'Past grievances no obstacle to better ties'

Gyumri, the second-largest city in northwestern Armenia with a population of approximately 160,000 people, is strongly seeking the reopening of the border with Turkey in order to resuscitate the local economy. (PHOTO SUNDAY’S ZAMAN)

May 13, 2012, Sunday/ 12:54:00

Although Armenian politicians in their initial statements about the possibility of normalization of this country’s strained relations with Turkey following the parliamentary elections last Sunday were not upbeat, most people continue to expect to see an improvement in the troubled relationship between the two countries, urging Turkey to open its border with Armenia.

Sagis, a 57-year-old lottery ticket seller in Yerevan, who didn’t want to give his last name like many people here, says his great grandfather came to Armenia from Turkey’s Muş province. He said, “Neighbors should be friends.” Azniv, an 85-year-old retired teacher, told us, “We don’t need enemies, we need friendship.” According to Arman, a 37-year-old businessman who is country director of Fedex in Yerevan, Turkey and Armenia have no choice but to normalize their relations because they are neighbors.

Most Armenians here say the symbolic step in that direction would be for Turkey to open its border with Armenia, which it closed in 1993 following the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani soil, including Nagorno-Karabakh.

Tigren, 33, the co-manager of a Pizza Hut in Yerevan, says: “The border has to be opened. It will be good for us economically.”

The city that wants the border to be reopened most is Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia with a population of 160,000. Gyumri’s rundown streets and the visible poverty level of the city are in high contrast with the well-maintained streets of Yerevan.

Alexander Ter Minasiyon, a tourism agency operator in the city, says: “In Gyumri we know the difficulty of living in a border town near a closed border. To get to Kars, which is only 90 kilometers away, we travel 497 kilometers via Georgia. We lose about 10,000 tourists every year,” noting that the city of Kars on the Turkish border also wants the border to be opened. He added that there is a Russian base on the Armenian part of the border facing the Ani ruins [in Kars], and the soldiers don’t allow tourists to even look at the site across the border.

“The financial cost of the border being closed is huge. I don’t agree with the politicians who say we can get along without Turkey. We are losing a lot,” says Levon Barseghyan, who notes that Turkish products cost 30 times what they should cost because they are delivered through Georgia.

Vahan Khachatryan, a businessman who owns Gala TV, a network that broadcasts in the Gyumri region, says he has been looking for a Turkish partner for his soap manufacturing business, noting that the border being closed is causing delays in communication and transportation.

The irony lies in the Russian military units near the border that Gyumri wants to see open. The Russians are protecting the population from a “potential threat” from Turkey. There are also Russian troops and a radar unit inside the town.

Border towns on the other side are also suffering from the situation. “The illicit trade between Turkey and Armenia as of 2011 had reached a volume of around $280 million, according to unofficial figures,” says Noyan Soyak from the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC).

 “It is possible to say that this figure can increase up to three times in a very short period. Opening the border would ensure that goods from the eastern and southeastern Anatolian regions arrive in Yerevan in four to five hours, shortening the time greatly,” Soyak adds. “We perceive the possibility of the trade volume between Turkey and Armenia reaching $1 billion, including tourism revenue, in three years if the border were open,” he said.

According to the TABDC, the most attractive sectors for Turkish traders and investors are textiles, machinery and the food industry, and, of course, there is great potential for untouched sectors such as transportation, energy and information technologies.

But Vartan Oskanian, a former foreign minister and an important figure in the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), which came in second place in the elections, points to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as the main obstacle to opening the border. He said: “So our focus should be on Nagorno-Karabakh. If we can solve that problem, then Turkey will open the border.”

Gyumrian artist Aleksey Manukyan says: “The Karabakh issue is costing us dearly. We still have an eastern mentality; we can’t act pragmatically. People don’t voice this openly, but such is the situation.”

One person who can’t wait to see the day the border is opened is Karine Petrosyan, the chief of the Akhurian Train Station. She remembers that the last train from Turkey arrived in Akhurian in April of 1993. “I will retire 10 years from now. I want to see that train again before I retire.” She says the village of Akhurik, after which the station is named, has been affected negatively by the border closing. Many young people left the village. There are also people who say Turkey should first recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915 as genocide. One such person is Eleonora, a 25-year-old bank clerk. “We can’t possibly normalize our relations before Turkey admits the genocide.” Armen Pahlevenyan, a taxi driver in Gyumri, agrees. “Nothing can be described as normal unless Turkey recognizes the genocide,” said Pahlevenyan, whose great grandfather had to migrate to Gyumri from Kars.

Nana (19), a university student from Gyumri, says once Turkey recognizes the genocide, the past will stop haunting both countries.

Others, yet, prefer to look to the future instead of setting the genocide as a prerequisite for better relations. Smbat, a 55-year-old Armenian who didn’t want to give his second name, also has his roots in Kars. His family was forced to come to Yerevan during the 1915 incidents. “Whatever happened is in the past. We should now open the border. We want a better life for ourselves and for our children. We, as Armenians, aren’t after revenge. We want good neighborly relations. And Turkey should also want this.” Milla Kazanian (21) of Yerevan also agrees, saying: “The past is in the past. Now is the time to look forward. The border should reopen, and our relations should go back to normal.” Felix, an 18-year-old university student, said, “The past shouldn’t be an obstacle to the normalization of ties, but we would like Turkey to recognize the genocide.” On the Turkish side, there is concern that recognition would bring up the issue of reparations.

Galust Sahakyan, leader of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) parliamentary faction, meanwhile, indicated that Armenian leaders had their own red lines that will take priority over any form of reconciliation pact. He said at a meeting with a group of Turkish journalists on Friday, “For us, the Karabakh problem and the genocide issue are more important than a restart in relations with Turkey.”

“It is not enough to admit and then to apologize. Responsibilities such as returning land and paying compensation should also be fulfilled,” says Giro Manoyan, from the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a socialist party that nevertheless is known for its staunch Armenian nationalism. The votes for the party fell from 12 percent in the 2007 elections to 5 percent in this year’s elections.

Gala TV owner Khachatryan says: “What’s important is that Turkey opens the border. When people can freely interact, they will say ‘we are sorry.’ The historical facts of the past should be accepted, and we should all look forward.”

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