Tuesday, February 19, 2008
On Election Day, Turkey Outweighs Politics in Border Village
By Yigal Schleifer: 02/19/08

Not far from Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Georgia, at an age-old trading crossroads, lies the village of Shirakavan. The political excitement connected to the country’s February 19 presidential vote commands little attention here. Rather, the focus is on the day-to-day struggle to survive and how, if possible, Armenia’s relations with Turkey could play a role.

On election day, several men are standing in the snow outside of the village’s school, which serves as a polling station. Among them is Shirakavan’s mayor, Gevorg Haroutiunian, who describes how many of the village’s farmers cannot reach their land, because it lies near the closed Turkish border.

"The fact that the border is closed causes damage on both sides," says the mayor.

It is a problem that is visually immediately at hand. A tall watchtower and several unmanned artillery positions look out over Shirakavan’s snow-covered border area. Off in the distance, a pencil-thin minaret rises from a mosque on the Turkish side.

"If we can have some diplomatic relations with Turkey, we could have a positive dynamic here," adds Haroutiunian.

The diplomatic stalemate with Turkey certainly comes at a cost for Armenia. Studies estimate that the country could be losing as much as $400 million in annual trade because of the closed border between the two states. Meanwhile, various regional projects, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the soon-to-be-completed Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, are working to further deepen Armenia’s political and economic isolation among its neighbors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Although it didn’t get as much attention as fighting poverty or corruption, the question of Armenia’s relations with Turkey lingered throughout the presidential campaign, but it was often used more as a way to smear a candidate than as a chance to propose ways forward on the issue.

No dramatic proposals for change have come from either of the race’s two key candidates – Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Though he has said he supports Turkey’s European Union membership bid, Sarkisian is expected to continue the policies of outgoing President Robert Kocharian, Armenian analysts say.

And while Ter-Petrosian has promised to be "pro-active" on the issue, Tevan Poghosyan, executive director of the International Center for Human Development, a Yerevan-based think tank, notes that actions taken during his 1991-1998 presidency resulted in no breakthroughs.

"If you are interested in opening up the relations, don’t look here," Poghosyan says. "The key is on the Turkish side. It’s not dependent on what the candidates say on the issue."

Despite various attempts over the years to get Ankara and Yerevan to the negotiating table, other experts believe that relations between the two neighbors will remain frozen for the foreseeable future, with the Armenian genocide issue and the question of Nagorno-Karabakh continuing to stand as major roadblocks in the way of any progress. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"Normalization of relations has become a magic word that keeps getting repeated, but nothing is done about it," says Ruben Safrastyan, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences in Yerevan and an expert on Turkey.

"There is no possibility for state-to-state diplomacy right now. We need to take things down a step to track-two [non-governmental] diplomacy. In this respect, Armenian diplomacy needs to be more proactive and we lack that proactivity right now."

Adds Safrastyan: "There are elements in Turkey that are trying to have dialogue with Armenia, and we need to have a dialogue with those elites."

"There are some elements about each other that we know, but there are many that we don’t know and we are not even bothering to get to the table and learn about it," comments the International Center for Human Development’s Poghosyan, whose organization sponsored a series of meetings in 2001-2004 between Turkish and Armenian academics, journalists and other opinion shapers.

"Our knowledge of each other is very symbolic," he continues. "The public on both sides is dealing in stereotypes."

For now, much of the impasse between Turkey and Armenia revolves around the genocide issue. Ankara refuses to recognize the mass killings of Armenians in Eastern Turkey during the late Ottoman period as genocide. Instead, it has called for the convening of a joint commission of historians to decide on the issue before any negotiations on normalizing relations can start.

Armenians see this as an unacceptable precondition, one that asks too much of them.

"I think this topic, the Armenian genocide, could be the ground for dialogue, but without preconditions," says Hayk Demoyan, director of Yerevan’s Museum-Institute of the Armenian Genocide.

"We can’t forget our memories in order to have better relations. This can’t be the cost."

But both Poghosyan and Safrastyan say they believe slow progress in being made in Turkey regarding the genocide issue, which may enable the two neighbors to move beyond the problematic subject.

"I am optimistic, and it has to do with developments in Turkish society," Safrastyan says. "I believe that in five or ten years, Turkish society will start asking more about the genocide issue. This development could end up having leverage over Turkish diplomacy."

Meanwhile, 20 kilometers from the border village of Shirakavan, in the town of Gyumri, a onetime Soviet industrial powerhouse, many locals see trade as a way to move past the political issues.

"We should see trade as separate from the genocide issue," says Eduoard Haroian, owner of a shiny hardware store that sells German-made power tools. "One is a political issue and the other is an economic issue."

"In my opinion, most of the people here are ready for the border to be open," continues Haroian. "We have a saying: if one has an enemy, it’s always harder to make a living."

Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter who covers Turkey and the South Caucasus.