.
But Yerevan is categorically against providing Azerbaijan an extraterritorial corridor, which could have the effect of cutting off the crucial border with Iran and create a sense of encirclement by rival states.
So what if there is a change of power in Turkey?
"If the Turkish opposition wins, we can expect some softening of Turkey's pressure on Armenia. This is because the Turkish opposition seeks to strengthen cooperation with the United States and backs the country's entry into the EU, and the West as a whole is in favor of normalizing relations between Ankara and Yerevan. However, I do not expect any drastic change in relations between Baku and Ankara. After all, the military-political and economic integration between the two countries is very deep. I don't think that the Turkish opposition will abandon it if it wins the elections," Ruben Safrastyan said.
Another Turkologist, Nelli Minasyan, agrees. "Erdogan will have left a huge political legacy. It has been beneficial to Turkey and its geopolitical interests. It is unlikely that the opposition will reject this. Some aspects will change, but there will hardly be a sharp reconfiguration. This also applies to Turkey's relations with Armenia," she said in an interview with Eurasianet.
Expectations and fears
Armenians tend to have ambivalent feelings about normalizing relations with Turkey. A recent IRI poll found that 89 percent of respondents considered Turkey a major "political threat". That number was just behind Azerbaijan's 93 percent.
Turkey is a historical rival and villain in the Armenian consciousness, but many Armenians are nonetheless willing to buy Turkish goods. Trade turnover is growing dramatically despite the closed border. Overland trade takes place through Georgia.
After Armenia lifted a year-long ban on the import of Turkish goods over Ankara's support for Azerbaijan during the Second Karabakh War, trade turnover shot up by 4,400 percent from 2021 ($73.5m) to 2022 ($324.5m). Armenia's chief imports from Turkey are consumer goods, aluminum, and fruits while its top exports are gold and precious and semiprecious stones.
If and when the border is fully opened, a further increase in bilateral trade is to be expected. While that will be good for Armenian consumers, many fear it will harm local producers, in particular farmers, who will not be able to compete with Turkish government-subsidized produce.
Meanwhile, the Armenian government has done some initial calculations on the positive effects. The press service of the Armenian Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure told Eurasianet that an opening of the border would reduce fuel costs for heavy trucks by an average of $100 dollars and reduce the overland distance between Yerevan and Istanbul by about 200 kilometers.
The new route would also eliminate the need for cargo companies to pay transit duties in Georgia, the press service said.
Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.
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