The 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war ended with a nine-point agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Point 9 of the trilateral agreement suggests unblocking all economic and transport links in the region.
The ambiguity of this point has caused a lot of controversy since the end of the war. Suggesting Azerbaijanis free movement across Armenia’s Syunik Province, many believe the unblocked transport connections will put the country’s security at risk
During the first post-war meeting between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on January 11, 2021, the sides restated this point and decided to set up a trilateral group that would be focused on fulfilling it.
Since signing the agreement, Armenian authorities have been making contentious claims about opening the borders with not only Azerbaijan but also Turkey. Turkey has also shown intentions to open its borders with Armenia. During his meeting with Ilham Aliyev, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that a six-country platform could be created in South Caucasus, with Armenia becoming part of it.
Closed Since 1993 – Is Now the Time to Open Borders with Turkey?
Opening borders with Turkey has not been a matter of consideration for years due to the growing hostility between the two countries. Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 as a sign of solidarity for Azerbaijan in the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh.
It is no secret that Turkey had a significant role in the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. From public support for ‘friend and brother Azerbaijan’ to providing Azerbaijan with military personnel and arms, Turkey’s indirect involvement in the war cannot be overlooked.
With the use of Turkish Bayraktars, Azerbaijan has killed hundreds of soldiers and peaceful civilians. As a triumphant ending, Turkey’s flag along with Azerbaijan’s was raised in the conquered cities of Nagorno Karabakh.
Considering the historically hostile relationships between Armenia and Turkey and recent developments, the conversations about opening borders that have been closed since the early 90s seem to be coming out of nowhere. Especially now, when nearly 5000 are killed, 10,000 handicapped, and thousands more left homeless as a result of the war supported by Turkey.
It came as a shock to the Armenian public when the minister of foreign affairs of Armenia Ara Ayvazyan stated that now when the Nagorno Karabakh issue is solved, there is no reason for Turkey to keep its border with Armenia closed.
But the minister of foreign affairs was not the first to touch upon the topic of the possible opening of borders with Turkey. On November 28, 2020, a few weeks after the end of the military conflict, the newly-appointed minister of economy Vahan Kerobyan expressed the opinion that the economy would benefit from open borders.
Thanks to increased competition, the local manufacturers would be motivated to better the quality of their products and will have wider opportunities to export goods using Turkish ports. The minister of the economy also stated, “It’s possible that the Azerbaijani market will be open for us and ours for them.”
With April 24 around the corner, such statements devastate the public and simply seem illogical to say the least. Every year, on the 24th of April Armenians all over the world, commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide committed by Turks in 1915. More than a century after the bloody events, Turkey denies the Genocide. This makes opening the borders with Turkey simply unacceptable for the prevailing majority of Armenians.
Unblocking Economic Links Between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Aside from the ongoing conversation about opening borders with Turkey, Armenia is supposed to unblock regional transits with Azerbaijan within the framework of the trilateral agreement.
This point of the trilateral agreement has caused lots of disobedience and confusion, especially among people living in now borderline villages of Armenia.
Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan claims that Armenia will benefit from unblocking economic and transport links in the region. However, it is more than obvious that post-war developments and fulfillments of the trilateral agreement lead to one-sided benefits.
Azerbaijan has not even returned all Armenian prisoners of war and seems to be using them as a pressure tool on the authorities to achieve more territorial benefits in Syunik. The latter will supposedly connect Nakhchivan, an autonomous area of Azerbaijan, and Zangilan, a Nagorno Karabakh district that is now part of Azerbaijan.
The Risks of Open Borders
While authorities keep talking about the benefits of open borders, people are skeptical about them as this is not merely a matter of economy but politics too. It is naive to think that now when the Nagorno Karabakh issue is supposedly solved, the age-old conflict between Armenia and Turkey could be solved too.
Opening borders between two countries with zero diplomatic relations over the past few decades arises questions regarding the security of the country. It was only a few weeks ago when Turkey’s national television channel showed a map depicting the country’s expansion toward Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and part of Russia.
This comes to proves that opening borders with Turkey, even for the sake of economic growth, seems unreasonable and abasing. And now that Armenia is negotiating from a passive stance, many believe that Turkey may put pressure on the Armenian government to drop the demand for genocide recognition.
In addition to political risks, there are several issues local manufacturers will face.
In the case of Azerbaijan, the security of the cargo is a matter of concern. On January 25, 2021, Azerbaijanis attacked Armenian cargo trucks in Georgia.
This makes people worry about the safety of their products when exporting them through the unblocked roads of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Considering such accidents, and the fact that Azerbaijani soldiers now stationed in the borderline areas of Armenia throw stones at vehicles with Armenian license plates, the government can hardly come up with an argument that using Azerbaijani transport links is safe.
Aside from security issues, Armenian producers are likely to fail to compete with Azerbaijani and Turkish manufacturers. The volume of imports from Turkey has always been significant, with products of Turkish origin occupying more shelves in supermarkets than goods manufactured in Armenia.
In October 2020, when the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was raging, the government put a temporary embargo on imports from Turkey. This should have given local producers an opportunity to fill the gaps of the market with local production. However, it is unclear how long the ban will last. Thus, the manufacturers will continue to avoid making investments in producing goods to replace their Turkish counterparts.
Another risk is the increased competition which local producers have little chance to withstand. Turkish and Azerbaijani products are produced in larger amounts. Thus, they are cheaper. Turkish products, from clothing to household goods are of better quality with the price still on the affordable side. Local manufacturers will need to make big efforts to produce goods having a similar quality-price ratio.
It seems like the government doesn’t evaluate the risks of opening the borders. If it happens, the government should give local producers privileges as well as help them in international expansion.