Bridging differences: Businesspeople in Turkey say open border with Armenia will benefit both nations

A 120-year-old hall in Istanbul’s main street Istiklali is hosting Istanbul-Armenian businessman Kalk-Daron Erol’s dental appliance store.

Erol was one of the pioneers among the businessmen who started trading with Armenia, despite his colleagues’ concerns and warnings, importing dental appliances, devices, and dental chairs.

“Back then it was really bad, my Tajik friend was even afraid to go to Armenia in 1998 to participate in a conference held by the American University of Armenia (AUA): ‘I am a Turk, what if they say something,’ he said, but we received great assistance and were really surprised,” said to ArmeniaNow Erol, whose Turkish friend is now a more frequent guest of Armenia than he himself.

“Trade creates a somewhat different field for human relations, and to us, Armenians, it was an occasion to establish contact,” says the businessman.

Despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, trade volumes between the two countries grows with each passing year, and if in late 1990s – by non-official data – the commodity turnover volume was $40 million, this year it has reached $200-250 million.

Noyan Soyak, co-president of a joint Armenian-Turkish organization – Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, believes that if the border opened the trade volumes would double, reaching $500 million annually.

“Yet in the 90s trade connections were mainly Georgia-mediated, Armenian and Turkish businessmen did not know each other nor did they trust each other, whereas it was definitely necessary,” Soyak told ArmeniaNow.

Soyak’s and his Armenian partners’ initiative to found the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council in 1997 became an important bridge on the way to overcoming the watershed. As the only joint structure of the time, the council was dealing not only with business-related issues, but was also organizing quite a few cultural events.

“During those years it was a challenge to put side by side the words “Armenia” and “Turkey”, so it was hard to decide how to name our organization – Armenian-Turkish friendship, or alliance or what kind of association – we didn’t want to name it association of business relations, as there was no business… so the only suitable thing was business development and, in my opinion, we have succeeded over these years,” remembers Soyak.

Over the past few years the Armenian-Turkish economic relations have transitioned from clothes and equipment export to the field of more serious and long-term projects. Soyak says there are now long-term cooperation agreements and even joint production projects when the Turkish side mainly makes investments in form of manufacturing equipment.

“However, the lack of legislation to regulate the field is a serious obstacle for such long-term and large-scale cooperation and business development. Since there are no diplomatic relations, the courts of either country do not recognize each others’ laws, so in case of problems there won’t be a place to turn to for solving them,” he says.

The Council has a goal now to create an arbitrary court, where legal issues would be resolved, and judges can either be authoritative individuals from both countries or members of the Trade Chamber.

However, the biggest issue is the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border.

Businessman Erol says that the cooperation with Armenia would be twice as profitable if the borders opened so that extra money was not spent on transportation and Georgia.

Soyak has a wider vision of the benefits of the open border, though.

Often many people wonder why Turkey, with its $113-billion-a-year export volume, should be interested in opening the border for only $500 million worth commodity turnover, but Soyak believes there are valid incentives.

“In terms of business cooperation we do not perceive Armenia purely as a trade market, which is, no doubt, very small. To us Armenia would contribute greatly to rapid development of Turkey’s eastern regions, and besides, Turkey is interested in Armenia as a chain linking it to Russia: Armenian railways would lay a road for Turkey towards Central Asia and Russia,” says Soyak.

According to Soyak, the results of the open border would first be felt in Van, Kars, Marash (Antioch), Malatya, and other provinces that are of “historic and personal importance to Armenian tourists”.

“I strongly believe that there is a ‘holy triangle’ for Armenians – every Armenian I have met wants to see the Holy Echmiadzin, Ani and Akhtamar; it’s like a dream for all of them, and it has to become a reality through open borders,” says Soyak and adds:

“Diaspora Armenians will naturally not want to come to Turkey to just see a fragment of that ‘triangle’; the best option would be if there was a direct and short way to enter from Armenia, and see what they want. By even most conservative estimates, if every year some 400,000 Armenians enter Turkey and spend only 100 Turkish liras it would amount to $40 million. That’s an insignificant amount for Istanbul, but for the Eastern provinces it would mean tangible progress,” he says.

According to Soyak, “there are no borders that would stay closed forever, it’s all about finding the right time.”