Thu, Apr 23, 2009 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE : Fear and distrust overshadow hopes of improvement in Turkey-Armenia ties

DIPLOMATIC INITIATIVE The US president has urged Turkey to normalize ties with Armenia, while the EU has said such ties would help Turkey’s bid to join the bloc

REUTERS , IGDIR, TURKEY

Far below Mount Ararat’s snow-covered peak, history weighs heavy on the shoulders of Turks and Armenians seeking to overcome animosity generated by genocide claims and territorial disputes.

A recent diplomatic initiative to restore ties between the arch foes has fueled hopes of economic and strategic benefits. It has also stirred up century-old distrust and fears among locals as they watch developments from the militarized frontier.

The distrust of many in Turkey’s Igdir Province is illustrated by a monument near Ararat consisting of five 40m-tall swords thrust toward the sky. It commemorates the killing of Turks by Armenians during and after World War I.

The memorial is a riposte to Armenian claims, supported by many countries and academics, that Ottoman Turk forces killed 1.5 million Armenians in a 1915 genocide that is commemorated across the border in Armenia on April 24.

“In Igdir there are still living witnesses who tell their descendants about the killings by Armenians here,” said Goksel Gulbeyi, chairman of an association set up to refute Armenian genocide claims.

Turkey fiercely rejects the genocide charge, saying many were killed on both sides during the conflict.

“There are people here who still feel resentment. The border shouldn’t be reopened until they are reassured,” he said.

At the Alican border gate 15km away, soldiers send journalists away while farmers dig in surrounding land.

Gulbeyi’s group has launched a campaign to block the reopening of the border, closed by Turkey in 1993 in support of its traditional Muslim ally Azerbaijan, which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists in the breakaway mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said this month the deadlock over Nagorno-Karabakh, where a fragile ceasefire holds but a peace accord has never been signed, should be resolved before any deal is struck between Turkey and Armenia.

There are also fears in Igdir, which has a large Azeri population, that Armenia covets Turkish territory. Mount Ararat, which provides a backdrop to the capital Yerevan, is a national symbol of Armenia and is pictured on its currency.

A breakthrough between Turkey and Armenia could help shore up stability in the Caucasus, criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines which make it of strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the US.

Western diplomats are concerned that in retaliation for the border reopening, Azerbaijan might be unwilling to sell its gas in the future through Turkey to Europe, and instead send most of it to Russia for re-export.

Despite the concerns, tentative cross-border contacts have generated fragile optimism among many in eastern Turkey, where livelihoods are largely made from farming and where per capita income is around a tenth of levels in affluent western Turkey.

“We want peace. I went to Armenia and I was received very well. We show them hospitality when they come here. I think it would be good for our economy and trade if the border opens,” said Ali Guvensoy, chairman of the Kars Chamber of Commerce.

That optimism is shared in landlocked Armenia. A reopening of the border would provide a huge boost to the economy, having already lost out on lucrative energy transit deals and trade with eastern Turkey.

Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan has said he expects the border to reopen by the time he attends a football match between the two countries in October.

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