The train to Turkey hasn’t left the station in the Armenian border town of Gyumri for 22 years, and many here fear it never will. But if Turkey should unexpectedly reopen the gates, a lot of Armenians will be on board, eager to see the country their ancestors fled 100 years ago amid massacres and mass deportations.
“The soil there, I want to go back and farm it,” Stepan Bagouryan, 30, a machinist from Gyumri, said as he boarded a ramshackle passenger train to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. His great grandfather fled the city of Mus, in eastern Turkey. “Why shouldn’t we go back? It is our homeland.”
Turkey closed the link in 1993 to show solidarity with its regional ally, Azerbaijan, after Armenian troops occupied the tiny enclave of Nagorno Karabach. It’s been closed ever since.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened in 2009 to resolve the matter, and Armenia and Turkey agreed to establish diplomatic relations and reopen the border. But the agreement fell victim to the region’s many conflicts and has yet to be implemented.
Azerbaijan, which shares religious and linguistic ties with Turkey and is a major outside investor in its Turkish economy, cried betrayal. Armenia still had troops inside territory Azerbaijan claimed. It also had captured a buffer zone surrounding the enclave, whose population of 130,000 is overwhelmingly Armenian.
So Turkey asked Armenia make a show of goodwill and abandon at least one of the buffer zone’s seven districts. Armenia refused.
The 2009 accords also called for an international commission to look at the historical record and assemble facts that would enable discussion of the two countries’ very different interpretations of the deportations and massacres of 1915 that killed perhaps a million Armenians and which most label genocide. But after leaders of the Armenian diaspora accused President Serzh Sargsyan of betraying Armenian interests by agreeing to discuss the history, that initiative died as well.
After four years, neither side had submitted the twin protocols to their respective parliaments for approval, and on Feb. 16, Sargsyan formally withdrew them, blaming a lack of will by Turkey.
Although both sides have made gestures in the past – Sargsyan, for example sent his foreign minister to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inauguration as president last year – neither side is willing to contemplate taking a bold unilateral step to end the impasse.
“We think the blockade is illegal, and we do think it needs to be eliminated as soon as possible, and the earlier the better,” said Vigan Sargsyan, chief of staff to President Sargsyan (he’s not related to the president. He said Armenia has no preconditions.
“We don’t think that to open a border you need to reconcile. We think that reconciliation or friendship are future steps.”
“We want regular relations with Armenia on the basis of bilateral interests, but on the basis of realpolitik, it’s not so easy,” a Turkish official told McClatchy in Ankara. “If they will retreat from one or two (districts), it will give us the possibility of de-blocking everything,” said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The U.S. says the ball is in Turkey’s court. “Responsibility for moving forward lies with the Turkish government,” the new U.S. ambassador, Richard Mills, said at his confirmation hearings in September. He called for final approval of the two accords “without pre-conditions or linkage to other issues.”
But agreement, on anything, seems a distant hope.
For one, Armenia is incensed that Turkey chose April 24, the day of Armenia’s long planned commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian exodus from Turkey, to invite the world’s powers to Turkey mark another 1915 event, the failed allied landing at Gallipoli. The Ottoman Empire repulsed the April 25 landing by Russia, France and Britain, and the battle went on for eight months. The Turks think of it as a defining moment in their fight to remain independent after the collapse of the Ottomans.
In January, Erdogan invited his Armenian counterpart to attend the Gallipoli commemoration. Sargsyan rejected it, and in an open letter to Erdogan, chastised him for not even responding to the invitation that Armenia had sent to the Yerevan ceremonies months earlier.
He charged that Turkey was continuing “its traditional policy of denialism” surrounding the Armenian genocide and accused Erdogan of setting the date for the Gallipoli events “to distract the attention of the international community” from Armenia’s commemoration.
If the aim was to upstage Armenia, Erdogan appears to have succeeded. At least 21 heads of state have agreed to attend the Gallipoli events, according to Turkey’s foreign ministry; only two, the presidents of France and Russia, are expected at Yerevan.
But Armenia hasn’t finished. At the end of January, Sargsyan, together with other leading politicians and members of the Armenian diaspora, issued a “Pan-Armenian” declaration that referred to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres and an arbitration by then President Woodrow Wilson, which awarded an enormous part of Turkey to a new Armenian state. The declaration called for preparing a file of legal claims to restore “individual, communal and pan-Armenian rights and legitimate interests.”
Turkish officials said the declaration could be read as a claim on Turkish lands. Many Armenians agree.
“It would be strange if we did not lay out our grievances” on the centennial of the slaughter, said chief of staff Sargsyan, when asked about the declaration.
And in the view of Suren Manukyan, the deputy director of the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, that region – about one seventh of the landmass of today’s Turkey – should be restored to Armenians.
“It was the decision of President Wilson, who was chosen for arbitration after the Sevres Treaty,” he said. “The implementation of the decision of Wilson will be good compensation for all the killings, all the tragedy.” Then, he added, “the real host of the land will come back.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, believe it or not, efforts are under way to restore the dialogue – after the twin commemorations of April 24 and after the Turkish elections on June 7.
According to U.S.-born Richard Giragosian, a former Capitol Hill aide who directs the Regional Studies think-tank in Yerevan, Turkish foreign ministry officials plan to come to Yerevan in mid-June during a meeting of the NATO parliamentary assembly.
In landlocked Armenia, which has normal ties but rudimentary transport links with Georgia and Iran, an opening to Turkey would be a welcomed jolt to a moribund economy.
Today a resident of Yerevan who wants to visit Istanbul, where at least 40,000 and possibly 100,000 Armenians are working illegally, has few options for travel. There are twice weekly charter flights that depart both countries in the middle of the night, a 36-hour bus trip or one can make the six-hour drive to Tblisi, capital of neighboring Georgia, over a swerving, potholed secondary road, then catch a flight on to Istanbul.
Giragosian believes that may not be the situation for long. Based on contacts he’s had with both the Turkish and Armenian governments, he predicts the border will be open by 2017.