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Caucasus: Burden Of History Blocks Turkish-Armenian Border

Kars, Turkey; 28 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish-Armenian border, which Ankara closed five years ago, is unlikely to be reopened anytime soon.

The reason cited by the Turkish government is what Ankara calls the ongoing Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories.

But other factors are at least as forceful in ensuring no change to the status quo. These include concern about losing potential oil income from a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, and national honor in the face of allegations of genocide against Armenians more than 80 years ago.

Turkey closed its road and rail links with Armenia in 1993, declaring these would only reopen once ethnic Armenian forces withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan's territorial integrity is reestablished.

At present, the only direct transportation between the two countries is a weekly bus from Istanbul and Trabzon to Yerevan via Georgia and a twice-weekly flight between Istanbul and Yerevan. But continued closure of the road and railway linking the eastern Turkish outpost of Kars with Armenia's second largest city, Gyumri, 90 kilometers distant, has stymied commercial contacts.

The president of the Kars Chamber of Commerce, Mehmet Yilmaz, wants to see the border reopened as soon as possible. He notes Kars lacks industry and most locals are dependent on raising livestock.

"We want to open the border -- it will mean jobs for everyone. Armenians will visit Kars to shop for foodstuffs and textiles."

Yilmaz notes that Armenia is isolated, with virtually no land route in or out except through Georgia. (There is also a highway connecting Armenia and Iran.) Opening the border he says will open the door to Europe. He has repeatedly lobbied Turkish MPs and officials, including President Suleyman Demirel, but so far to no avail.

Yilmaz visited Armenia last year and the year before, talking with business people and politicians in Yerevan and Gyumri. Armenian business people have come to visit him in Kars. He says both sides are eager to resume direct trade and eliminate the circuitous travel and the middlemen in Georgia and Iran. The only barrier he says is the closed border.

"Turkish products such as butter, jam and olive oil are being sent to Georgia and Iran and resold to Armenia," Yilmaz says.

Ankara is eager to establish transportation links with the Caucasus and Central Asia, even if this means financing the construction of a new railway instead of reactivating the dormant line to Gyumri. A new 150 km railway from Kars to Georgia is due to be completed in about two years.

An MP from the ruling Motherland Party (ANAP) representing the district of Igdirnear the Armenian border, Adil Asirim, told RFE-RL in Ankara, "We in eastern Anatolia constantly ask why there cannot be any trade with Armenia." He says trade would boost living standards on both sides but he backs the construction of the new railway to Georgia as a way of opening eastern Turkey to new markets in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In Istanbul, Marmara University Professor of International Relations Nilufer Narli says having good economic relations with all the countries in the Caucasus is in Turkey's interest.

But she notes the "Azerbaijani factor" must not be forgotten, particularly since Baku has a virtual veto power over Turkish-Armenian relations.

"Because of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey should be careful in its relations with Armenia. So the question is who is more important for Turkey. There is constant pressure from Azerbaijan. For example, when Turkey discussed opening the border crossing with Armenia, Azerbaijan reacted very strongly."

Narli says Turkey is unlikely to reevaluate its relationship with Armenia anytime soon.

Turkey is eager for an oil pipeline to be built from Baku via Georgia and through eastern Anatolia to Ceyhan that would bring in considerable revenue in transit fees for Caspian oil. With a decision on constructing the pipeline expected in October, Ankara is unlikely to do anything to antagonize Azeri president Heydar Aliyev.

Western diplomats in Ankara note Turkey's relationship with Armenia had been moving toward full relations until Armenian forces seized Karabakh and surrounding territories. Turkey closed the border with Armenia but eventually cultivated various channels to Armenia's president, Levon Ter-Petrosian. The diplomats say Ter-Petrosian was aware that Armenia's long-term survival depends on an open border with Turkey with its access to the West. The alternative was dependence on Russia and Iran.

But it was Ter-Petrosian's advocacy of modifying Armenian policy on the Karabakh dispute late last year that led to a sudden loss of support from the power ministers in Yerevan. He eventually resigned.

His successor, Robert Kocharian, has said he wants good relations with Turkey and wants to push Karabakh off the negotiating table. But Turkey has responded that the issue of Karabakh must be resolved before there can be an improvement in relations.

The French National Assembly's vote in late May equating the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915-16 with genocide has exacerbated tensions between Ankara and Yerevan. Officials in Ankara suspect the motion must have had prior approval from Armenia.

Among those pleading for moderation on both sides is the chairman of the Turkish parliament's foreign policy committee, Bulent Akarcali. He tells RFE-RL the continued closure of the border with Armenia is especially harmful to Armenia.

"Yerevan should understand that the best protector for Yerevan could be Turkey -- neither Europe, nor the United States. We are there and Armenia is a part of our culture."

Akarcali suggests Armenia should make a goodwill gesture that Baku would also accept as such. Akarcali says Turkey then could also make a gesture leading to the reopening of the border with Armenia.

In all likelihood that gesture would have to involve a move toward reevaluating the past.

Armenians allege that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide in 1915-16 in killing well over one million ethnic Armenians. Turkey denies that what occurred was genocide, insisting that the number of Armenians was closer to 300,000 and that Armenians massacred large numbers of Turks.

While a few lone voices among Turkish intellectuals suggest the time is approaching for Turkey to admit to the alleged crimes, far more Turks oppose any revision. The head of the history department of Erzurum University, Enver Konukcu, says the Armenians have only themselves to blame for the border remaining closed. In his words, "the Armenians have a character flaw -- they always rekindle old enmities."

Nevertheless, Konukcu says Turks want to normalize relations with Armenia.

"With all our heart we want normalization, we want Armenian-Turkish relations to develop in a normal course. But if they are going to go back to ancient history, they will not achieve anything.

Konukcu says the Armenians should rid themselves of the influence of Western governments -- a reference to the French parliament's vote on Armenian genocide.

But in Istanbul, Bosphorus University Professor of Sociology, Nilufer Gole disagrees. She says the French vote was not regrettable at all. Rather, she says Turkey has to make the "Armenian Question" debatable in the public sphere.

Gole says Turks should acknowledge that "something awful happened in the past." She says archives should be open and the facts debated by historians. In her words, "you can never totally dissociate facts from current history, from ideologies, from hurt feelings, but we have to do it."

(This part of a continuing series of articles by an RFE/RL correspondent who recently traveled throughout Turkey)