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Football Diplomacy Spurs Rail Hopes

AKHURIK, western Armenia -- In the days leading up to a soccer match whose political implications eventually took on astronomical proportions, Armenian workers labored at a fever pitch to repair a long-abandoned rail line connecting their country with eastern Turkey.

The World Cup 2010 qualifier between Turkey and Armenia has provided a unique opportunity to explore renewed diplomatic ties, but questions over whether the rail route would carry football Turkish fans to the Armenian capital in the days ahead of that match highlighted the dizzying scale of questions that linger between Yerevan and Ankara.

There were no official assurances that the Armenian-Turkish border would be opened or even that the rail link would be completed in time for the match. In the end, the Turkish side would be rooted on by the delegation led by President Abdullah Gul, Turkish journalists, and fans from the Armenian side of the border.

Turkey shut down the frontier in a show of support for Baku following the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The border's reopening was made conditional on a resolution of the dispute, one of the world's most stubborn frozen conflicts, and on an end to Armenia's efforts to seek international recognition of the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.

But while little progress on the issue has been made since then, the World Cup qualifier in the Armenian capital could prove to be a difference maker.

It has already brought a historic face-to-face meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Turkish counterpart.

Hurry Up And Wait

Ever since the Turkish government closed its border with Armenia in 1993, the village of Akhurik has served as the end of the line for westbound train travel in Armenia.

The town's train depot has served as a storage facility housing well-worn train carriages for the past 15 years, with locals waiting anxiously for a resolution of the differences that led to the border closure.

Anticipating a thaw in relations, Armenia's railway authorities wasted little time readying for the big match. Without waiting for an official decision on the countries' border status, repairs began last month on a 12-kilometer stretch of rail line connecting Armenia's second-largest city of Gyumri with the eastern Turkish town of Kars.

"The plan is to do as much work as possible," Gyumri station Deputy Director Valeri Muradian said in the run-up to this weekend's game. "The main work is being done on replacing old sleepers, restoring communications and electricity supply. In short, all sorts of activities are being carried out."

Work on the exterior of the Akhurian II Station, located between Akhurik and the border, was still being conducted on September 4, when there was still talk of a possible trainload of Turkish soccer fans reaching the match. Russian border guards patrolled the area, which lies within a security zone that requires a special pass to enter.

Reconstruction efforts were clearly visible through the fence, and Akhurik villagers were well aware of the activity and its potential implications on their lives.

Residents in Akhurik talk about what an open border and restored transportation links with Turkey would mean for them. (With additional reporting from Gala TV)

Troubled Times

"It will be very good if it opens," said one villager. "We used to work in the past -- 40 families benefited from work related to the railway. Now they sit idle without work or have to choose migrant work in Russia. It will be good when the line is opened."

Residents of the economically depressed village connect their future with the reopening of the Gyumri-Kars road and rail line.

"People will get jobs and there will be trade," said another. "When we were receiving things from Turkey, many people had jobs in our village. They received cattle. There was trade. Some 40-50 guys used to work there from our village. My two brothers worked as drivers there. It will be very good if it is opened, it'll be a very good step."

In 2000, Gyumri Mayor Vardan Ghukasian was part of a delegation that traveled to Kars along the road lying through Akhurik.

A memorandum on cooperation between Gyumri and Kars was signed during that visit, but nothing has changed since then.

Ghukasian recalled that, at the time, the people of Kars "wholeheartedly" wanted the road and rail line reopened, as did Armenians in Gyumri and elsewhere.

But policy prevailed. The border was never reopened -- and the road, like the rail line, fell into disrepair.

'God Willing...'

A local villager said that "when there was a word about the opening [of the railway] a few people came on SUVs and inspected the road, then drove away."

"God willing, it will be opened," said Mayor Ghukasian, adding that such an event would be good not only for his city and the Armenian people, but also for Turkey and its Kars province.

"We are destined to be neighbors whether we want it or not," Ghukasian said. "If they don't want us to be their neighbor or we don't want them to be our neighbor, all the same, it is so. But I know one thing -- one must live in peace with his neighbor."

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