Business weary of Muslim-Christian
border dispute with ancient roots

By Hasmik Mkrtchyan

YEREVAN, Armenia — The Turkish-Armenian border has been shut for 14 years because of a dispute rooted in the centuries-old suspicions between Muslims and Christians in this remote part of the world.

But the business communities in both countries pay heed to a different imperative -- making money -- and they are telling their political leaders to put the past behind them.

"I want the borders opened," Turkish businessman Kaan Soyak said on the sidelines of a conference in Armenia's capital over the weekend that brought together business leaders and officials from both countries.

"The first problem is the lack of trust. Turks don't know Armenians, and Armenians don't know Turks because there is no connection. ... We need more dialogue, more visits."

Turkey and Armenia share a 355-kilometer frontier that snakes through the Caucasus mountains.

Ankara closed all border crossings and cut diplomatic ties in 1993 to protest the seizure by Armenian forces of territory in Azerbaijan, Turkey's historical ally that at the time was fighting a war with Armenia.

Lurking in the backdrop are Armenian accusations that Turkey carried out a genocide of 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey denies that there was a genocide, a stance that has complicated its bid to join the European Union.

These, however, are not the most immediate concerns for businesses struggling to operate in this isolated corner.

For Turkey, the closed border means building materials and textiles it exports to the booming Russian market have to go by road via Georgia to the north, instead of using the cheaper but now rusting railway route through Armenia.

Armenia, under virtual blockade because its border with Azerbaijan to the east is also closed, has to import goods from Turkey by air or through third countries. And Armenian exports have to go around Turkey.

 "There are two aspects: [opening the border] will make trade with Turkey cheaper and on the other hand it will open up transit routes for Armenia to the Mediterranean," said Arsen Kazaryan, an Armenian businessman.

With no sign of any diplomatic thaw soon between Yerevan and Ankara, business groups are trying to ratchet up the pressure for the border to be reopened.

The conference, at Yerevan's plushest hotel, was organized by a U.S.-based think tank and attracted several hundred entrepreneurs, economists, researchers and officials.

It was supported by the U.S. government. All speakers were in favor of reopening the border.

A cross-border business lobby, the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, is spearheading the campaign.

Mayors and regional bosses near the border with Armenia in eastern Turkey — one of the poorest parts of the country and the area that would gain most from free trade links — are also pressing Ankara on the issue.

Soyak, co-chair of the Business Development Council, said opening the border would mean a flood of Armenian tourists visiting historic sites in eastern Turkey like Ani, once the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom.

"That would mean $100 per day [from each visitor]," he said. "The eastern part of Turkey doesn't have that sort of money. Unfortunately, the central government in Turkey does not take into consideration the problems of the eastern part."

In the meantime, people in Turkey and Armenia are not waiting for the politicians.

Charter flights regularly take Armenian tourists to Turkish holiday resorts and Turkish businessmen can be seen cutting deals in hotel lobbies in Yerevan.