By Ruben Meloyan and Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Armenia’s border with Turkey has been closed more than 14 years and there is no indication that will be reopened any time soon. The Turkish government continues to make the lifting of its economic blockade, imposed on the small South Caucasus nation out of solidarity with Azerbaijan, conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would be acceptable to its Turkic ally. The other Turkish precondition for normalizing relations with Yerevan is an end to the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
With the Karabakh dispute set to remain unresolved at least until 2009 and the genocide recognition drive gaining momentum in the United States, there is widespread skepticism about prospects for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. That sentiment is now shared even by a small number of Turkish and Armenian businessmen who have for years lobbied their governments to break the ice in the long-running feud with the two neighboring nations.
“Unless the Turkish government shows the political will [to change its Armenian policy] we will continue to have what we have,” says Arsen Ghazarian, the Armenian co-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC).
The TABC’s Turkish co-chairman, Kaan Soyak, was likewise pessimistic on the subject when he spoke to journalists in Yerevan last January. "This was the reason why Turkey closed the border,” Soyak said, referring to the Karabakh conflict. “So unless there is movement or progress in this area, I don’t see any green light from the Turkish side."
It is widely agreed that an open border would benefit landlocked Armenia’s economy and Turkey’s impoverished eastern regions. The U.S. government and World Bank economists have estimated that it would considerably accelerate Armenia’s economic growth by reducing disproportionately high costs of transporting goods to and from the landlocked country.
However, the positive impact of border opening was downplayed by a study released two years ago by the Armenian-European Policy and Legal Advice Center (AEPLAC), a Yerevan-based think tank funded by the European Union. It concluded that local companies would save as little as $20 million in transportation expenditures as a result.
Even so, the vast majority of leading Armenian entrepreneurs are in favor of cross-border commerce with Turkey. They regard Turkey not only as an alternative transit route but a potential market for Armenian exports. With the Turkish market closed to Armenian goods at present, Turkish imports make up the bulk of bilateral trade which is carried out via Georgia and Iran and estimated at about $100 million a year.
Hrant Vartanian, whose Grand Holding group owns Armenia’s main tobacco and candy factories, is among the few local businessmen opposed to an open border. He believes that the closed frontier actually limits what he sees as negative Turkish influence on Armenia.
“We must be very careful because Turkey would carry out an economic expansion [into Armenia], destroy the small economy we have created and get its hands on everything, and eventually we would sign any document the Turks want,” Vartanian tells RFE/RL.
“In general, we would benefit from having open borders with all of our neighbors. But only if everyone is concerned with business only,” he adds.
Ghazarian disagrees, saying that Armenian manufacturers have already successfully competed with cheap Turkish imports. He also argues that some of them use Turkish raw materials that are made more expensive by the closed border.
Support for the border’s opening also seems strong among residents of economically depressed in Armenian villages close to the Turkish border. One of those villages, Akhurik, stands along a railway that runs from Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri to the eastern Turkish town of Kars. The railway has stood idle ever since Ankara imposed the blockade.
For Akhurik residents, most of them unemployed, an open border would mean an opportunity to again work at a nearby railway station that used to handle Turkish-Armenian passenger and rail traffic. “The people will have jobs if the railway operates,” says one man. “Right now there are no jobs here. People gather here in the morning, play cards and go home. God willing, the border will be opened.”
“Things will be better if the border is opened,” says another. “But will the Turks agree to open it? That’s the key question.”
Another problem is that much of agricultural land in Akhurik and nearby villages is located within a security zone patrolled by Russian border guards protecting Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. Local farmers need special permits to cultivate it. They complain the procedure obtaining such permits is cumbersome and slow.
Some locals are also worried about Turkish retaliation against the possible adoption by the U.S. House of Representatives of a resolution condemning the slaughter of more than one million Armenians as genocide. In the village of Voskehask one woman went as far to warn of a Turkish invasion. “We are very scared,” she said. “If the Turks decide to go war, we will be the first to get trampled underfoot.”
(Photolur photo: Russian soldiers guard Armenia's border with Turkey.)