Can Cheese Bridge the Turkey-Armenia Divide?
Sometimes diplomatic breakthroughs can happen through unlikely channels. Although the Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process that resulted in the 2009 signing of protocols to reestablish relations between the two neighbors is now almost completely dead, it's worth recalling that it was "soccer diplomacy" -- mutual visits by the Turkish and Armenian presidents to watch their countries' national teams play each other -- that got the diplomatic ball rolling in the first place.
Now that sports have been used in an effort to get the two neighbors to talk to each other, could "cheese diplomacy" be the next thing that sparks a breakthrough in Turkey-Armenia relations? That's the hope of Armenian activist Artush Mkrtchyan, who for the last few years has been the driving force behind an effort to create a kind of Caucasian "peace cheese," one produced jointly be Turks and Armenians living near their shared border. From a New York Times story about the project:
Artush Mkrtchyan calls it cheese diplomacy. Others speak of informal, or “track-two,” diplomacy. By either name, it is all about building bridges between Turks and Armenians in the absence of formal, or “track-one,” diplomatic relations between their governments.
Mr. Mkrtchyan, 55, an engineer, art critic and activist from the Armenian town of Gyumri has made cheese the medium of contact and cooperation with the neighboring town of Kars, in Turkey.
Less than 70 kilometers, or 45 miles, apart but separated by a border that has been closed for nearly two decades, cheese makers in Gyumri and Kars, along with colleagues in the nearby Georgian town of Ninotsminda, produce and market a “Caucasian cheese,” invented by Mr. Mkrtchyan in 2008 to foster cross-border cooperation.
“My cheese diplomacy actually preceded the soccer diplomacy between our countries,” Mr. Mkrtchyan said Monday as he walked into a meeting in Istanbul organized by Support to Armenian-Turkish Rapprochement, an umbrella group for like-minded activists from Turkey and Armenia.
That said, in a region filled with ancient animosities and long-standing political fights, cheese can divide as much as it can unite. In Cyprus, for example, cheese has become yet another issue that the island's Greeks and Turks are arguing about. More on that story in this previous post.