By Atom Markarian
Turkey’s continuing refusal to open its border with Armenia could be successfully challenged by Yerevan after it secures membership of the World Trade Organization, a WTO expert said on Wednesday. Peter Narey, who works as a senior consultant at the Geneva-based body setting rules for global trade, argued that WTO rules prohibit member states from imposing economic blockades on each other and require them to guarantee free transit of cargoes through their territory.
“It would be very difficult for Turkey to maintain a prohibition on Armenian transit,” he said. “Turkey is a member of the WTO and I don’t see how it can justify such policy. If you are a member of the WTO you can use WTO mechanisms to force other countries to respect the rules.”
Successive Turkish governments have linked normalization of relations with Armenia to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would restore Baku’s control of the disputed region and lead to the return of occupied Azerbaijani territories. Turkey and Azerbaijan share close ethnic and cultural affinity.
Travel and commercial exchange between Turkey and Armenia has been carried out mainly through Georgia ever since Ankara closed its border with its northeastern neighbor in 1993. The blockade was later softened with the reopening of Turkish air space to commercial planes flying to and from Armenia.
Narey was speaking in Yerevan at a seminar on the implications of Armenia joining the WTO, which senior government officials now say is likely to happen before the end of this year. Tigran Davtian, deputy minister of trade and industry, said the Armenian government’s six-year negotiations with 140 members of the trade body are nearing completion, with most of the terms of the country’s membership already agreed.
Davtian said the only remaining obstacle is US demands for the liberalization of Armenia’s telecommunications market and a more effective enforcement of copyright laws. The US government objects to the controversial 15-year monopoly granted to the ArmenTel operator in 1998 under the terms of its acquisition by the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE). The government in Yerevan has been in talks with top OTE executives over the possibility of abolishing the monopoly since last September. So far they have yielded no results.
Davtian, who had earlier predicted WTO membership before the end of 2000, said his government will soon agree a compromise deal with US trade officials. He added that agreement has already been reached with Canada and Australia, two leading WTO members that also set conditions for Armenia’s entry into the organization.
The two nations were insisting throughout last year that Armenia ensure equal treatment of domestic and imported agricultural products by abolishing a 10 percent import duty on some foodstuffs. They also demanded that government subsidies to the Armenian agricultural sector do not exceed $40 million per annum.
The authorities now expect that Armenia will be granted a five-year transition period during which it will be allowed to keep its trade regime, seen as one of the most liberal in the former Soviet Union, unchanged.
Some local manufacturers have expressed concern at a further opening of Armenia’s markets to, fearing that cheaper imports would undermine their positions. Sedrak Sedrakian, vice-chairman of the Yerevan-based Grand Sun company which produces electrical lamps and other appliances, said: “If we get in today we will only suffer damages. You just can’t let a toddler fight with heavyweights.”