The recent cancellation of the first Turkish-run flight from Yerevan to Turkey underlines for many Armenians the persistent difficulty of normalizing ties with their longtime foe. But where business interests lie, hope seems hard to quash.
The planned 40-minute, twice-weekly flights to the city of Van in southeastern Turkey, run by the private Turkish carrier Bora Jet, were scheduled to begin on April 3, but were canceled on March 28. The announcement followed outspoken criticism from Turkey’s close ally, Azerbaijan, that the flights would violate the two countries’ 20-year blockade of Armenia’s western and eastern borders, the result of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory
Organized by two travel agencies in Yerevan and Van, the flights were designed to encourage Armenian tourists to travel to a remote area of modern-day Turkey that played a central role in Armenia’s own early history.
Representatives of the Armenian travel agency co-organizing the flights, Narekvank, are now claiming that the flights may commence after the April 24 anniversary of the World-War-I-era massacre of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. “We hope to have flights soon,” Narekvank co-owner Armen Hovhannisian told EurasiaNet.org. “At least, after April 24 will have passed.”
Van, a predominantly ethnic Kurdish city of a few hundred thousand people, carries particular significance for both sides. It was a key site of the 1915 massacres, recognized as genocide by Armenia and 20 other countries, and contains ruins of a former Armenian neighborhood leveled during the slaughter. It is also within easy reach of the restored 10th-century Holy Cross Cathedral, a onetime seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and other Armenian cultural sites.
Given that background, Borja Jet’s decision to cancel the flight – officially attributed to insufficient passenger interest – hit many Armenians as a slap in the face.
“At first, I didn't see any political reason for this and considered the Yerevan-Van flight merely from a business angle, but the Turkish government managed to politicize the question,” commented Turkish studies expert Ruben Safrastian, director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Oriental Studies Institute. “This points to the fact that Turkey is not interested in building relations with Armenia.”
Turkey itself has not addressed that argument. While the Yerevan and Van travel agencies blame Turkey’s civilian aviation agency, Hürriyet Daily News reported that the agency had not contacted the Van regional government about stopping the flights.
Less than half of the 68 seats on the plane, a mere 20, had been sold as of March 28, according to the Yerevan travel agency, Narekvank. (Booked passengers, it said, have received refunds). The Russian carrier Aeroflot is now the sole option for flying to Istanbul directly from Yerevan, but, with the additon of an onward trip to Van, the price far exceeds the 82,400 drams ($197) offered by Borja Jet.
The Yerevan-Van flight may not be grounded for good. Narekvank’s website now features tours to Van by plane starting on May 1.
The anniversary of the 1915 massacres was expected to increase Turkish government misgivings about the flights, as Ankara campaigns against recognizing the event as genocide. On top of that, aside from any spat with Azerbaijan, Ankara arguably also faces the need to avoid high-profile controversy in Kurdish areas of the country following last month’s pledge by rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Öcalan to withdraw fighters from Turkey.
Whether those factors will play a smaller role after April 24, however, remains uncertain. Some Armenians say the scuttled flights were no surprise at all; they are not likely to believe they will resume.
“The Turks have been trying our patience for a long time,” commented Turkey expert Ara Papian, head of the Modus Vivendi Center, a Yerevan think-tank. “This time, they started a process and did things half-way. … They simply launched the process to prove to the world that they’re doing everything they can to improve relations with Armenia.”
The recent failed attempt at reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey comes most immediately to Armenians’ minds as an example of this alleged start-and-stop behavior. Neither country’s parliament has ratified the 2009 protocols drawn up as a first step toward the eventual normalization of diplomatic ties, severed in 1993.
For disappointed Yerevan-Van passenger Hasmik Babujian, a 35-year-old computer programmer whose family hails from the region, the real loss is the opportunity “to see the land of our ancestors.”
“You never know what will happen next when politics interferes,” she commented sadly.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.