By Harout H. Semerdjian
The Moscow Times, February 8, 2005. Page 10.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave birth to 15 independent states, from the Baltics to the Caucasus to Central Asia. Each state inherited both advantages and challenges that were largely absent as territories of a single Communist state. For some of these states, such as Armenia, independence brought with it a new set of predicaments that lay embedded in that state\’s recent historical past, disadvantageous geography and in the immense refugee problem created as a result of ethnic conflict and natural disasters.
For the large and influential Armenian Diaspora worldwide, the most important national issue today remains genocide recognition and the events of 1915. However, for the majority of Armenians living in Armenia, the most significant issue is one of survival in a period of economic and social hardship. The country’s economy remains in shambles and its landlocked position only complicates the situation. As a “family-oriented” people, their greatest challenge remains the safety, well-being and success of their children. Hence, about a quarter of Armenia’s population has chosen to emigrate abroad.
The economic conditions in Eastern Turkey are also not much better. Only recently, entire villages in the Sivas region of the country were put out for sale. Isolated provinces such as Erzerum, Kars, and Igdir near the Armenian Republic are anxious to empower their economy in order to improve their low standard of living. Turkey is large enough where much of the population in Istanbul, Ankara and along the posh Aegean coast doesn’t necessarily face the same challenges as those living in the forgotten East. And how about the people in this impoverished region?
In a recent visit to Eastern Turkey, I began my journey in Kars. Within the bounds of the historic Armenian capital of Ani lies Ocakli, a destitute village overlooking Armenia. A young woman from the village pointed to the direction of Armenia and remarked “we have family on the other side of the border, but we cannot reach them because of the sealed border.” I was amused. Family on the other side? Was she Armenian, Turkish, or Kurdish? She was even unsure or unwilling to discuss, though she hoped one day to visit her relatives in Armenia. She voiced confidence that soon her village would prosper due to the millions of dollars Armenian tourists to Ani would bring should the border open.
Today nearly four years later, to the disappointment of the young villager and to several millions like her in both countries, the Turkish-Armenian border remains closed. The reason? Unsolved historical issues and the Azeri -Armenian conflict concerning Nagorno-Karabagh, -which does not even directly involve Turkey.
Given the current intricate situation surrounding the genocide issue and the deadlock in the Karabagh conflict, the border closure between the two states only exacerbates the tense and complicated situation in the region. In reality, while the authorities in Turkey may feel they are punishing Armenia in support of Azerbaijan, it is my estimation that both countries are punishing their own people by maintaining closed borders. While the embargo causes the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to Armenia (and Turkey), it does not in effect have the crushing impact on Armenia that it was intended to have. Hence, the closed border not only does not fulfill current political aspirations, but it is actually counterproductive when considering it in a greater regional context. Thus, the real question then is, why should a Turkish citizen in Kars and an Armenian citizen in Gyumri suffer when the existing Turkish blockade does not any further damage Armenia but maintains poverty in its own regions which would otherwise benefit from economic activity?
The opening of the border can be beneficial for Armenia and Turkey in many more respects other than just economic. First, it will demonstrate to the international community the strong will and determination of both countries to solve their differences amongst themselves, and not in the corridors of the French Senate or the United States Congress. Open borders will encourage contact, trade, business opportunities and tourism between the population of both countries which would, in turn, create a sense of confidence and greater understanding between the two peoples.
Without basic human contact and activity, neither government should expect a miraculous solution to issues such as genocide, the Karabagh conflict, and the easing of tensions between the two neighboring countries. How can Turkey expect of the Diaspora to behave in a certain fashion when it is unwilling to start basic communication links between the two countries? How can Armenia expect Turkey to understand its needs and historical issues when Mount Ararat currently acts as an Iron Curtain rather than a mountain of peace? Physical and economic contact between the people of both countries would eventually make way for academic and political ties in the future. The current policies in the region applied by both countries are indisputably a failure. It is time to unfold a fresh process of dialogue and reconciliation with the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. I encourage leaders of both countries to think in global and realistic terms and start taking alternate steps for peace, if they are serious about bringing harmony and eventual prosperity to the region.
Harout H. Semerdjian, an M.A. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a member of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. Harout Semerdjian can be reached at Harout.Semerdjian@tufts.edu