YEREVAN -- More than 100 entrepreneurs from Armenia and Turkey are meeting in Yerevan to explore business opportunities in each other's country during a U.S.-sponsored conference, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The two-day forum, which opened on November 22, was organized by Armenia's leading business association and the Chamber of Commerce of Diarberkir -- the largest city in eastern Turkey -- as part of a project to improve Turkish-Armenian relations.
It was financed by the U.S. government's Agency for International Development
Most of its some 50 Turkish participants represented businesses operating in Diarbekir and nearby regions located near the Turkish-Armenian border. Many of them called for the quick opening of the frontier between the two countries, something the Turkish government makes conditional on the resolution of the conflict over the disputed breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"We have long been lobbying for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border," said Diadin Gezer, deputy chairman of the Diarbekir Chamber of Commerce. "Countries around the world do at least 60 percent of their trade with their neighbors."
Gezer and other entrepreneurs agreed that Turkish-Armenian commercial ties can grow even in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries and an open border between the two estranged neighbors.
Firat Aslan, a chocolate manufacturer from Diarberkir, said an open border would facilitate the eventual normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
"If Turkish-Armenian economic relations develop, then pressure on the two states will grow and they will open the border," he told RFE/RL.
Memorandum Of Understanding
A memorandum of understanding signed by Gezer and Arsen Ghazarian, chairman of the Armenian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, envisages the two business groups promoting direct links between their members and greater commerce between the two states.
With Ankara keeping the border closed since 1993, the bulk of Turkish-Armenian trade has been carried out via Georgia. According to official Armenian statistics, trade between Armenia and Georgia grew by almost 19 percent, to $168.8 million, in the first nine months of this year.
Turkish exports to Armenia accounted for over 99 percent of this figure because of Ankara's unofficial ban on imports of goods from Armenia. Entrepreneurs say Armenian products are usually re-exported to the Turkish market through Georgia and other third countries.
Speaking at the Yerevan conference, Noyan Soyak, an Istanbul-based businessman affiliated with the Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC), estimated the annual volume of bilateral commerce at around $300 million.
Founded in the early 1990s, the TABC is the only organization uniting Turkish and Armenian businesspeople. Most of its Turkish members also favor an unconditional normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties.
Participants spent the first day of the conference on November 22 introducing their firms and promoting their products. "We have come here to take Armenian entrepreneurs to Turkey and foster an exchange of Armenian and Turkish goods," said Gafur Turkay, an ethnic Armenian executive of a Diarbekir-based insurance firm.
Some Armenian manufacturers are already involved in such exchanges. Samvel Gasparian said his Artsocks textile company has imported Turkish raw materials for the past three years.
"Since this sector is very developed in Turkey...we should look into their experience and find partners there," he told RFE/RL.
Another Armenian businessman, Gagik Bostanjian, said his Lux shoe company mainly imports shoe components from Russia and would like to find cheaper suppliers in Turkey.
As part of a USAID project implemented by several Armenian nongovernmental organizations, the business forum will be followed by a Turkish-Armenian trade exhibition in Armenia's second-largest city, Gyumri. About 80 Armenian and Turkish firms will display their products there on November 24.
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