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Dispatch from Margara One year after ‘earthquake diplomacy’ opened the Armenian-Turkish border, a newly rebuilt checkpoint remains closed 

Source: Meduza

Dispatch from Margara One year after ‘earthquake diplomacy’ opened the Armenian-Turkish border, a newly rebuilt checkpoint remains closed 

Source: Meduza
Sona Hovsepyan

Story by Sona Hovsepyan for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

In the Armenian village of Margara, Kima Karapetyan has her radio tuned to the news. She never misses any updates, listening attentively for information about the planned reopening of the long-closed border with neighboring Turkey. 

Home to around 1,300 people, Margara lies on the bank of the Araks River, which delineates the border with Turkey that Armenia inherited after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Karapetyan’s small home has cracked walls, and the nearby cultural center is derelict and abandoned. But the Margara checkpoint is freshly renovated, even though it was used only once in the last 30 years.

The Margara checkpoint. January 27, 2024.
Sona Hovsepyan

Turkey unilaterally closed its land and air borders with Armenia in 1993 in a show of support for Azerbaijan amid the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. 

More than three decades later, Yerevan and Ankara opened the border briefly after earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.6 magnitudes devastated southeastern Turkey and northern Syria last February, killing more than 50,000 people. Armenia provided humanitarian assistance, sending search and rescue workers to help pull survivors from the rubble, and two convoys of Armenian aid trucks destined for quake-hit regions crossed into Turkey via the Margara bridge. 

As it happens, the Margara–Alican crossing served the exact same purpose in 1988 after an earthquake razed the town of Spitak in Armenia’s north. Humanitarian relief passed through the border again in 1992, when Turkey allowed 52,000 tons of wheat to reach blockaded Armenia via the Kars–Gyumri railway line.

‘We must be very careful’

Karapetyan, who teaches Armenian history at the local school, was clearly worried about the latest “rumors” concerning the border with Turkey. She had heard that Yerevan and Ankara planned to open the border for third-country citizens and diplomats in the near future, and she felt Margara residents ought to be “cautious.”

“Let there be diplomatic relations and the border opened, but we must be very careful in all corners of Armenia, especially in Margara,” Karapetyan warned.

Normalizing relations with Turkey has been on the agenda of every Armenian leader since independence, but disagreements over Nagorno-Karabakh and the recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide have hindered progress consistently. 

Kima Karapetyan, an Armenian history teacher, sits in her home just meters from the Margara border bridge. January 27, 2024.
Sona Hovsepyan

Turkey formally recognized Armenia after the latter gained independence from the USSR, but the two neighbors have never had formal diplomatic ties. This is due in part to the Ottoman Empire’s massacres and forced displacement of around 1.5 million Armenians during World War I and because of Ankara’s vehement denial of the atrocities amounting to genocide (a fact recognized by a growing list of countries). 

Turkey backing Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh only further strained relations with Armenia. However, after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, Ankara and Yerevan appointed special envoys for normalization: Turkish diplomat Serdar Kilic and his counterpart Ruben Rubinyan, vice president of Armenia’s parliament. The two envoys agreed on partially reopening the land border back in 2022, but their countries have yet to follow through. And although last year’s “earthquake diplomacy” offered what looked like a breakthrough, the Margara–Alican crossing has remained closed ever since. 

In the meantime, the Armenian authorities allocated 871 million drams ($2.15 million) for refurbishing the Margara checkpoint. Armenian officials declared the renovations complete on January 12, but the checkpoint remains inaccessible, and barbed wire still marks the border itself. The Russian border troops who have helped guard Armenia’s borders since the Soviet Union’s disintegration also remain on duty at the Margara checkpoint. 

“It is not easy to live in chains like this,” said Karapetyan. “Since the checkpoint was built in such a short time, I think they will open the border,” she added. 


When Armenia and Turkey announced plans to normalize relations in 2021, the Armenian opposition criticized the idea. According to Gegham Manukyan, a lawmaker from the Armenian Alliance opposition bloc, the opposition wasn’t against the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border per se, but the timing didn’t feel right.

Having suffered a defeat in the 2020 war, Armenia was forced to hand back several territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, that it had seized in the 1990s. As a result, Turkey’s justification for shuttering their shared border disappeared, creating an opening for negotiations. 

A monument to local soldiers killed in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Margara, Armenia. January 27, 2024.
Sona Hovsepyan

Nevertheless, the opposition urged the ruling Civil Contract Party not to enter into talks in such an “unfavorable situation” and warned that “Turkey would continue talks with Armenia on preconditions beneficial for Azerbaijan,” Manukyan explained. 

At the time, Manukyan said, the opposition was particularly concerned that Turkey would use the normalization talks to pressure Armenia into signing a peace agreement with Azerbaijan. And three years on, he still believes this is holding up progress on the border issue. “Turkey will not take any action until some [piece of] paper, which I will never refer to as a ‘peace treaty,’ is signed and the disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan are resolved,” the lawmaker told The Beet.

