Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ankara Eases Armenia Blockade

Economic hardship has prompted Turkey to open the border with Armenia for the first time since the war over Karabakh.
By Artem Yerkanian

The stretch of railway from the Turkish town of Kars to the Armenian border is rusty. The last train crossed the frontier in 1993, when the Turkish authorities, under heavy pressure from the US government, agreed to send its neighbour urgent humanitarian aid.

The Turkish authorities closed the border as a gesture of support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan.

But Armenians learned to live under the Turkish blockade, and one imposed by Azerbaijan, finding new trading routes through Iran and the seaports of Georgia.

Now, however, Turkey is keen to improve relations with Armenia and the reopening of the border is high of the agenda. Not least because the Turkish provinces close to the Armenian border, in particular Kars and Erzrum, are less economically developed than the rest of the country.

Local experts say that social problems and unemployment are a major reason for emigration from Kars to central Turkey, currently running at 8,000 people per year. The government is concerned the depopulation could eventually lead to local Kurds outnumbering Turks.

Many Turks there hope the opening of the border will boost the regional economy. "Isolation damages both sides, " says the mayor of Kars, Naib Alibeioghlu. " The present situation favours Georgia and Iran, who are making big profits by serving as intermediaries between the Turkish and Armenian businessmen".

Businessmen, it seems, are not waiting for the government to give them the green light to deal with Armenia. They have already struck an agreement to trade directly on the Turkish-Georgian border.

"Our goods arrive in Armenia through third countries, " said the President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Trabzon, a Turkish city. "The lifting of the border blockade will be great for our country. It will improve the situation in the eastern part of the Black Sea, and open new markets for Turkey."

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to lift the blockade are being stepped up. The late prime minister of Armenia, Vazgen Sarkisian, called on Washington last September to press the Turkish authorities to end Yerevan's isolation. And Armenian President Robert Kocharian declared in November that the problem would be solved in near future, following talks with his Turkish counterpart, Suleiman Demirel.

In another sign of improving relations between the two countries, Gumir in Armenia and Kars have declared themselves sister cities.

And, increasingly, more and more Turkish firms are doing business directly with Armenia, without recourse to third countries. Five or six companies involved in trade, tourism and transportation are now based in Yerevan. There is a whole network of shops in the Armenian border town of Gumir belonging to a businessman from Turkey.

Gradually, Armenian manufacturers are entering into the Turkish market too. Everything from cheese, raw leather and benches are finding their way across the border. "Companies rebuilding towns in north-eastern Turkey damaged by the recent earthquake need inexpensive, but quality cement," said spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ministry, Ara Papian. "The Turks can easily purchase it in Armenia."

The volume of informal trade between Turkey and Armenia totals approximately $120 million per year. Roads and railways will allow both countries to make significant profits from transit. Experts believe that, once the border is opened, the figure could increase tenfold.

Artem Yerkanian is deputy editor-in-chief of Novoe Vremya ("New Times") newspaper in Yerevan