Attempten to improving the strained relationship between Turkey and Armenia has under the last few months have had new air under their wings. The border between the countries, that has been closed since the 90s, was opened in February for Armenia to deliver aid to the earthquake affected areas of Turkey. But the deep wounds left by the 1915 Armenian Genocide and Turkey's close relationship with Azerbaijan remain one obstacles to reconciliation.
It's the first real spring day of the year when I go Khor Virap, one of Armenia's many medieval monasteries. The church is one of the most important sites of Armenia's religious history and the site is a popular tourist destination – as can be seen from the many souvenir vendors along the way up to the church.
A shy spring sun peeks out and the cold wind bites my cheeks as I admire the old building. But what interests me the most is the geographical location of the place. We are only about 100 meters from the border with Turkey. You can even glimpse a Turkish village on the other side.
The relationship between Armenia and Turkey is, to say the least, strained – the countries have no diplomatic relations and the land border has been closed since the 90s. Partly because Turkey has not recognized it Armenian Genocide, partly because of Turkey's close ties to Armenia's archenemy Azerbaijan.
But recently attempts at normalization – that is, opening the border and establishing diplomatic relations – have gained new air under their wings. Armenia sent assistance to Turkey after the devastating earthquakes in February and the countries agreed to open the border for the first time in three decades to deliver supplies, something my Armenian friend described as “surreal”. The week after the earthquake, the Armenian foreign minister paid a historic visit to his Turkish counterpart. There's also planer on opening the border for third-country nationals in the summer.
To understand what the recent events actually mean, I turn to the Civilitas Foundation, an organization that runs one of the largest independent media channels in Armenia – CivilNet. Through its channels, Civilitas has several projects underway to spread information about Armenia's relationship with Turkey.
Georgi Mirzabekyan, journalist and analyst at CivilNet, settles down next to me with a steaming hot cup search, strong Armenian coffee, to discuss what has come to be known as “disaster diplomacy". I ask him how he sees the significance of recent events.
- It can break the ice, he says after a moment's thought.
- Yes, there were important steps that Armenia took. We are neighbors, we should and must help each other. But in the diplomatic arena it is difficult, there are many obstacles.
The issue of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide lies like a heavy blanket over all attempts at normalization. When the Ottoman Empire fell during the First World War massacred and displaced the Young Turks Armenians and other ethnic groups in the region. Encyclopaedia Britannica states that between 600 and 000 million Armenians were murdered, but the total death toll is disputed and according to Armenian sources it concerns around 1,5 million people. The Turkish government claims to this day that Armenia exaggerates the figure and that the persecution cannot be described as genocide.
But while the issue of the genocide remains relevant, Turkey's close relationship with Armenia's archenemy and neighbor Azerbaijan is a more contemporary obstacle. Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a protracted conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within Azerbaijan's land borders inhabited by Armenians. In the last full-scale war in the fall of 2020, in which Azerbaijan managed to take control of large areas of land, Turkey gave military support to Azerbaijan.
Despite this, it is Armenia that is driving the attempts at normalization, not Turkey.
- Turkey's foreign policy can be very dangerous for Armenia. Without any relations, Turkey can fully support Azerbaijan, explains Georgi Mirzabekyan.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have strong economic relationships, but also share cultural similarities and speak related languages. According to experts Turkey prioritizes its relationship with Azerbaijan over that with Armenia, and therefore the future of Turkey and Armenia's normalization process depends on how the relationship with Azerbaijan develops.
And even if the borders were to open, it does not mean that the countries can be reconciled in the near future, points out Georgi Mirzabekyan. But that would be a first step.
- When the borders are not open, the communities on both sides cannot get to know each other, but feel mistrust and caution towards each other, he says.
This opinion comes back to me one evening when I drink tea with my Armenian friend and a Turkish tourist who is visiting Yerevan. I sit back and listen to their discussion of how both countries would benefit from open borders, both economically and socially. They seem to agree that one must be able to meet each other in order to begin some kind of reconciliation process. But when I'm alone with my friend later in the evening, she admits that she doesn't think the border should be opened.
- I'm afraid, it feels like it would be too close, she says.
I think of these words as I stand at Khor Virap and look out towards the border. On the horizon I can glimpse Mount Ararat. The mountain is considered a holy place for Armenia but is on the Turkish side of the border. It is yet another reminder of the strained relationship between the countries.