With flights set to resume, what next for Turkish-Armenian ties?

Relaunching of flights between Istanbul and Yerevan is seen as a key step in ongoing diplomatic efforts to re-establish official relations.

A Pegasus aeroplane prepares to land in Istanbul in February 2020
A Pegasus Airlines plane prepares to land, February 9, 2020 [File: Yasin Akgul/AFP]

Istanbul, Turkey – Direct flights between Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul and Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, are scheduled to take off again starting on Wednesday, after having been grounded for more than two years.

While good news for frequent travellers between the two cities, analysts say the resumption of air links primarily represents a key step in ongoing diplomatic efforts between the two estranged neighbours to re-establish official ties after nearly 30 years.

Late last year, Turkey and Armenia appointed envoys to engage in dialogue geared towards rapprochement. The two envoys convened for talks in Moscow in January, an indication that both countries are making constructive efforts towards restoring relations.

Though Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise Armenia’s independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ties were severed and the border between the two neighbours was closed in 1993 as a gesture of Turkish solidarity with close ally Azerbaijan during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, when Armenian forces occupied several territories belonging to Baku.

Following Azerbaijan’s victory in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, and the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories in question, the possibility of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement returned to the agenda for the first time since diplomatic efforts in 2009 failed to produce concrete results.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan released statements indicating that they were keen to rekindle ties – and even Azerbaijan announced its support.

“This time, Azerbaijan is not hindering the normalisation process, but they also have some expectations,” said Aybars Gorgulu, general director of the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies, an Istanbul-based think-tank.

“First, they want to be informed and consulted about every step Turkey takes. Ankara is also very attentive to the issue of being transparent with them at all levels. Armenia also seems more ready this time. Pashinyan won the elections despite the military defeat,” added Gorgulu, referring to the prime minister’s victory in snap polls in June 2021.

Though the land border has been closed for nearly 30 years, direct flights between Istanbul and Yerevan continued, only ceasing in late 2019.

On Tuesday, the website of Turkish budget carrier Pegasus Airlines listed a one-way flight departing from Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport for Yerevan on Wednesday evening for 1,113 liras ($83).

Aside from Pegasus, the Moldovan budget airline FlyOne is also slated to offer direct flights between the two cities.

“The only reason that these flights ended was due not to any political move, but rather simply because the Turkish carrier, Atlas Jet, faced bankruptcy. Thus, the resumed flights are important but only as a first step and represent merely a return to the prior status quo rather than any breakthrough,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), a think-tank in Yerevan.

Still, analysts say both countries stand to benefit immensely from the normalisation of ties and the reopening of land borders.

“For Turkey, opening its closed border with Armenia would constitute a new strategic opportunity for galvanising economic activity in the impoverished eastern regions of the country,” said Giragosian. “A mounting economic crisis also imposes its own cost to keeping borders closed and missing opportunities to gain new markets,” he added.

“In addition, such a return to diplomatic engagement between Turkey and Armenia offers a rare success in Turkish foreign policy and a positive development after months of political instability.”

Turkey’s far northeastern region has indeed suffered economically as a result of the closed border severely inhibiting trade and commerce, and residents in the area have expressed great enthusiasm for a reopening.

For Armenia, meanwhile, analysts say there are two key factors at play in terms of how it would benefit from restored relations.

“The first factor is the imperative for Armenia to overcome isolation, where closed borders and geographic constraints pose serious threat to the Armenian necessity for economic recovery from COVID-19 and the need for new supply chains in the post-pandemic period,” Giragosian explained.

“A second driver for Armenia to commit to normalisation with Turkey is rooted in the opportunity to leverage the underlying divergence of interests between Turkey and Azerbaijan. In this context, normalisation is a policy that is capable of delinking and separating the policies of Turkey from Azerbaijan, with Armenia pursuing separate policies on a bilateral track with each country.”

Source: Al Jazeera