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Armenia: Economic Ties With Turkey Suffer

Political ties between Turkey and Armenia have taken a turn for the worse in recent days, a development which bodes poorly for commercial links between the two nations. RFE/RL Yerevan correspondent Emil Danielyan spoke with businessmen in Armenia who were hoping to profit from better ties with Turkey. He reports that they're not optimistic.

Yerevan, 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The latest worsening of the already strained political relations between Armenia and Turkey is another piece of bad news for businesses hoping to profit from fledgling commercial ties.

A war of words has erupted between Yerevan and Ankara over efforts in the United States and Europe over whether to recognize as "genocide" the killing of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. The renewed acrimony may spell the end of hopes for closer economic contacts in the future.

For Murad Bojolian, co-chairman of the Turkey-Armenia Business Council, or TABC, the enthusiasm of the recent years is already gone.

"Some attempts [at further cooperation] are still being made, but the previous seriousness of purpose no longer exists because there are no favorable political conditions for that."

The TABC and a sister organization in Turkey were set up four years ago with the aim of normalizing bilateral ties through increased business contacts.

This was supposed to offset the absence of diplomatic relations which successive Turkish governments have made conditional on Armenia returning the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan's control. Armenia, on the other hand, has been pushing for a normalization of relations without preconditions. Says Bojolian:

"Issues that could not be raised at the inter-governmental level were discussed by the business councils. There were regular mutual visits. In a sense, these organizations were acting like messengers."

The period of unofficial business diplomacy may have come to an end with Turkey's decision to tighten the economic blockade of Armenia because of its support for international recognition as genocide of the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

The European Parliament and legislative bodies in France and Italy recently passed resolutions condemning the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman regime 85 years ago. A similar resolution by the U.S. Congress last month was shelved after a last-minute intervention by President Bill Clinton.

The Turkish government, which consistently rejects the genocide accusations, has vented its anger on Armenia. Ankara says that Armenia's leadership was behind the campaign to label the Ottoman slaughter as genocide. It also holds Yerevan responsible for recently tightening its visa regime on Turkish citizens.

That move has brought additional hassles to a handful of Turkish businessmen operating in Armenia, with travel between the two countries now even more complicated than before.

Because the Turkish-Armenian border is closed, buses between Yerevan and Istanbul must travel through Georgia. The two-day journey is today even longer since the Turks have stopped issuing entry visas to Armenians on arrival. Armenians must now spend a day in the Georgian city of Batumi to get the permits from the local Turkish consulate.

For Mustafa Avci, the owner of one of the four Turkish travel agencies operating in Armenia, that means just another headache.

Speaking to RFE/RL in his Yerevan office, which is decorated with Turkish and Armenian flags, Avci says doing business in Armenia "amounts to challenging my government." But he remains an optimist about the power of commercial ties to force political bonds:

"If trade links between Armenia and Turkey develop, they will create a basis for the establishment of diplomatic relations."

The visa regime for Turks visiting Armenia is no less strict. They must pay $25 for a single-entry visa that is valid for no more than three days.

The vast majority of Avci's Armenian customers are known as "shuttle-traders," who travel to Istanbul for wholesale purchases of cheap consumer goods. They account for a considerable part of Turkish-Armenian trade, estimated at over $100 million a year.

Businessmen from both countries look forward to the day when the Turkish-Armenian border will be reopened. With the nearest border crossing only a one-hour drive from Yerevan, that would make quite a difference.

Ankara has so far withstood pressure from local business groups and authorities in impoverished provinces bordering on Armenia to soften its position. Even the U.S. government, an active backer of a dialogue between the two countries, appears unable to change Turkish policy.