ANKARA (AFP)—Turkey is considering temporarily opening its border with Armenia for a NATO disaster relief exercise due in September, a Turkish diplomat was reported to say on Thursday. Officials in Yerevan were quick to dismiss the announcement as a gimmick.
The AFP news agency quoted the unnamed diplomat as saying that Ankara has decided to participate in the exercise to be held in Armenia’s central Kotayk region by NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center.
The drills, scheduled for September 11-17, are due to bring together up to 1,000 participants from two dozen NATO member and partner states. They will simulate a multi-national response to a powerful earthquake resulting in a humanitarian and environmental disaster.
“We will be taking part in the exercise,” the Turkish diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“We are looking into the possibility on whether the border may be opened if such a necessity arises. … There has been no decision yet,” she said.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan and has since made its reopening conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to its closest Turkic ally. Ankara has stuck to this linkage even after signing last October’s agreements with Yerevan to unconditionally normalize Turkish-Armenian relations.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry refrained from officially commenting on the possibility of a temporary border opening. But a diplomatic source in Yerevan shrugged off the Turkish statement as “a public relations stunt aimed at burnishing Turkey’s image.”
“Armenia has no desire to contribute to that effort,” the source, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. The Armenian government might therefore refuse to let any personnel or vehicles enter the country from Turkey during the exercise, he added.
The EADRCC field exercise, including a command post element, training and a demonstration day, will be based on the fictitious scenario of a serious civil emergency arising in the Armenian city of Arzni.
Up to 1,000 participants from NATO and partner nations, as well as representatives and observers from other countries and international organizations, are expected to take part in the drill, which is held annually to practice disaster-response mechanisms and enhance cooperation in emergency situations. According to Hürriyet, Turkey is planning to send a group of three or four people to participate in the exercise.
The possibility of a temporary opening of the border for the NATO drill has prompted speculation that the crossing might be allowed to stay open to allow Armenians to travel overland to a September ceremony at the ancient Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island, in the eastern Turkish city of Van. The Turkish diplomat told AFP, however, that “this is out of the question.”
Some 5,000 people are expected to be in Van for the first religious service in many decades at the centuries-old Armenian church, which the Turkish government has allowed to open once a year for such events.
Armenia’s leaders have repeatedly blamed the Turks for the effective collapse of the two Turkish-Armenia “protocols” that envisaged the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two estranged nations and the opening of their border. President Serzh Sarkisian suspended in April the process of Armenian parliamentary ratification of the protocols because of the Turkish preconditions for their implementation. He indicated that he did not want to annul the deal altogether at the request of foreign powers and the United States in particular.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed Sarkisian’s stance as “very statesmanlike and very impressive” when she visited Yerevan earlier this month. Clinton said the onus is on the Turkish government to revive the normalization process with “the steps that it promised to take.”