Turkey Keeps Armenia Guessing Over Border Blockade

If Ankara is serious about putting relations with Yerevan onto a new footing, it will reopen the border crossings it closed in 1993.

Turkey Keeps Armenia Guessing Over Border Blockade

If Ankara is serious about putting relations with Yerevan onto a new footing, it will reopen the border crossings it closed in 1993.

Despite the recent warming in relations between Armenia and its neighbour Turkey, especially following Turkish president Abdullah Gul’s visit to Yerevan last September, it is still unknown when or even whether real steps will be taken to normalise relations.

On March 30, four United States congressmen, all of them Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats, addressed letters to Armenian president Serzh Sarksian and his Turkish counterpart, offering to promote reconciliation between the two countries.

But a few days earlier, on March 17, four other US congressmen introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives urging American recognition of the mass killing of Armenians of 1915 as genocide.

Meanwhile, the new American president’s keenness to promote the reconciliation process between the estranged neighbours was given further weight when he visited Turkey last week.

On his two-day visit, April 5-6, Obama unexpectedly met both the Turkish and the Armenian foreign ministers, Ali Babajan and Edvard Nalbandian, using the opportunity to urge the ministers to complete talks aimed at restoring ties between their respective countries.

In Ankara, at a joint press conference with Gul, Obama predicted that Turkish-Armenian talks "could bear fruit very quickly".

Obama said he stood by a statement he made last year that Ottoman Turks had carried out widespread killings of Armenians early in the 20th century, but finessed the sensitive issue by stopping short of using the word genocide.

“My views are on the record and I have not changed views,” Obama said.

Relations between Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, and Armenia, which for decades formed part of the Soviet Union, have never been cordial.

They remain bedeviled by the events in 1915, when Ottoman forces slaughtered huge numbers of Armenians in what is now eastern Turkey. Armenians claim at least 1.5 million perished and insist it was an act of state sponsored genocide. Turkey has always disputed the number of dead, and the intention, and its courts have prosecuted Turkish writers who have described Armenian claims as valid.

During the Soviet era, meanwhile, the 200 kilometre-long Soviet Armenian-Turkish land border formed part of the “Iron Curtain”, and the only crossing point was a train that clanked slowly from Kars in Turkey to Gyumri.

In 1991, Turkey, unlike Azerbaijan and Georgia, refused to establish diplomatic relations with the then newly independent Armenia.

Ankara then closed its borders with Armenia entirely in 1993 in protest against Armenia’s military operations in Nagorno Karabakh and in sympathy with Armenia’s foe, Azerbaijan.

But between 1991 and 1993, after Armenia became independent, two crossing points were opened at Akyaka-Akhurian and Alijan-Margara through which Turkish wheat was imported in 1992-93.

Residents of Margara still remember the winter of 1992, when Turkish trucks full of wheat crossed the border.

The newly independent country was suffering from poor economic conditions and there was a lack of wheat in the country.

Local people welcomed the trucks as soon as they crossed the bridge and chatted with the drivers, some of whom were Turks.

The local village head in Margara, Khachatur Asatrian, therefore, has been following signs of a thaw with interest.

But there are no preparations for the border to reopen at present.

Some Armenians expected the Kars-Gyumri rail line to start up again at least for several days last September, so that Turkish fans could come to Yerevan and watch the World Cup qualifier football match.

The Armenian side started railway repair works but the border remained closed, while Gul and a few score fans arrived by plane.

“Everything can be arranged in a short period, provided a political decision is taken to open the borders,” the head of Margara told IWPR.

“I don’t feel any work is being done to open the border [now] but as soon as the time comes, it won't take the authorities much time.”

Margara, which is about 40 km away from Yerevan, lies right on the banks of the river Araks.

But the villagers can’t even go down to the riverbank. A barbed wire fence, erected along Armenian-Turkish border in Soviet times, a relic of Cold War tensions, still stands.

Both Margara village, and the bridge leading to it, have another meaning for Armenians. In 1915, people fleeing the Ottoman slaughter only felt safe once they had crossed the bridge into then Tsarist Russia.

Kima Karapetian, who teaches history at Margara school, says there were many bridges across the Araks but this one holds special memories.

“For Armenians who survived the genocide this place was a place of hope,” she told IWPR.

In spite of bitter memories of Armenian suffering at the hands of the Turks, like most of Margara residents, Karapetian wants the borders to open, as this might revive the village.

“I do have some fears, but we’d rather have the borders open and establish relations between the two countries,” she said. “There must be cooperation between us at long last.”

But over and above all the issues of border points and barbed wire fences remain the events of 1915.

