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LATimes: Ethnic Roots May Be at the Bottom of Hoteliers´ Woes

VAN, Turkey — Nestled beneath snowcapped mountains along the border with Iran, this area wrapped around a vast lake and brimming with archeological treasures is among Turkey’s best-kept secrets. So why not open a hotel here for adventurous travelers, tour operator Victor Bedoian from Arizona wondered during a visit in 1998.

After several years of meticulous planning and plenty of encouragement from the Turkish government, Bedoian did just that in March 2001. Two months later, police in Van told Bedoian and his wife, Kristy, that the couple could not operate the hotel.

“There’s only one reason,” said Bedoian during a recent interview here. “It’s because I’m an ethnic Armenian.” He’s probably right. Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians remain bitterly divided, much of the anger traced back to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in eastern Turkey around the time of World War I. Turkey denies charges of genocide and says many of the dead fell victim to starvation and exposure while fleeing wartime fighting.

The neighboring nation of Armenia’s refusal to recognize its existing borders with Turkey also feeds the anger, as does Armenia’s occupation of territory claimed by this nation’s closest regional ally, Azerbaijan.

Here in Van, where some of history’s bloodier clashes between Turks and ethnic Armenians took place, some residents still fear that Armenians who fled will one day return to reclaim their lost property.

The local branch of the Nationalist Action Party is at the forefront of a campaign to portray Bedoian as an Armenian agent whose “sinister agenda,” according to local party boss Coskun Tatar, is to sow the seeds of “a greater Armenia” in Van by buying property in Van province.

Media reports have accused Kristy Bedoian of links with ethnic Kurdish rebels who long fought Turkish troops in the region.

“We are not against foreign investment; that would be really stupid,” said Feyat Erdemir, a spokesman for the ultranationalist party. “But this man has different intentions, he is a mischief-maker.”

Yet, when Victor Bedoian first approached Turkish officials in 1999 about the possibility of investing here–together with 10 American partners, none of them ethnic Armenians–“they promised us the moon,” he said. Operating licenses, work permits, all were swiftly issued amid smiles and piping hot glasses of tea.

“Having an Armenian freely operating here would have been a great propaganda tool for Turkey,” noted Kaan Soyak, co-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, which is seeking to promote trade and cultural exchanges between the two ethnic groups. “They blew it.”

In May 2000, the couple opened a carpet showroom in Van to “test the waters” and made national television headlines as the first foreigners to invest in the largely Kurdish-populated region. “People were really thrilled to have Americans here, they knew we would help the local economy,” said Kristy Bedoian, 49.

Her husband said it was only after he bought the hotel, paying $700,000, that his troubles began.

Police began to visit the premises repeatedly, demanding to see the couple’s papers and grilling Victor Bedoian about his ancestry. Employees were threatened and asked why they were “working for those Armenians.” Pressures escalated last May when Bedoian was informed that his residency application had been rejected and he was no longer authorized to do business in Turkey. As a result, all of his other permits were rendered invalid.

The couple could get no further explanation from officials. Rumors were rife in Van that the provincial governor was opposed to their presence because of Bedoian’s Armenian roots. Fearing official reprisal, friends began to stay away from the hotel.

Last July, police entered the hotel and kicked out a group of foreign tourists who were trying to check in. In November, while the Bedoians were in the United States, police evicted employees and sealed the hotel’s doors.

When pressed for an explanation, Gov. Durmus Koc declined to comment. A senior Turkish official who requested anonymity said the Bedoians’ case did not “reflect Turkey’s national policy” and was a “local problem.”

During an official visit to Turkey in December, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressed national leaders to resolve the issue. A senior U.S. official familiar with the case terms the treatment of the Bedoians “outrageous.”

“All it does is scare away foreign investors and tarnish Turkey’s reputation, which admittedly isn’t that great anyway,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

However, further prodding from the Bush administration has yielded no results, and U.S. officials say there is little else they can do.

Bedoian disagrees.

“If America wanted to fix this problem, it could do so right now,” said Bedoian, 48. “We are facing systematic persecution by the Turkish state, and the American government, our local senators and representatives have all abandoned us.”

Privately, many Turkish and U.S. officials argue that the hotel’s name–Vartan, the Armenian word for victory–lies at the root of Bedoian’s woes.

“It’s like waving a red rag at a bull,” said Haydar Celik, the hotel’s 26-year-old Turkish manager. “Local sensitivities have been inflamed.”

Bedoian said he named the hotel after his only son and had no political agenda. “That stuff happened nearly a hundred years ago,” he said of the widespread Armenian deaths. “It’s time to move on, the accusations are insane.”

Born in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, Bedoian is a second-generation American. His grandmother was spirited out of central Turkey during the wartime violence by Turkish neighbors after her family “disappeared,” as he puts it.

Bedoian hardly fits the stereotype of the revenge-seeking nationalist. Describing himself as “an ex-bum until I discovered Christianity,” he defied family pressure to marry “a nice Armenian girl” and instead chose Kristy, a Scottish American from Alaska. They opened a travel agency in Wickenburg, Ariz.

When the couple first decided to set up a business here they had no inkling of the troubles that lay ahead.

“It made perfect sense at the time,” Victor Bedoian recalled. “It was a ground-level opportunity to bring in American tourists for cultural tours.”

Bedoian has launched four lawsuits against the governor and government agencies over what the couple says is the illegal revocation of the hotel’s licenses and denial of his residency. Hearing dates have not been set for the cases. The couple has vowed to keep returning on tourist visas until justice is done.

“The irony is that Armenians back home kept calling us traitors, warning us that it would all go horribly wrong,” said Kristy Bedoian. “Sadly, they proved to be right in the end.”

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