Thaw in Armenian-Turkish relations

Countries close to ending century of hostility triggered by 1915 Armenian massacre.

Yelena Abrahamian is unable to forget the killings of Armenians she saw as a girl living in Turkey

Armenia and Turkey appear to be close to ending almost a century of hostility after the massacre of Armenians by Turks during the first world war.

The former enemies are on the verge of an agreement to normalise relations and open their common border, but the proposed move is proving controversial. 

Yelena Abrahamian, an Armenian painter, is almost 100 years old but has been unable to forget the killings she witnessed as a girl living in Turkey.

The first dead person I saw was a child. His mother was screaming in such a terrible way, it deafened me,” she remembers.

“Then I realised that many people were all screaming at once because they were shooting at us from the mountains.

“I fell unconscious, and when I opened my eyes, my cousin was wounded. I tried to talk to her – I didn’t realise that she was also dead.”

Yelena is one of the few remaining survivors of the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the first world war, and she believes that no agreement with Turkey should be concluded until the atrocities are recognised as genocide.

“The border should never open until the Turks apologise for what they did,” she declares fervently.

‘Football diplomacy’
The Turkish authorities insist there were killings on both sides and that no genocide was committed, but this remains a deeply emotional issue in Armenia, where there is still widespread suspicion and distrust of Turkey.

Turkey insist there were killings on both sides and that no genocide was committed [EPA]

The unexpected political rapprochement between the two countries became public in September 2008, when Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, travelled to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, to watch an international football match with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian.

What has become known as “football diplomacy” could score another victory if the Armenian leader visits Turkey for the return match on October 14, when accords on establishing diplomatic relations and opening the border could be signed – if they are ratified by both countries’ parliaments first.

Supporters of the accords say they could be part of a historic breakthrough, but some Armenians are concerned about its potential impact on negotiations over the future of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenian forces seized control from Azerbaijan during a brutal war in the 1990s.

Turkey closed its land border with Armenia in solidarity with its Azerbaijani allies over Nagorno-Karabakh, and until now had been refusing to reopen it until the long-running “frozen conflict” was resolved.

‘Armenia ready’

Nationalists also object to a clause in the accords which recognises existing borders, because they believe that parts of eastern Turkey should actually fall within Armenia.

Armenia’s leading nationalist party, Dashnaktsutiun, has pulled out of the governing coalition in protest over the proposed deal.

Nevertheless, the country’s leadership retains a majority in parliament and government officials are confident that most people will accept the agreement.

“I think, overall, the Armenian public is ready for this,” said Arman Kirakossian, the deputy foreign minister.

The protocols for the agreement do not specifically mention the genocide question or the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, but do state that a sub-commission will be established to discuss historical issues.

Kirakossian rejects nationalist claims that the protocols betray Armenian interests.

“The government will not stop its efforts for the international recognition of the genocide,” he promised.

Trade route

Kirakossian has also said that Armenians would benefit from an open border, which could increase business opportunities by providing landlocked, isolated Armenia with a new trade route to Europe via Turkey.

Martikian is positive about the changes a deal might bring

“Establishment of regional co-operation will bring not only peace to the region but also economic growth,” the deputy foreign minister said.

Economists remain divided about the potential advantages, but on the streets of Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, some younger people were cautiously optimistic.

“There will be more good neighbourly relations, more direct links and more trade with Turkey if the border opens,” said Ani Martikian, an art student.

Gyumri used to be a major cultural centre and a trading post on the route from east to west, but it has suffered economically because of the closed border with Turkey, which lies just a few kilometres outside the city centre.

Ani Martikian’s father used to work on the Gyumri railway, which once linked Armenia with Turkey.

“When it [the railway] was closed, people lost their jobs; there is not much work here any more,” she said.

“Now people with higher education are selling cheese in the market. Is that normal?”

Deep resentment

Amalia Mkrtchian, a recently graduated teacher, also thought that opening the border could bring positive changes.

“I’m not against it; I’ve had the opportunity to meet Turkish people and they don’t have negative preconceptions about Armenians,” she explained.

“Maybe some people hate Turks, but I don’t.”

Nationalists have put up anti-Turkish posters in the streets of Yerevan

On Gyumri’s central boulevard, hatred was not hard to find, especially among the older generation.

“Since the old times, the Turks have always lied and cheated and pressurised us,” said Djora Khachatrian, a taxi driver.

“Government officials want the border open so there will be trade, but we don’t want Turks here.”

The issue of the mass killings also stirred up powerful feelings of resentment.

“Our hundred-year-old pain is still in our hearts,” said unemployed Margarita Margarian.

“The further away from the Turks we are, the better for us.”

New era

Some analysts argue that the Armenian government has not done enough to counter suspicions and alleviate public fears.

“Armenia has been woefully bad at explaining what the deal is about; there has been no real groundwork or preparation, and the lack of information has bred disinformation,” says Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies.

“That also reflects the wider political reality here – it’s the arrogance of power.”

However, despite the divisions within Armenian society about normalising relations with Turkey, Giragosian said that he does not expect massive demonstrations if the agreement is signed.

“I think the reaction so far has been much weaker than the government anticipated,” he explained.

“What we are seeing generally is apathy – people are concerned, but they’re not taking to the streets.”

While small groups of nationalists have begun sit-in protests outside two government offices, Kirakossian maintains that the agreement would ultimately strengthen the country.

“The task for the government is to build a peaceful, prosperous republic which will have good relations with all its neighbours,” he says.

Although that aim could take years to achieve, supporters of the deal are hoping that it could mark the beginning of a new era for Armenia.

Source : Al Jazeera


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