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

Armenia: Travel to Turkey Eases

Tensions between Turkey and Armenia have eased a little after the former's decision to relax visa regulations.
By Peter Magdashian

The Armenian government has given a cautious welcome to Turkey's decision last month to ease visa restrictions with its neighbour. The move by Ankara was an attempt to improve relations between the two countries which hit rock-bottom last year.

"The easing by Turkey of the visa regime will facilitate the setting up and further development of contacts between the two countries," said Dzyunik Aganjanian, spokeswoman for the Armenian foreign ministry last week. "Besides, this step by Turkey can aid the stabilisation of the general situation in the region."

Although the border between the two countries remains closed, Armenians wishing to visit Turkey can now pick up a ten-dollar visa on the Turkish-Georgian frontier. Prior to last month's changes, Armenians were expected to obtain visas from Turkish consulates in Tbilisi or Moscow.

Ankara imposed the visa restrictions in retaliation for the Yerevan-supported campaign by members of the Armenian diaspora to have the massacres of Armenians in 1915 in eastern Turkey recognised as "genocide". The French parliament officially gave the move their blessing.

Official relations between the two countries were tenuous in any case. Armenia and Turkey had not established diplomatic ties after the former became independent in 1991, while Turkey keeps its border with Armenia closed in solidarity with its Turkic ally Azerbaijan over the still unresolved Nagorny Karabakh dispute.

But, according to official figures, about 5,000 Armenians still visit Turkey - mainly via Georgia - every year for business and tourism.

Ovanes Nurijanian is a trader who travels to Turkey twice a year and brings back leather goods, which he sells in Yerevan markets. "After they toughened the visa regime it became much harder for me," he said. "I had to get a visa in Tbilisi and that was always a bother." Nurijanian said that he would be able to sell his goods at more competitive prices as his travelling costs were reduced.

Lia Bakhshinian, manager of the Armenia Travel tourist agency, was confident that the change would boost her business. "We can only welcome the easing of the visa regime as Armenians love to take holidays in Turkish resorts," she said.

The new visa regulations will also be welcome news for the large number of Armenian prostitutes who travel to Turkey to earn a living. Since the collapse of the old Soviet economy, prostitution has increased tremendously in Armenia.

Despite the lack of top-level relations between the two countries, many links have been forged at a local level. The governors of the towns of Kars and Gyumri, which face each other across a closed border, have met several times and discussed collaboration on a number of business projects.

However, most Armenian and Turkish politicians are still suspicious of one another.

One of Armenia's pro-government parties, the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun, or ARF, opposes any normalisation of relations with Turkey. "There can be no talk of a thaw in relations with Turkey until that country recognises the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, stops giving military aid to Azerbaijan and lifts the blockade of Armenia," said one of its leaders, Vartan Hovanessian.

Last year, the US State Department, among others, encouraged the setting up of a Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Committee, to allow scholars to discuss issues that divide the two countries. But in recent weeks the committee has faltered, amid mutual recriminations.

According to the academic Ashot Karikosian, "people's diplomacy" is only of limited use. "It is essential to develop a dialogue first of all on a government level, then it will be possible to move to the level of public organisations," he said, adding that the two countries would both have much to gain through economic cooperation.

Peter Magdashian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan