An Iron Curtain at Mount Ararat

An Iron Curtain at Mount Ararat
By Harout H. Semerdjian

The Moscow Times
February 8, 2005

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 when
they were territories of a single union. For many of these new states,
such as Armenia, independence brought with it a new set of predicaments
linked to its recent historical past, its disadvantageous geography
and its immense refugee problem that resulted from ethnic conflicts
and natural disasters.

For the large and influential Armenian diaspora worldwide, the most
important issue remained recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide
— events which effectively removed their ancestors from their homeland
in the Ottoman Empire. However, for the majority of Armenians living
in Armenia, the most significant issue became survival in a period of
economic hardship and social turmoil. The country’s economy remains in
shambles, and its landlocked position only complicates the situation.

The economic conditions in eastern Turkey are not much better. In
recent years, farmers have put entire villages in the Sivas region of
the country up for sale. Isolated eastern provinces such as Erzerum,
Kars and Igdir near the Armenian border are anxious to boost their
economy in order to improve their low standards of living. Those in
Istanbul, Ankara and along the posh Aegean Coast do not necessarily
face the same challenges as those living in the forgotten east.

Yet what do the people in this impoverished region think?

On a visit to eastern Turkey several years ago, I began my journey in
Kars. Not far from the historic Armenian capital of Ani lies Ocakli,
a destitute village overlooking the frontier. A young woman from the
village pointed in the direction of Armenia and remarked, “We have
family on the other side, but we cannot reach them because of the
sealed border.”

I was intrigued: Family on the other side? Was she Armenian, Turkish
or Kurdish?

She was either unsure or unwilling to discuss her background, though
she said she hoped one day to visit her relatives in Armenia. She
voiced confidence that her village would soon prosper thanks to the
millions of dollars Armenian tourists to Ani would bring, if only
the border would open.

Today, nearly four years later, to the disappointment of the young
villager and several millions like her in both countries, the
Turkish-Armenian border remains closed.

The reason lies in unresolved historical issues and the Azeri-Armenian
conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, a conflict that does not even directly
involve Turkey. Given the current intricate situation related to
the issue of genocide in 1915 and the deadlock in Nagorny Karabakh,
the border closure between the two states only exacerbates complex
tensions in the region. While authorities in Turkey may feel they
are punishing Armenia in support of Azerbaijan, both countries are in
fact merely punishing their own people by maintaining closed borders.
Though the embargo has caused the loss of hundreds of millions of
dollars to Armenia and Turkey, it has not had the crushing impact on
Armenia that it was intended to have. Hence, the sealed border not
only fails to fulfill current political aspirations; it is actually
counterproductive in a greater regional context. The real question
is why a Turkish citizen in Kars and an Armenian citizen in Gyumri
should suffer when the existing Turkish blockade does not do extensive
damage to Armenia. It only maintains the poverty in the border regions,
which would otherwise benefit from cross-border economic activity.

The closed Armenian-Turkish frontier also causes great losses to
Azerbaijan’s isolated exclave of Nakhichevan, which shares no border
with Azerbaijan proper. All transportation arteries from this region
to Baku originate from the Turkish- Armenian border and again traverse
the Armenian province of Syunik before reaching the Azeri capital. The
current Turkish policy of keeping the border locked hence isolates
Nakhichevan and causes an alarming drain of human capital from the
exclave, the home of Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family. The resumption
of railway service between Kars, Nakhichevan and Baku would prove to
be highly beneficial to all countries in the region, particularly in
light of the strategic energy and transportation projects currently
under way in Eurasia.

Opening the border would be beneficial to Armenia and Turkey in many
more respects beyond the purely economic.

First, it would demonstrate to the international community the
strong will and determination of both countries to solve their
differences themselves, not in the corridors of the French senate
or the U.S. Congress. Open borders would 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. Finally, Armenia
could become Turkey’s direct gateway to Azerbaijan and the Central
Asian republics.

Without basic human contact and activity, no government, including
Azerbaijan’s, should expect a miraculous solution to issues such
as coming to terms with genocide, the Nagorny Karabakh conflict
or the easing of tensions in the region. How can Turkey expect
the Armenian diaspora to behave in a positive, conciliatory manner
when it is unwilling to establish 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 closer political ties in the future.

The current policies in the region applied by both countries are
indisputably a failure. It is time to open a fresh process of dialogue
and reconciliation by opening the Turkish-Armenian border. Leaders of
both countries should be encouraged to think in global and realistic
terms and start taking alternate steps toward 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