The prime ministers of Armenia and the Iraqi Kurdistan region met in Switzerland on Wednesday to discuss ways of reinvigorating bilateral commercial ties complicated by last year’s Kurdish independence referendum.
Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq on September 25. The Iraqi central government rejected the referendum as illegal, seizing the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, imposing financial sanctions on the Kurds and blocking flights to and from the regional capital Erbil. The vote also angered Turkey and Iran, which fully or partly shut down their borders with the autonomous region.
Armenia, which maintains cordial relations with both the authorities in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), reacted cautiously to the standoff. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian expressed hope that the two sides will “find ways of solving existing issues.”
The KRG seemed to bow to the pressure from Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran in October, offering to freeze the referendum results. Its Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited Tehran and met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday.
Three days later, Barzani and Armenian Prime Minister Karen Karapetian held talks on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. An Armenian government statement said they discussed “possibilities and prospects for bolstering bilateral economic links.”
“Prime Minister Barzani stressed that [the Iraqi Kurds] want to deepen cooperation and spur commercial ties with Armenia, said the statement.
Karapetian also called for closer ties between Armenia and the Kurdish region, saying that his government is ready to take “practical steps” for that purpose.” The two men were reported to single out energy, trade and tourism as potential areas for closer cooperation.
Armenia’s trade with the Kurdish region and other parts of Iraq has grown considerably in recent years. Armenian exports to the Middle Eastern nation accounted for the bulk of Armenian-Iraqi trade worth $138 million in 2016.
Commercial exchange between the two countries is mainly carried out via Iran, a key neighbor and foreign partner of Armenia. The Islamic Republic reopened two border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan on January 2.
According to the government statement, Karapetian and Barzani also discussed the resumption of weekly flights between Yerevan and Erbil.
The flights were suspended in late September following the Iraqi government’s decision to close Iraqi Kurdistan’s airspace to foreign airlines in retaliation for the independence referendum. Reports from Baghdad have said that the ban will remain in force at least until the end of February.
The Armenian government formally decided to open a consulate general in Erbil in March 2017 shortly after Nalbandian held fresh talks with Massoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish president at the time, in Germany.