Political and economic factors are pushing Turkey and Armenia to set aside decades of enmity and explore a rapprochement. In recent weeks, Ankara and Yerevan have made several goodwill gestures, including Turkey's decision to participate in NATO military exercises held in Armenia.
At the start of the NATO exercises in late June, Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian endorsed stronger bilateral relations. "New dangers for the region and the world demand that, despite their disagreements, countries join forces in their fight against them," Sarkisian said.
The primary source of tension between Turkey and Armenia is connected with the tragic events that began in 1915, when over a million Armenians died at the hands of Turkish forces amid the upheaval of World War I. Armenia wants the tragedy recognized as genocide, while Turkey steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the episode as such. In their latest diplomatic parley, Armenian officials have stated that Turkish genocide recognition is not a precondition for improved bilateral ties. "No matter if Turkey recognizes the genocide or not, Armenia is ready to establish normal neighborly and diplomatic relations with that country," Armenia's Aykakan Zhamanak newspaper on July 11 quoted the country's foreign minister, Vardan Oskanian, as saying.
The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement began taking shape at a NATO summit in Madrid in early June, when Oskanian held a side meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Afterwards, Gul told reporters that in the Turkish government's view, it might be time to reopen the frontier between the two countries.
The border issue has emerged as a significant obstacle to normalization largely because it is connected with the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey closed its frontier with Armenia and militarized it in 1993 moves taken in support of Ankara's ally, Azerbaijan, which at the time was experiencing a series of battlefield reverses.
Concurrent with the border closure, Turkey instituted an economic embargo against Armenia, saying the ban on trade would not be lifted until a lasting Karabakh peace settlement was negotiated and Armenia withdrew its forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory. Meanwhile, Armenia insisted on the embargo's lifting without preconditions. The stalemate in the Karabakh peace process has kept the embargo in place.
"The Turkish government has been caught by its own position and the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has proved so difficult to resolve," said Caucasian specialist Professor Edmund Herzig of Manchester University Middle Eastern Studies Department.
From Turkey's standpoint, there are powerful economic and political incentives to normalize relations with Armenia. Some experts believe that antagonistic relations with Yerevan help to infuse the genocide debate with fresh energy. Turkish-Armenian hostility additionally heightens the risk of a new confrontation in the Caucasus such as renewed fighting over Karabakh. Ankara is eager to avoid such a development, especially if it threatens to embroil Russia. Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian of Cambridge University's Eurasian Program also maintains that there is "pressure on Turkey from the EU and United States to normalize relations with Armenia."
In addition, Turkish experts suggest that Turkey's closed border with Armenia is economically counterproductive. "There is a strong economic lobby in Turkey that sees the ruin, economically, of eastern cities such as Kars, Van and Ardahan thanks to the closed frontier," said Professor William Hale of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was referring to the eastern Turkish cities along the Armenian frontier that now constitute some of Turkey's poorest communities.
With the border shut, trade between Armenia and Turkey occurs via a third country mostly going overland through Georgia. While the distance between Kars and Yerevan down the old, rusted-over railway line is only some 55 kilometers, the Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC) estimates some $70 million in Turkish-Armenian trade currently travels hundreds of kilometers out of the way in order to get around the closed border.
"After we've paid to take our goods through Georgia and then into Armenia," explains Kars businessman Ertugl Yildirim, "the price more than triples. It makes doing business a major headache too, with two sets of border formalities. Here in Kars, almost everyone would like to see the border reopened."
It's a sentiment echoed by Professor Enver Konukcu of Ataturk University in Erzurum. While "It's a political issue," he says, "involving Turkey, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, the US and Iran
Jon Gorvett is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul