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Armenia: Turkish Businessman Pessimistic About Open Border

(RFE/RL) January 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish-Armenian border will remain closed in the absence of a breakthrough in international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to Kaan Soyak, a Turkish businessman who has long campaigned for the normalization of relations between Ankara and Yerevan.

Together with several other Turkish experts, Soyak, who is co-chairman of the nongovernmental Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC), attended a conference inYerevan on January 13 organized by the Armenian International Policy Research Group (AIPRG) titled "The Social and Economic Consequences of Opening the Armenian-Turkish Border."

Weighty Demand

He told journalists in Yerevan on January 15 that he thinks that, out of solidarity with Azerbaijan, the Turkish government is unlikely to drop its main precondition for lifting the economic blockade it imposed on Armenia in 1993: the withdrawal of Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic that they currently control.
"We hoped then that the border would open next month. We now want to [see it] open before we die."

"This was the reason why Turkey closed the border," Soyak told reporters in Yerevan, referring to the unresolved Karabakh conflict. "So unless there is movement or progress in this area, I don't see any green light from the Turkish side. But what I see at the same time on the Turkish side is a greater willingness than ever before to approach Armenia. They too are trying to find a way out," he added.

Successive governments in Ankara have adhered to this policy despite pressure from the United States and the European Union, both of which argue that normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties is essential for regional peace and stability.

The Armenian leadership likewise stands for the establishment of diplomatic relations and reopening of the land border between the two countries without any preconditions. Deputy Foreign Minister Aram Kirakosian reaffirmed Yerevan's position on the issue in a speech at the January 13 conference. He urged Turkey to act "impartially" toward all regional states and to "abandon its policy of excluding Armenia from regional projects."

The 1915-18 mass killings of Armenians still hangs over Armenian-Turkish relations (AFP)

Speaking to RFE/RL last November, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul made no mention of the Karabakh dispute and reiterated instead his government's demands for joint Turkish-Armenian academic research into the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Gul said Ankara insists on the idea of setting up a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians that was floated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a 2005 letter to President Robert Kocharian.

Kocharian effectively turned down the proposal, however, saying that this and other problems hampering Turkish-Armenian rapprochement should first be tackled by the two governments. Armenia and its worldwide diaspora believe that the 1915-18 killing of some 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey is a proven fact that cannot be disputed by historians. They see the Turkish offer as a ploy designed to scuttle greater international recognition of the genocide.

Borderline Obstacle

Soyak told the international conference in Yerevan that some of his contacts in the Turkish Foreign Ministry acknowledge that Ankara's reluctance to open its border with Armenia constitutes an obstacle to resolving the existing problems in bilateral relations. He said it also amounts to "punishing" eastern Anatolia, the region that stands to benefit most from any resumption of cross-border trade, Noyan Tapan reported on January 16.

Soyak nonetheless concluded that prospects for opening the border are remote. "It's been almost 10 years since we started work on opening the border," he said of the TABC. "We hoped then that the border would open next month. We now want to [see it] open before we die."

Soyak also said that the proposed railway linking the eastern Turkish city of Kars with the Azerbaijani capital Baku, via Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi, was shortsighted without a complementary move to restore the existing rail link between Kars and the northern Armenian city of Giumri, an option long advocated by the Armenian government.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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