Still robustly denied by Turkey, this remains by far the most difficult issue in the two states’ bilateral relations.

It has become a question worrying the international community and remains a moot point in US-Turkey relations, especially on the eve of April 24, when Armenians commemorate the victims.

The new US president has hitherto been a reliable supporter of pro-Armenian resolutions in Congress. During his presidential campaign, he also told the American-Armenian diaspora he would not shrink from using the term genocide in his speech on April 24 – though did not use it on his recent visit to Turkey.

Turkish officials insist such steps would undermine Turkish-Armenian efforts to restore ties and recent progress in their relations as a whole.

Many Armenians are suspicious of these assertions. They believe Turkey has no real intention of establishing relations with Yerevan, or of lifting the blockade on Armenia.

They fear Ankara seeks only an “imitation” dialogue with Armenia in order to hamper formal US recognition of the 1915 events as genocide.

At the official level, however, both Armenia and Turkey have continued to make optimistic statements in public.

“Turkey and Armenia are closer then ever to peace,” Babajan, said on February 6, while adding that “US efforts toward the recognition of the Armenian genocide will harm the process”.

Babajan added that reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia had never been so close.

“I can’t say we’ve already found a solution, but where we stand now is the closest point ever to a settlement with Armenia,” he said.

The next day, at the Munich Security Conference, Sargsian made similar noises. The visit of his Turkish counterpart to Yerevan had been a step forward towards, he said.

“I think we are going the right way and if we continue doing so, we can speak about a different level of relations at the second half of the year,” Sargsian concluded.

The current Armenian leadership, unlike that of Robert Kocharian whose presidency gave priority to international recognition of the genocide, now lays stress on the importance of normalising relations with Turkey.

However, Nalbandian denies that recognition of the genocide has fallen off the agenda.

“It has been said many times, that we [together with Turkey] must turn this sorrowful page of our history, not by forgetting it but by acknowledging it,” he said in January.

“Armenia… will never tell our diaspora, or some states, to stop their efforts towards securing recognition of the genocide. This will never happen.”

Yet Sargsian and Nalbandian, unlike former president Kocharian and former foreign minister Vardan Oskanian, rarely speak of the genocide at international forums.

In turn, Turkey seems less inclined to draw parallels between the Karabakh issue and the normalisation of relations with Armenia than before.

Meetings between Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers have become more frequent since Gul’s historic trip to Yerevan.

In February, Sargsian also had a short meeting with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the Davos forum in Switzerland.

But Oskanian tells IWPR there is only one way to measure real improvement in relations between Armenia and Turkey – the

opening of the border.

“That is the only way to judge whether Turkey is sincere in its declared intentions to normalise relations with Armenia,” he said.

“If this happens in the coming months, we will welcome it, and that will vindicate the efforts of the Armenian side.

“Recently, we have heard a lot of optimism about the border opening. I hope there are serious grounds for such optimism."

Giro Manoyan, senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, one of the ruling parties in Yerevan, says it is possible 2009 will see the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey and the lifting of the land blockade by Turkey.

“Turkey is also interested in achieving these, firstly because after the August 2008 Georgia-Russia war, Turkey wants to take advantage of the new situation in the region and… Turkey also wants to avoid the US recognition of the Armenian genocide,” he said.

“Turkey cannot realise the former, when it is in fact in a state of undeclared war with Armenia because of the blockade; and regarding the latter reason, Turkey has been advised… that to avoid President Obama doing what candidate Obama promised, Turkey should establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and lift the blockade.”

Turkey has been dragging its feet in doing either, threatening to cut off negotiations with Armenia in case Obama or the House of Representatives qualify the events of 1915 as genocide.

“But in the end,” Manoyan concluded, “because it is also in Turkey's interest to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and lift the blockade, both will happen.”

Other experts agree change may be on the way. “The normalisation of Armenia-Turkey relations is not being conducted only within a bilateral format,” said Alexandr Iskandarian, a Yerevan-based political scientist.

“The US is taking part in the process, and Russia and Europe have their own role here too. This kind of talk may have certain results.”

Meanwhile, Vahan Gasparian, station master at Gyumri, told IWPR that Gyumri can handle train traffic with Turkey; the problem is the railway on the Turkish side.

“The rail line on the Armenian side is already in peak condition. Regular trains already run from Kars to Akyaka, the station right on the Turkish side of Armenia-Turkey border,” Gasparian said.

It would be possible to restore the Kars-Gyumri connection in a short period. It all depends on whether Yerevan and Ankara have the political will to do so.

Tatul Hakobian is a commentator with the English-language Armenian Reporter newspaper, published in the United States.

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