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Armenian Village Plans for Turkish Border Opening

Amidst rising international expectations of an Armenian-Turkish rapprochement, hopes are rising fast in the Armenian border village of Margara that this hamlet of 1,500 people -- site of the only bridge between Armenia and Turkey -- will soon become the two countries' central land link.

"We are full of hopes," commented 50-year-old Gagik Avetisian, who lives on the village street leading to Margara's bridge over the Arax River to Turkey. "They [officials] now come from Yerevan to repair the roads. Maybe this time something will change, and the border will really open up."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Urban Development told EurasiaNet that the repairs are routine and not connected with the border discussions.

But Yerevan visitors asking about house prices or talking about opening a shop, hotel, restaurant or gas station have fired Margara's expectations still higher. Avetisian says that he hopes to sell his house and 1,000 square meters of adjacent land for a price several times higher than before talks about reopening the border began.

Others concentrate on the jobs an opening of the 325-kilometer Armenian-Turkish border could bring. Villagers currently subsist on growing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for themselves and markets in Yerevan.

"We have been waiting for it for so many years! We didn't care before if it was open or closed, but we want it [to open] now," said Kolia Piliposian, the 74-year-old owner of the Margara house closest to the border. "The living conditions are very poor here, and the opening of the border will create jobs and will give opportunities to do business here."

The government, meanwhile, is also expressing cautious optimism. At an April 10 press conference to mark his first year in office, President Serzh Sargsyan said that he plans to cross the border to attend an October 7 World Cup-qualifying football match between Armenia and Turkey in Istanbul.

"This can be viewed as an optimistic approach, and my optimism may prove to be groundless, but we won't be the losers in this move," Sargsyan affirmed. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to support ally Azerbaijan in the war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno Karabakh region.

But despite Sargsyan's stance, the debate among Yerevan analysts about the pros and cons of an open border with Turkey shows little sign of dying down.

Economists worry about whether Armenian companies would be able to withstand an influx of cheaper goods from Turkey. Turkish goods currently enter Armenia via Georgia; an open border would mean lower transportation costs and, hence, lower prices.

Andranik Tevanian, chairman of the Politeconomia Center for Economic Analysis, though, believes "that problem can be solved" by setting high customs duties on Turkish goods. Tevanian estimates that the closed border costs Armenia about $300 million in foreign trade each year.

Herbert Hambardzumian, secretary general of the Union of International Cargo Carriers of Armenia, points to lower cargo costs for Armenian exporters -- Turkish ferry services across the Black Sea are cheaper than Russian services by $1,000 to $1,500 per ferry, he noted.

One political analyst, however, worries about how Armenia will cope with an influx of ethnic Armenians from Turkey. "There will be very serious problems of national security and demography," noted Armen Aivazian, director of the Ararat Center for Strategic Research.

An open border will give the Turkish government "additional leverage" to use against Armenia on the Nagorno Karabakh dispute, he argued, expressing a fear that Azerbaijanis with Turkish passports would be able to enter Armenia without restriction. "Armenia's weak system of national security is not prepared to face all these [challenges]," Aivazian said.

Back in Margara, however, the focus is less on security challenges and more on what life is like on the other side of the border. While the bridge was built in the late 1960s, it was not used until 1993, when it opened for a few days after the start of the Turkish blockade for international organizations to deliver wheat and medicine to Armenia amidst wartime shortages. No cars have since traveled over the bridge.

Talks on re-opening the border picked up again last summer when President Serzh Sargsyan invited Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul to watch a World Cup-qualifying match in Yerevan between Armenia and Turkey. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Gyumri-Kars railway, the only line running between the two countries, was even repaired for Turkish football fans to travel to Yerevan by train, Gyumri railroad station Deputy Director Valeri Muradian said at the time. Slight repairs were also made to Margara's bridge and customs control point.

But while Margara villagers may still not be able to see their Turkish neighbors three kilometers away in the village of Alijan, they can hear them, according to Khachik Asatrian, Margara's government chairperson. "We can hear the voices in Alijan when there is a wedding there. Judging from the voices and the music, there seem to be lots of Kurds there."

The Russian border guards who survey Armenia's Turkish border issue annual passes for villagers to cross over and farm their land in a neutral zone, but villager Anna Simonian says that many prefer to not bother with "all that fuss with the documents." Fear also keeps some away, although no attack on an Armenian villager has ever occurred, she added.

Nonetheless, Armenian villagers in Margara have already found one thing in common with their Turkish neighbors: the chance for a fresh start if the border reopens.

"Their villages in this part [of the country] are very poor as well, judging from their houses . . . " observed villager Piliposian, whose house stands at the border. But if the border opens "[t]he villages will revive, they will do business . . ."

Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.

Armenian Village Plans for Turkish Border Opening

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