For Armenia, a breakthrough in the stalled process of normalizing relations with Turkey came in the aftermath of the deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6. In an example of “earthquake diplomacy,” the Turkish government ended its three-decade policy of sealing its border with Armenia.
Turkey’s move to re-open the border was largely driven by necessity, in order to quickly facilitate the influx of urgent Armenian humanitarian aid and the arrival of an expert disaster response team. No matter what the motivation, Turkey would be hard-pressed to reverse course now, making any return to closed borders diplomatically daunting and difficult.
This breakthrough in normalization between Armenia and Turkey comes amid a much wider context, however, well beyond the simple validation of earthquake diplomacy to elevate crisis response over conflict retention. And the implications are also evident in a significant seismic shift, from three different perspectives.
Turkey’s political aftershocks
The first of these three seismic shifts centers on Turkish domestic developments. For Turkey, the earthquake is more than a humanitarian emergency, rather, it is also becoming a political crisis. With early elections for both parliament and the all-powerful presidency only months away, the aftershocks from this earthquake are now high-stakes politics. Required to be held by June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initial plan to hold the contest in mid-May could pose an unprecedented challenge to his leadership.
And after two decades in power, Erdogan may have reached his lowest, and weakest point in popularity. Even prior to the earthquake crisis, the Turks’ beleaguered leadership was hobbled by economic pressure that included a stubbornly consistent inflation rate of between 60-80 percent.
Never one to back down from bold if not dubious policies, Erdogan has embarked on a pre-election spending spree in the billions of dollars. He has also openly defied economic logic by responding to the downturn with a cut of interest rates and with an increase in state expenditures, raising both the national minimum wage by 55 percent and salaries for civil servants by 30 percent.
The seismic political aftershocks will threaten Erdogan’s personal stature and political status, while further undermining his ruling party’s power and position. Like politicians everywhere, a time of crisis is also as much an opportunity for political gain as a test of leadership.
Yet, Erdogan has a troubled record of exploiting earthquakes for partisan leverage.
Weary president, wounded candidate
After consolidating a political powerbase during his time as Istanbul’s mayor, in 1999, Erdogan rose to national prominence and power by viciously attacking the inadequate efforts of Turkey’s then-government to manage the 1999 earthquake that left more than 17,000 people dead.
The most effective political attacks launched by Erdogan against the government back then focused on the government’s enforcement of seismically sensitive and strict construction codes designed to minimize if not prevent substantial property damage and resulting casualties.
But in 2019 the very same issue- of earthquake-resistant regulations on construction- has now returned to damage Erdogan. At that time, Erdogan, then on a strident presidential re-election campaign, was an outspoken advocate for his party’s legislation that forgave violations for sub-standard construction that failed to meet earthquake requirements.
A second component of these three seismic shifts stems from the direct impact on the process of Armenia and Turkey’s “normalization.” More specifically, well beyond the political aftershocks shaping Turkey’s new pre-election landscape, the earthquake has also ushered in a new, more promising environment more conducive to a breakthrough in regional tension.
In its immediate neighborhood, a dramatic change is already evident. The previous reliance on bellicose threats has been replaced by an elevated discourse stressing collaboration and welcoming cooperation. With the arrival of the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias on a visit of the earthquake-stricken areas of Turkey, the Turkish reception was genuinely a “neighborly” response.
Accompanied by his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Greek minister’s arrival stood in stark contrast to the not-so-veiled threats of Turkish invasion made by President Erdogan just a few months earlier.
But with elections looming in Greece as well as Turkey, such a return to normalcy may be more of a temporary aberration than a lasting degree of political maturity. Such analytical hesitation is also reinforced by the likely limits to Turkey’s view of its neighbors, as evident in an initial Turkish rejection of assistance from Cyprus.
According to Kornelios Korneliou, the Director General of the Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey refused the offer by the Republic of Cyprus to send a rescue team to help with post-earthquake efforts. But that decision was quickly reversed, as Demetris Demetriou, the spokesperson of the Cypriot Foreign Ministry, later confirmed.
A breakthrough in Armenia-Turkey “normalization”
The third seismic shift from the earthquake is rooted in a more localized, but direct impact on Armenia-Turkey “normalization.” In what is now a breakthrough in normalization between Armenia and Turkey, the re-opening of the border is the most obvious validation of “earthquake diplomacy.” And ending a long-standing Turkish policy of keeping the border closed and withholding diplomatic relations with Armenia now stands as a new norm, making any move to close the border again difficult to justify and diplomatically impractical.
Furthermore, by re-opening the border, Turkey reacted to Armenia’s goodwill gestures with a rational response. This is also particularly significant in terms of the outlook for the process of normalization between Armenia and Turkey because the re-opening of the border has always been more difficult than a related objective of establishing diplomatic relations.
At the same time, in light of the timing of the coming elections, the Armenia issue now appears much less politically sensitive in domestic politics than it once was. This adds fresh optimism to the domestic political calculation for fulfilling expectations from the normalization process.
And in terms of geopolitics, the Turkish move also represents an about-face in strategy regarding Azerbaijan and Russia. Most notably, the Turkish leadership felt confident enough to proceed with the border opening without securing Azerbaijani approval or conferring with Russian officials in advance. This would also suggest that Turkish foreign policy toward Armenia is now much less hostage to Azerbaijan, which would be important in light of Azerbaijan’s continued threats against Armenia and its siege of Nagorno Karabakh.
As important as these seismic shifts are in raising expectations for what comes next, Turkey’s path forward remains both incomplete and far from assured. Looking ahead to an Armenia-Turkey engagement, there are four key steps that need to be completed. First, now that the Armenia-Turkey border has re-opened after three decades, it clearly needs to be kept open. This is imperative to sustaining the momentum beyond the urgency of facilitating the delivery of earthquake relief.
Second, there is a need for substantial follow-up work to expand border traffic beyond the confines of relying on a sole border crossing point. This preparation entails cooperation on creating a bilateral border customs regime, enforcing public health restrictions and monitoring and initiating other security-related measures to ensure secure border operations and mobility.
A third step is to move quickly to establish diplomatic relations, not only to enhance the normalization process, but also as a prerequisite to the effective management of the border crossings. And a final fourth next step involves a greater demonstration of political will by both sides. This may be best achieved in the next meeting between the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers in Turkey’s Mediterranean resort city of Antalya set for March.
Where could this lead?
While it is crucial to sustain the momentum from a breakthrough in Armenia-Turkey engagement, there are serious obstacles ahead. These risks range from any pre-election return to a lexicon of threats and nationalist posturing to pressure the Armenian side regarding Nagorno Karabakh.
A further risk that necessitates concern and mitigation is the threat of belated opposition by Azerbaijan and any shift in Russian policy against normalization. And the new more positive environment also depends on the Azeri government in Baku and the Azeris’ threats against Armenians poses a lingering problem.
But the sudden diplomatic breakthrough from this “earthquake diplomacy,” offers a genuine opening for progress and reaffirms that Armenia-Turkey normalization stands out as a rare positive “game changer” for the troubled South Caucasus.
To be clear, it is important to note that the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey is much more modest than rapprochement, but also a necessary prerequisite for any eventual reconciliation with Turkey, and that is where and when the Armenian genocide holds the most direct relevance.