Armenia-Turkey Border Set to Reopen After Three Decades

The plan to allow third-country nationals to cross is seen as the next step towards full normalisation between the two neighbours.

Armenia-Turkey Border Set to Reopen After Three Decades

The plan to allow third-country nationals to cross is seen as the next step towards full normalisation between the two neighbours.

Thursday, 7 July, 2022

Turkey and Armenia announced a landmark agreement to re-open their common border for third-country nationals and to begin direct cargo flights, marking a step forward in normalisation talks between the two countries. The land border between the neighbours has been closed since 1993, in the wake of the war between Armenia and ethnically Turkic Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated Nagorny Karabakh region.

Through its three decades of independence, Armenia’s foreign policy has been a clear priority.  Weathering war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, Armenia also faced an often hostile and threatening Turkey.  Complex geography and daunting geopolitics means that diplomatic and foreign policy have been driven and defined by the imperative of strategic balance for state survival. 

This balance was pursued through a policy that became known as complementarity, whereby Armenia struggled to sustain a parity between its security partnership with Russia and its interest in deepening ties to the EU and the West. 

As an inherently contradictory policy, such a balancing act has been difficult to maintain over the years, especially given the underlying trend of Armenian dependence on Russia driven by security and military ties.  More recently, Armenia also engaged in another balancing act, in this case between Turkey and Azerbaijan. 

Armenia is now engaged in complicated and complex twin-track diplomacy: pursuing negotiations with Azerbaijan and a process to normalise relations with Turkey.  While the two tracks are separate, there is an unavoidable synergy or indirect relationship between Armenia’s negotiations with each country.

Given the unprecedented degree of insecurity in the aftermath of the 2020 Karabakh war, each of these twin tracks of diplomacy are moving at different speeds, often with one set of talks moving further or faster than the other.


The process of normalisation offers greater hope for progress, beginning with a modest and practical set of objectives: establishing diplomatic relations and reopening the closed border between the two countries. 

Normalisation is an important first step, but it is neither reconciliation nor rapprochement. It stands out as the basic minimum for neighbours, and as a recognition of Turkey’s failed policy to keep the border closed and deny diplomatic relations. 

And matching the asymmetry of the relationship, the challenge and burden of history lies far more with much larger Turkey.  Thus, although a welcome move, Turkey should not be automatically rewarded for what is merely a first step toward the minimum of relations between neighbouring countries.

However, it is also potentially much more. In the broader context of a new post-war regional landscape, this process bolsters efforts to restore regional trade and transport throughout the South Caucasus.  This is also important for both sides as Armenia needs to evade isolation and escape closed borders.  For Turkey, a deep domestic economic crisis also imposes its own cost to keeping borders closed and missing opportunities to gain new markets.

"There is a sense of relief that the process has finally focused on practical and critical issues."

Since the sudden announcement of the appointment of special negotiators in December 2021, the pace of the Armenia-Turkey diplomatic track has been impressively fast.  With a round of opening meetings convened in Moscow in January 2022 and moving to Vienna this past February, there was an initial introductory focus on re-engagement.  But as envoys prepared for a third meeting set for May, there were new concerns as both sides seemed content to talk past one another, with each expecting their interlocutor to present substantive offers. 

The concern over delays in moving on to the real agenda only fostered the return of lingering distrust.  This prompted a gesture from the Armenian side, as Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, in March 2022 on the sidelines of an international security forum held in the Turkish city of Antalya. 

Although this meeting was held without the presence of both special envoys, the symbolic significance of the Armenian foreign minister travelling to Turkey was also historically important and helped to reiterate Yerevan’s political will for normalisation.

As the talks resumed in early May, lingering concerns returned, with this round failing to produce anything substantial. 

The latest meeting, convened again in Vienna on July 1, represented more of a breakthrough.  This time both sides reached concrete agreements. In identical statements, the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministries agreed in principle “to enable the crossing of the land border between Armenia and Turkey by third-country citizens visiting Armenia and Turkey respectively at the earliest date possible and decided to initiate the necessary process to that end”.

They also agreed on commencing direct air cargo trade between Armenia and Turkey at the earliest possible date.

Against that backdrop, there is a sense of relief that the process has finally focused on practical and critical issues, but a lack of clarity remains.

The Armenian negotiator, Ruben Rubinyan, explained in a television interview on July 4 that the border could be opened for foreign nationals as early as this summer. Yet there is no visible preparation on either side for the logistical and practical aspects of a border crossing.

Another question relates to the near impossibility for Azerbaijani citizens to use the cross-border mechanism, as it would either require Azerbaijanis to enter Armenia proper first or cover the Azerbaijani border crossing through Nakhichevan, separate from the Armenia-Turkey border.

Fresh uncertainty lies ahead, the first aspect relating to Russia, as its military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has dramatically overturned the already complex geopolitical calculus.  As a much larger challenge to the European security landscape, Russia’s invasion only threatens to usher in a new period of insecurity for each of its neighbours.  The looming threat from an angry, isolated Russia stems from a likely move from Moscow to restrict “sovereign choice” among its neighbours.  As an element of the Kremlin’s determination to impose greater control over the near abroad as its self-perceived natural sphere of influence, Russia may change its position regarding Armenia-Turkey normalisation. 

Although there are no signs of such a Russian shift in policy over Armenia-Turkey, at least so far, Moscow holds enormous leverage and is quite capable of either helping or harming the process.

The second concern stems from Azerbaijan. Baku successfully derailed the earlier round of normalisation and there is a sense of danger from Azerbaijan’s reaction to the latest Armenia-Turkey meeting.  In fact, in a sudden move on July 1, the Azerbaijani state border service announced that it was closing its border with Turkey.  That short 13-kilometre frontier was the sole open border for Azerbaijan, as its borders with Georgia, Iran and Russia have been closed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Such a move is bound to make Ankara nervous. Turkey will continue to be cautious and will not take any step that Azerbaijan could perceive as against their interests. 

Richard Giragosian is director of the Regional Studies Centre (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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