oDR: Feature

It took an earthquake to reopen the border between Turkey and Armenia

After 30 years, the border between the two countries reopened – briefly – to let in aid. Is a thaw in sight?

Christina Soloyan
6 March 2023, 2.20pm

Woman standing in front of collapsed buildings on 7 February, in Hatay, Turkey

Sezgin Pancar / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

“Only the [rescue] dog knows what we have witnessed here,” said a member of the Armenian search and rescue crew working to find survivors in Adiyaman, Turkey, following the 6 February earthquakes that devastated the south-east of the country and north-western Syria.

Twin earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.6 magnitudes caused massive destruction in both countries, especially the cities of Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Diyarbakır, Adana, Osmaniye, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Adıyaman, Malatya and the province of Hatay in Turkey, and Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Latakia in Syria. The death toll stands at more than 50,000 people – though is likely to rise – and millions more have been displaced.

In the first few days after the earthquakes, humanitarian support started flooding in, especially to Turkey. More than 30,000 search and rescue workers joined the effort, including teams from 40 countries.

The immediate reaction of Turkey’s neighbours, Greece (to the west) and Armenia (to the east), was noteworthy. Both sent search and rescue teams – despite both having long-standing, complicated and often hostile relations with Turkey. Armenian rescuers in Turkey have said that many locals approached them to thank them and were surprised to learn that help had come from Armenia.

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A translator from Turkey, Burcu Becermen, who has been working on Armenia-Turkey normalisation initiatives over the years, registered to volunteer in earthquake-affected areas. She visited Hatay province in southern Turkey – where a humanitarian coordination centre has been set up – a few months before the earthquake struck.

“Hatay was one of the most multicultural and multi-ethnic parts of Anatolia. It was a very special place. This culture has been seriously damaged, along with synagogues, mosques and so many churches,” Becermen told openDemocracy.

The day after we spoke, Becermen was asked to provide translation services at a Syrian refugee camp in the city of Kahramanmaraş.

According to a 21 February report by local NGO Support to Life, in Turkey the earthquake has affected 13.5 million people (including two million Syrian refugees). In Syria, it has resulted in 8,500 deaths and aggravated the existing humanitarian crisis caused by the decade-long Syrian civil war.

Armenian border reopened – temporarily

Armenian-Turkish relations have been hostile for more than a century because of the massacres committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian population during the First World War, and Turkey’s unwillingness ever since to acknowledge that these constituted a genocide.

From 1921 until 1991, when Armenia was under Soviet rule, only officials could cross between the two countries. The border was closed altogether in 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The last sanctioned crossing via the Alican-Margara bridge occurred in 1988, when aid was brought from Turkey to the victims of an earthquake in northern Armenia.

The last humanitarian cooperation between the two countries was in 1992, during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, when Armenia was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Turkey agreed to allow 52,000 tonnes of wheat to pass through the Gyumri-Kars railway to the blockaded country.

Turkey has always supported Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh – an ethnically Armenian region of about 120,000 people within Azerbaijan – and even more so during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Since December, the Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the rest of the world has been blocked by Azerbaijani protesters claiming to be environmental activists. This has sparked a humanitarian crisis in the disputed territory.

Truck crossing border

A truck carrying humanitarian aid at the Alican border crossing, following its reopening on 11 February 2023


Huseyin Yildiz / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

So the opening of the border on 11 February was a significant event in the history of Armenian-Turkish relations, even though it was only open for a short while. Two convoys of Armenian trucks carrying humanitarian aid crossed the Alican-Margara bridge, in order to reach earthquake-affected zones as quickly as possible.

Turkish diplomat Serdar Kılıç tweeted images of trucks crossing the border, saying: “I will always remember the generous aid sent by the people of Armenia to alleviate the suffering of our people in the earthquake-stricken region of Turkey.”

Translator Becermen said she was disappointed that it “had to happen under these circumstances – that it takes one powerful earthquake and so many lives lost” for the border to reopen.

She added: “I feel so sad that people in Turkey will never truly understand what it meant for Armenia to send aid to Turkey after the Second Karabakh War, and at a time when the Lachin corridor was under blockade.”

A few days later, the 28-member Armenian search and rescue crew crossed from Turkey back to Armenia, becoming the first people to have done so in three decades.

On 16 February, Armenian foreign minister Ararat Mirzoyan visited some of the earthquake-hit areas in Turkey and also held a meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Both ministers expressed commitment to continue the normalisation process, and as a next step, to jointly restore the Ani bridge, a historical border site.

Turkey and Greece also have a troubled relationship. They are involved in a long-running dispute over delimitation of territorial waters, and recent strongly worded statements have increased negative feelings between the two countries.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used his speech at the G20 summit in November to issue thinly veiled threats, warning Greece that Turkey would “come suddenly, one night”.

Foreign Minister of Armenia in Turkey

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan visits a camp in Adiyaman, where an Armenian search and rescue team is working, on 16 February 2023


Aytac Unal / Anadolu / Getty Images

But the support that has come from Greece since the earthquake, as well as the public statements of Greek officials, has led to a change of attitude in Turkey towards Greeks.

“[Erdoğan’s words] were intended to be a threat to Greece. And then Greek rescuers came overnight to help. So, no matter how much politicians will try to use that bellicose rhetoric, people won’t buy it,” Becermen said.

‘Earthquake diplomacy’

Support between rivals in the face of natural disasters has been termed, suitably enough, ‘earthquake diplomacy’.

Both Turkey and Greece helped each other with aid and rescue crews amid the crisis following the Izmit and Athens earthquakes in the summer of 1999. (Turkey also accepted aid from Armenia, after some delay.)

Greece also supported Turkey during the Aegean Sea earthquake in 2020, which badly damaged the Turkish city of Izmir. Such gestures of support have brought periods of de-escalation in Turkish-Greek relations, but these have never lasted for long.

Armenian political scientist Diana Yayloyan believes that regional and geopolitical realities – such as Turkey’s continued support for Azerbaijan – might prevent the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia from gaining any momentum. For Turkey, any progress will depend on Armenia-Azerbaijan relations.

Also, the Erdoğan government might be particularly cautious because of Turkey’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for June. “There is a serious asymmetry of positions, where Turkey has much more time and does not want to rush things with Armenia before the elections, while Yerevan is hoping to reach bilateral normalisation of relations with Turkey as soon as possible,” said Yayloyan.

She added: “Although the Armenian government can be frustrated with the slow path of the negotiations, where no tangible achievements were accomplished so far, trying to keep the [official] diplomacy moving is very important for Yerevan.”

No matter how much politicians will try to use bellicose rhetoric, people won’t buy it

But support from its neighbours after last month’s earthquakes has contributed to a positive portrayal of these countries in the Turkish media, which is increasingly controlled by the state and usually full of hate speech towards both Armenians and Greeks.

“The humanitarian aid offered by Armenia in such difficult times for Turkey and its people is a very valuable and meaningful act. Some users have even called Armenia ‘a friend during dark days’,” said Yayloyan. “For some people, this will shift the perception of Armenia and make it more positive,” she added.

Search and rescue operations in Turkey ended on 18 February, except for two of the hardest-hit provinces. The international teams who had arrived to help, including Greek and Armenian crews, have now left the country.

A devastating natural disaster and the humanitarian cooperation that followed have helped people of an increasingly polarised region to try to see beyond the official dehumanising propaganda of animosity.

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