“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
With these words, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called on then-Soviet President Gorbachev on June 12, 1987, to open the Brandenburg Gate and tear down the Berlin Wall. For many at the time, it was a sign of detachment from reality, and yet less than three years later, reality.
On the more than 300 km long border between Turkey and Armenia, there is no wall, which needed to be torn down. However, the land border remains closed since 1993 when Turkey, because of Armenian territorial gains during the 1st Nagorno-Karabakh War (1980s until 1994), closed the border openings with Armenia. There were in total three, two for vehicles and one for vehicles and trains, in the Eastern provinces of Kars and Igdir. Since then, the question of the border opening was directly linked to the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh making the issue not a bilateral one between Armenia and Turkey, but a trilateral one, including Azerbaijan.
Since the early 1990s, this has been Turkey’s unchanged position. That is why, during the rapprochement between the two countries around 2009 (“football diplomacy”), which ended in the signing of the so-called Zurich Protocols, the question of the border opening remained unchanged. In April 2009, then-Prime Minister Erdogan commented: “unless Azerbaijan and Armenia sign a protocol on Nagorno-Karabakh, we will not sign any final agreement with Armenia. We are doing preliminary work, but this definitely depends on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.”
This resolution, by force, happened during the 2nd Nagorno-Karabakh war, which lasted from late September 2020 until early November. This time, also due to Turkish military assistance, it ended with a victory for Azerbaijan, which took control of four Armenian-occupied districts, as well as the towns of Shusha and Hadrut within Nagorno-Karabakh. Under a ceasefire agreement, Armenia withdrew from another three districts. Russia, which brokered the ceasefire has been providing peacekeeping forces along the newly created border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (so-called Lachin-corridor).
This means that since November 2020, there is no reason left for Turkey to keep the border closed. This was also underlined by Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian: “the closure of the border was the result of the Nagorno-Karabakh status quo, which has changed through a use of force. Turkey therefore no longer has any reason to keep its border with Armenia closed.”
Right after the April 24 statement by U.S. President Biden using the G-word and harsh Turkish official reactions and anti-Armenian comments poisoning social media, it seems unrealistic to call for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border in the same was as the 1987 call for the tearing down the Berlin Wall. But, from a pragmatic point of view, to open to border would have both economic and politico-diplomatic advantages for Turkey. The border provinces Kars and Iğdır and adjacent Agri and Van are among the poorest and least developed in Turkey. Border traffic, direct trade relations, and tourism would make a difference there. Especially places like Ani or Akhtamar Church would be touristically interesting for both Armenians from Armenia and diaspora Armenians visiting Armenia. From Gyumri, Armenia’s second biggest city to Ani, it would be roughly 40km. Now, via Georgia, the distance is almost 300km. The now more than 600km to Akhtamar would be reduced to some 300km. Also, the distance to Mount Ararat would be from Yerevan less than 100km (now ca. 600km). Even so far little touristic places like Bitlis could attract Armenian tourists by renovating e.g. William Saroyan’s birthplace.
Economic relations, border trade, and tourism would lead, for the first time in decades, to human contacts across the border. Usually the best remedy against stereotypes and hatred, are in-person contact and first hand experiences. But, there is also a political and diplomatic side to the border opening. Turkey could internationally argue that it is not sanctioning Armenia, but instead helping landlocked Armenia to improve its economic situation.
Even if a debate on the past, as happened in 2005 with conferences on the Ottoman Armenians and a lively civil society working also on coming to terms with the past, now seems impossible with nationalism and anti-Armenian (Christian) sentiment at a peak, in the mid to longer term, an open border and direct contacts would inevitably lead again to a debate on the past. When Armenians travelled in 1991 by train from Armenia to Turkey, the Turkish border guards were surprised that almost all the places of birth of the Armenians were either Kars or Van. This is no longer possible because of biological reasons, but the children and grand-children of Ottoman Armenians would travel to their ancestral birth places. This would automatically raise the question of what happened to the former residents and why they are no longer there. Maybe this is the reason why the Turkish government is not too keen on opening the border now, even if it has never been linked to 1915.