Turkologist Nelli Minasyan agrees. “Although the Turkish side announced that the [normalization] process would be without preconditions, they clearly put forward preconditions,” Minasyan told The Beet. “Naturally,” she continued, “they were related to the issue of Karabakh. Now, when the Turkish-Azerbaijani side thinks that problem is solved, they bring forward the issue of a peace treaty.” 

Azerbaijan has also kept its border with Armenia closed since the 1990s, effectively isolating the landlocked country from the east and south. Against the backdrop of more than three decades of bloody, intermittent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, negotiations on border delineation and a lasting peace agreement waxed and waned. Then, last fall, Azerbaijan recaptured the disputed territory in a blitz offensive, forcing the surrender of its separatist government and displacing more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians — nearly the entire population of the region. 


Slowly, then all at once The final act in the tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh’s collapse


Slowly, then all at once The final act in the tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh’s collapse

‘Eternal deadlock’

The fall of Nagorno-Karabakh immediately provoked fears that an emboldened Baku would launch an attack on Armenia proper, namely to secure a land route through the southern Syunik Province to its exclave of Nakhchivan. 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a renewed call to establish the “Zangezur corridor” back in January, saying that “Armenia will remain in an eternal deadlock” until this is done. 

Around the same time, Turkish Transport Minister Abdulkadir Uraloğlu claimed that the Turkish section of the Zangezur corridor would be completed by 2028 to ensure a direct connection between Turkey and “the countries of the Turkic world.” Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the transport route as a prerequisite for repairing relations with Yerevan. “If Armenia fulfills its promises, particularly the opening of the Zangezur corridor, Turkey is ready to develop relations, step by step,” he said last fall. 

“Whenever the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations fail to generate results, Turkey has effectively halted the entire negotiation process; there aren’t any more Rubinyan–Kilic meetings,” Manukyan pointed out. (The last meeting between the special envoys took place in July 2022.)

Speaking at a press conference in late January, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan assured that the normalization process was still chugging along, referring specifically to joint efforts to restore the Ani bridge, a historic structure over the Akhuryan River that would span the Armenian-Turkish border. “The Turkish side recently presented its vision [for the bridge]; we will respond and move forward accordingly,” Mirzoyan said. 

“The Armenian side is ready for the opening of that border as soon as possible; it’s ready in terms of politics, infrastructure, roads, checkpoints, etc.,” the foreign minister added. “The only missing component for the border to open and operate is the Turkish side’s decision to initiate the opening.” 

The Armenian Foreign Ministry’s press service echoed Mirzoyan’s statements in response to The Beet’s questions, saying that the meetings between Armenian and Turkish officials last year provided a “positive base” for normalizing relations. (Notably, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attended Erdoğan’s 2023 inauguration.) 

However, Minasyan believes that the border issue is more important to Yerevan than to Ankara. “It is not even among Turkey’s foreign policy priorities because Turkey has much more serious problems,” she told The Beet. 


‘We left everything’ Uprooted and jobless, Nagorno-Karabakh refugees start from scratch in Armenia


‘We left everything’ Uprooted and jobless, Nagorno-Karabakh refugees start from scratch in Armenia

‘God forbid they agree’

Back in Margara, Anahit Saghatelyan believes that opening the border with Turkey is only a matter of time. “The checkpoint is ready; villagers worked on the construction all summer. Our government is ready to open the checkpoint whenever the Turks agree,” the 44-year-old shop assistant said. “But God forbid they agree.” 

Saghatelyan said she was mainly concerned about security issues, given Turkey’s strong support of Azerbaijan. But for many Margara residents, the economic implications of opening the border with Turkey are at the top of their minds.

Most residents of Margara and surrounding areas rely on agriculture and animal husbandry for their livelihood. Other families’ breadwinners have gone to work in the capital, Yerevan, or in Russia. In Margara and the nearby village of Vardanashen, some residents see the impending opening of the border as a step forward that will bring them access to foreign markets and the benefits of direct trade; others worry that cheaper and better-quality Turkish goods will flood the Armenian market. 

The entrance to the village of Margara. January 27, 2024.
Sona Hovsepyan

The Armenian government hasn’t released any official data on the expected economic impact of opening the border, but officials, including Pashinyan, argue that it would increase trade turnover between Armenia and Turkey and have a “positive effect” overall. “It’s possible that some local products will lose their competitiveness, but opportunities will emerge in [other] sectors as a result of opening roads and railway lines,” the prime minister said at a press conference in 2022. 

The German Economic Team, which advises the Armenian government, predicts a “strong potential” for expanding Armenia’s trade with Turkey. According to a 2022 study, opening the border would increase bilateral trade from less than one percent in 2021 to more than 10 percent of Armenia’s total trade. 

But some locals remain skeptical. “They say trade can be good, but it is better to have less and live peacefully,” said Saghatelyan.

“They will bring [in] cheap goods from the Turkish side, and [local] villagers won’t be able to sell their products at high prices,” worried Samvel Khachatryan from neighboring Vardanashen. “If they open the border, it will be good for them: Turks will come here, work, sell their products — but what should we do?” 

“It’s much better not to open [the border],” Khachatryan concluded. 

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Story by Sona Hovsepyan for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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