By Dr. Altay Atlı

Last weekend marked the centenary of the Ottoman government’s arrest of Armenian community leaders, which paved the way to deportations and extermination of Armenians en masse in 1915. In his message to the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey is “cognizant of the sorrowful events experienced in the past by the Armenian community” and extended condolences to the children and grandchildren of “the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives amid the conditions of the World War I.” Sticking to the longstanding official position of the Turkish government that the killings constituted a tragic but unintended consequence of wartime policies, Erdoğan also lashed out at countries that have recognized the events as “genocide.” Meanwhile in Yerevan and elsewhere, repeated calls were made to Turkey to accept the genocide. As Turks and Armenians continue to disagree on what happened in 1915, and several other parties, including the Pope himself, take a stance on the issue, the possibility of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation appears nowhere in sight.

Waiting for the Turkish government to use the G-word is not a realistic approach for progress in this issue. On the contrary, pressurizing Turkey to do this serves only to harden the stance of the Turkish government and the Turks in general. In an interview with the Turkish TV, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan said that “it is obvious that a reconciliation between the two peoples will have to come about through Turkey recognizing the genocide”; however experience so far has shown that imposing the acceptance of genocide a sine qua non condition for reconciliation is itself a major stumbling block to that very end.

Reconciliation between Turks and Armenians will not come about as a result of the decisions made at the political level; it simply does not work. But it can still be possible as the logical consequence of a normalization process at the societal level. There have been recently positive developments in this respect, with increasing interaction between Turkish and Armenian academics, intellectual communities, sports teams, youth groups, and so forth. However, if normalization between two countries sharing a land border is expected, it has to start with the people whose lives are directly influenced by the abnormality of the situation, those who are living on both sides of the Turkish-Armenian border, which remains sealed since the 1993 occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenian forces.

Opening the Turkish-Armenian border crossing would not be only a diplomatic gesture, it would also help to restore the much needed confidence between the two countries, but more importantly it would significantly increase the livelihood of the Turks and Armenians living at both sides of the border. Currently trade between Turkey and Armenia amounts next to nothing, and whatever trade is done between the two countries it goes through Georgia, which, according to data by Turkey’s Association of Businesswomen in East and Southeast Anatolia, increases costs by three-fold. Armenia is a landlocked country, which can access the outside world through Georgia and Iran only, and the inability to conduct direct trade with Turkey is a major reason behind the slow pace of economic development in the country. But it is not only the Armenians who suffer. While Armenia might not be of real significance the Turkish economy in general, the absence of direct access to the Armenian market is a major issue for Turkish provinces along the border.

Turkey has two provinces, Kars and Iğdır, neighboring Armenia; and two others, Ardahan and Ağrı are only a few miles from the border. Taken together, these provinces correspond to one of the least developed parts of Turkey. They contribute to a mere 0.7% of Turkey’s total GDP, while more than 60% of the population lives under conditions of poverty. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the main sources of income in the region, but being far away from the major urban centers of the country and not able to conduct cross-border trade, these provinces face major barriers against economic development.

A recent report released by Hrant Dink Foundation, named after the Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, shows that the opening of the border will provide major economic revitalization for these provinces. The sociological survey in the report suggests that the population in these provinces feel that “it is not Armenia, but themselves, who are punished by keeping the border closed”. Findings of the report are supported by this author’s own observations, such as the claim made by a cab driver in Kars, who reckoned “if there’d been a referendum on the border issue, 95% of the people in Kars would vote for opening”.

The Turkish government is aware of the economic benefits of an open border. A recent report by Serka, the regional development agency in charge of the provinces in question, asserts that opening the border would help to increase border trade, improve tourism, turn the region into “Turkey’s gateway into the Caucasus and Central Asia”, increase employment and transform the region into a logistics hub. The reason why the border is closed is, however, not economic, but political. Last year, responding to claims that the border might be opened soon, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it can be possible only if “Armenia shows its willingness to settle its disputes with all of its neighboring countries and takes the necessary steps accordingly.”

Opening the border between Turkey and Armenia will not be an easy task, and it surely won’t heal the wounds of the past; but it can be a major step towards normalization between the two countries. Reconciliation can be based on progress at the societal level, and develop bottom up from there. This past weekend’s events have shown once again that a top-down solution through political decisions in what is already a highly politicized issue is not likely to materialize in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a research fellow at the Center of Global Studies at Shanghai University, and a non-resident scholar at the Asian Studies Center of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

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