Economic crisis warms Turks to opening of Armenia border

28th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

The border's closure in 1993 -- ordered by Turkey to back Azerbaijan in a territorial conflict with Armenia -- has had heavy economic consequences not only for Armenia but also this Turkish city of 80,000.

Kars -- Hit by a bruising economic crisis, residents of this city in eastern Turkey are increasingly warming to the idea of opening the border with Armenia, hoping that revived trade links would provide a lifeline to the impoverished region.

The border's closure in 1993 -- ordered by Turkey to back Azerbaijan in a territorial conflict with Armenia -- has had heavy economic consequences not only for Armenia but also this Turkish city of 80,000.

The border crossing, some 70 kilometres (43 miles) away, was once massively used to export cattle -- Kars' main wealth -- to the Caucasus and Russia through the only railway linking Turkey to its northern neighbours.

The halt of trade has cost the province of Kars nearly one-twelfth of its population, which dropped from 356,000 to 326,000 between 1990 and 2000.

The prospect of re-opening the border, boosted by ongoing talks between Ankara and Yerevan, has become even more important now that the global economic turmoil is biting Turkey, sending unemployment up and slowing down the economy.

"Of the 300 members of the chamber of commerce, 280 believe the border should be opened immediately," said Fuat Doganay, owner of the largest restaurant in Kars.

"Business has gone down... I have to save my business and pay my debts. The government has to understand that," he said.

Many here believe Turkey's embargo is hurting Kars more than Armenia as Armenians can fly to Istanbul to work and shop, and Turkish products end up in Armenia via Georgia.

Kaan Soyak, co-chairman of a Turkish-Armenian business group, said the annual volume of bilateral trade -- mostly via Georgia -- stood at around 100 million dollars.

'We expect a happy ending soon'

With the expected re-opening of the border "we expect the exchanges to immediately reach four to five billion dollars per year," Soyak said, buoyed by the announcement Wednesday that Ankara and Yerevan had agreed a "roadmap" on normalising ties.

Kars businessman Alican Alibeyoglu complained that Turkish entrepreneurs were worst affected by the entangled political problems in the region.

"I have been to Georgia and Armenia many times. In both countries I saw hundreds of joint businesses between Armenians and Azeris, but when it comes to Turkey, it is not possible," he grumbled, adding that 50,000 people in Kars signed a petition in 2004 for the re-opening of the border.

The sealed frontier however is not the only problem: Yerevan claims that up to 1.5 million of Armenians were victims of "genocide" at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Ankara, which categorically rejects the accusation, has refused to establish diplomatic ties with Yerevan until it drops its international campaign to have the killings recognised as genocide.

During a visit to Turkey in early April, US President Barack Obama encouraged the dialogue between the two neighbours and called for a swift normalisation of ties.

Obama said Friday reckoning with the past was the best way for the Turkish and Armenian people to work through their "painful history" in a "way that is honest, open and constructive."

But such appeals fail to impress many in Kars, which is home to several thousand Turks of Azeri origin.

"The Armenians have to solve the Nagorny-Karabakh problem," said Ali Guvensoy, head of the Kars chamber of commerce, referring to the Armenian-majority enclave, which broke away from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

"They also have to stop putting allegations of genocide on the table," he added, summarising Ankara's official line on the dispute.

But Soyak, who has for years campaigned for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, was optimistic.

"We expect a happy ending soon... We expect a settlement within three or four months," he said.

The businessman stressed Azerbaijan's inclusion into the fence-mending process was a must "if we want a full economic development" in the region.

"I think it is going to be step by step: first normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia... The next step will be to include Azerbaijan," he said.


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