Kars Perspective: Eastern Turkish province unhappy with closed Armenia border

Kars Perspective: Eastern Turkish province unhappy with closed Armenia border

Photo: Gayane Abrahamyan/ArmeniaNow.com

Panorama of Kars with a 10th c. Armenian Sourb Arakelots (St. Apostles) Church in the center. The church built by Armenian King Abas Bagratuni has served as a mosque since 1993.

Many people in Kars, in the extreme east of modern Turkey, think that their country’s leaders punish their province more than Armenia by keeping the Turkish-Armenian border closed. They think that open communications would stimulate growth in this economically backward Turkish area.

A huge monument overlooking the town of 80,000 is dedicated to the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations as it symbolically presents the sentiments prevailing in Kars. Here, the parents or grandparents of many lived in what today is Armenia, before its sovietization. But the “hand” that should [symbolically] connect the two countries lies on the ground as if reflecting the current state of affairs in the uneasy process of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation.

The first female vice-mayor of Kars Fatma Snar
“The Hand of Friendship” remains on the ground.
The monument created in 2006 on the initiative of former Kars mayor Naif Alibeyoglu remains unfinished after being criticized by nationalists, and the hand called “Hand of Friendship” was not installed and remains on the ground, just like the normalization protocols signed by the two countries remain without ratification of parliaments and therefore unimplemented.

“Meanwhile, the majority of our town wants the border to reopen and our peoples to be good neighbors again,” the brother of Kars’ former mayor, Alican Alibeyoglu, who heads the town’s only TV station, tells ArmeniaNow.

“In fact, it is we who are blockaded. Armenians can reach Istanbul and Ankara by plane. [By keeping the border closed] Ankara causes more harm to Kars than to Armenia, perhaps even artificially preventing the development of Kars,” he says.

Alibeyoglu, who many times visited Gyumri (only 70 kilometers from Kars across the border that divides Armenia’s Shirak and modern Turkey’s Kars regions) and Armenian capital Yerevan, has Armenian friends, cooperates with Armenia’s TV company H2. He believes that the opening of the border will contribute not only to the two countries’ economic development, but will also allow the two societies to get to know each other better.

And the most important thing that people in Kars stress is the development of tourism.

“We know that before dying Armenians want to see three things – Akhtamar, Ani and Echmiadzin. The opening of the border will make the fulfillment of these dreams much easier. Instead of traveling only 70 kilometers from Gyumri, now Armenians take the roundabout way via Georgia, which is 400 kilometers,” says Alibeyoglu.

According to official data, the ruins of Ani, which are located about 20 kilometers away from Kars, are annually visited by about 30,000 tourists. It is expected that the number will double if the border with Armenia is opened.

Five years ago the former mayor initiated a signature collection to open the border with Armenia, collecting some 50,000 signatures, which he later sent to the country’s parliament and president, but the new mayor is not as enthusiastic about Turkey-Armenia reconciliation as his predecessor.

The mayor who was elected last year “waits for the central government’s decisions.”

“Individually we all want friendship with Armenians, but still there are many problems to overcome, and besides nothing depends on our local authorities,” the first female vice-mayor of Kars Fatma Snar tells ArmeniaNow.

While authorities are not in a rush, active young people in Kars take action despite threats being frequently voiced by nationalist.

Yilmaz Akkaya and Hasan Basri, members of the Community Volunteer Foundation, an organization affiliated with the Kars Caucasus University, are involved in different cultural rapprochement projects and are confident that young people in Turkey are strong and able to introduce change.

“Among the major principles of our foundation is respect towards all ethnic groups, religions, races, and there should be special respect towards Armenians,” says Basri, 24. He says that if young people join, no border will remain closed.

Head of the Kars Culture and Art Association, Vedat Akcaioz, a well-known journalist in Kars, believes that relations will improve if people start communicating.

Akcaioz has a poem by great Armenian writer Yeghishe Charents, who was born and grew up in Kars, hanging on the wall in his office. He says he wants to stage the works by Charents in Turkey.

“The two societies have grown up on opposite stories and thoughts, and only through art will it become possible to an antidote to these thoughts to heal the pain that has given trouble for a long time,” says Akcaioz.