"Disaster diplomacy" creates hope for Armenia-Turkey normalization
Armenian experts expect Yerevan and Ankara will continue to take small steps toward each other. But Baku is unlikely to sit idly by as its top strategic partner and its archrival seek an understanding.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan was welcomed warmly in Ankara by his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on February 15.
The visit came shortly after Armenia sent humanitarian aid and rescue workers to its historical rival in a powerful gesture of goodwill following the deadly earthquakes that rocked southern Turkey on February 6.
At a joint news conference, Cavusoglu thanked Armenia for "extending a hand of friendship" in Turkey's time of need while Mirzoyan said that the sides had agreed to open their border to third-country nationals and diplomatic passport holders ahead of the 2023 tourist season.
That border has been closed since 1993 with the exception of the historic brief openings on February 11 and 14 to allow the delivery of quake relief.
After the briefing, Mirzoyan paid a visit to the 27 Armenian rescue workers deployed to the quake-hit city of Adiyaman.
Back in Yerevan on February 16, the top diplomat told a government meeting that those rescuers would return home through the land border on the same day.
He also reported to the cabinet that an agreement had been reached on the restoration of the historic Ani bridge on the Akhuryan (Arpacay) river which forms part of the two countries' border.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan welcomed the announcement as a "symbolic step" and said Armenia already had preliminary designs for the bridge's reconstruction.
Pashinyan also hit out at domestic critics of the decision to send quake relief.
"Millions of people in the neighborhood of our country need support and it is unacceptable for anyone to remain indifferent," he said.
That criticism, which included opposition groups' use of the familiar epithet "Turkophilia" towards the Pashinyan government, is borne out of powerful historical grievances.
Ankara refuses to recognize the World War I-era mass slaughter and deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as an act of genocide, and it has sided with fraternal Baku for decades in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey shut the border in 1993, just two years after Armenia gained independence, in solidarity with Azerbaijan amid the First Karabakh War.
But after Azerbaijan – with extensive Turkish help – retook large swathes of land from Armenian forces in the Second Karabakh War of 2020, Armenia and Turkey gingerly embarked on normalizing relations.
Historian Nelli Minasyan believes Mirzoyan's visit gave the normalization process a nudge.
"Turkey already uses the term 'disaster diplomacy' in relation to Armenia and Greece, countries that Ankara has deeply problematic relations with. I think that the agreements reached in Ankara were not formulated spontaneously. Discussions on these issues have been going on for a long time, and the earthquake and the processes around it served as an occasion to voice them," she told Eurasianet.
But Ruben Safrastyan, a specialist in Turkey at Armenia’s National Academy, sees no reason to expect a major breakthrough.
"These statements have signaled that the process will move forward in small steps," he told Armenian Public TV after the foreign minister's visit. But, he warned, the recent catastrophe does not change the fact that Azerbaijan is wary of Armenia-Turkey normalization and possesses levers to stall it.
Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, hinted, during the briefing with his Armenian counterpart, at Ankara's close coordination with Baku.
"Advances in Armenia's dialogue with Turkey and Azerbaijan will contribute to stability in the region. If our three countries take sincere steps, we will be able to achieve long-term peace in the South Caucasus," Cavusoglu said.
Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.