Special for the Armenian Weekly
ANKARA, Turkey (A.W.)—Nearly 200 participants filled an auditorium at the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University from Nov. 22-23, for a two-day conference entitled, “The Sealed Gate: Prospects of the Turkey-Armenia Border.” Organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation, the conference aimed to address the policy of closed borders and its political, economic, social, environmental, humanitarian, and regional aspects, along with prospects for peace-building in the Caucasus.
Opening remarks were made on behalf of the foundation by Rakel Dink, wife of the late Hrank Dink, and Cengiz Aktar, who for the first time announced the formation of an Armenian Research Center that will be launched in the coming months by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Dr. Onur Ozsoy, chair of the department of economics, welcomed participants on behalf of Ankara University, and reiterated his belief that the border between Turkey and Armenia should eventually be opened in order to ensure peace, stability, and cooperation in the region.
The first session of the conference entitled, “Taking Stock of Sealed Borders,” was chaired by Prof. Gerard J. Libaridian, and examined the historical aspects of the closed border between Turkey and Armenia. Sezai Yazici, a former telecom general director of Kars, presented an overview of the history of the Turkish-Armenian border before its closing in 1993, with a focus on the Kars-Gyumri border. Lale Yalcin Heckmann explored the history of borderlands in the South Caucasus. Florian Mühlfried, a research fellow at the Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology, drew on his experiences in Georgia to present a recent history of the Georgian-Russian border. The story of a sealed border leading to cooperation was presented by former Kars mayor Naif Alibeyoglu, who shared his experiences in trying to bridge the peoples of Kars and Gyumri. Alibeyoglu initiated the “Statue of Humanity” project, which was dedicated to the friendship between Turks and Armenians—and which was famously called a “monstrosity” by then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and ordered to be dismantled.
“Sealed Border Accounts” was the title of the second session, chaired by Professor Ozgen H. Nese. Vahram Danielyan, a literary critic and professor of modern Armenian literature, presented the closed border from a literary point of view, exploring boredom as a metaphor for a Karsian experience in the novels Land of Nairi by Yeghishe Charents and Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Fabio Salomoni of Koc University spoke about the memories and identities of those from the Turkish borderlands of Kars and Igdir, and explored the idea of borderlands as a dis-homogeneous space. Graduate student Sayat Tekir, who visited the Armavir region of Armenia and conducted in-depth interviews with residents there, presented the perceptions of looking at Turkey from the Armenian border, while Manuk Avedikyan, a graduate from the American University of Armenia, explored the Yazidi-Armenian community’s perspective of the closed border.
Turkish political choices in regards to the sealing of the Armenian border and the shaping of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict was presented by journalist and political analyst Vicken Cheterian. Vahram Ter Marevosyan, a senior research fellow at the department of Turkish studies of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, presented the strategic partnership between Turkey and Georgia, and its implications on Armenia and the region. The two panelists were part of the session entitled, “Sealed Border and Neighbors,” chaired by Turkish economist and academic Guven Sak.
Saturday’s last session entitled, “Sealed Border Beyond Neighbours,” was chaired by Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University. Thomas de Waal, who is best known for his 2003 book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, approached the sealed border between Turkey and Armenia from the Karabagh perspective. He also presented the Turkish translation of his book, which was recently published by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Later, Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institute, presented her paper on the role of the United States and Russia in the regional politics of the Caucasus.
The conference continued on Sun., Nov. 23, with a session entitled, “Open Borders, Open Markets,” chaired by Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) senior fellow Kemal Kirisci, who explored the economic aspects of the closed border. Latife Akyuz of Duzce University presented her paper on the dynamics of ethnicity on the border trade, with a special focus on the Laz and Hemshin people. Ankara native Ussal Sahbaz presented the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey’s (TEVAP) study on economic cooperation opportunities between Turkey and Armenia, which focused on the possibility of cooperation on the information technology (IT) and tourism sectors. Zumrut Imamoglu of Bahcesehir presented the findings of a study by the Hrant Dink Foundation on the socio-economic impacts of the sealed border in the region.
Entitled “Open Borders, Open Minds–I and II,” the sixth and seventh sessions of the conference focused on the opening of mental borders and were chaired by Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent for the Economist, and Dr. Razmik Panossian, director of the department of Armenian communities for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Dr. Zeynep Akture, whose academic interests involve architecture and historiography, presented the importance of monuments that have been built on both sides of the Turkey-Armenia border and their implications on the normalization process. Ozlem Sendeniz of Ankara University presented her paper on Armenians and Armenia in the collective memories of the people of Igdir, the only city in Turkey to border three countries. Tamar Arilei, head of the conflict management program at Tel Hai College, brought yet another interesting element into the opening of mental borders: the experience of cross-border enterprises between Jordan and Israel.
Pinar Karakilcik, a research assistant at Istanbul University whose primary focus is comparative linguistics, examined the border in terms of languages, paying special attention to the state of the Armenian language both inside and outside of Turkey today. Araz Kojayan, a graduate student from the American University of Beirut whose paper focused on Lebanese-Armenian youth visiting Western Armenia, shed light on the imagined border between the Armenian Diaspora and Turkey. Stafan Williamson Fa and Ben Wheeler, co-founders of the Sayat Nova Project, a non-profit group that aims to preserve and promote the diverse musical dialects of the Caucasus, presented their paper entitled, “Mountains of Tongues: (Re)representing the Musical Dialects of the Caucasus.” Participants had a chance to hear some of the recordings made by the project, which involves over 50 musicians playing a wide variety of instruments and singing in over 10 different languages in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The eighth session entitled, “Beyond Open Borders,” was chaired by Prof. Asaf Savas Akat, a Turkish economist and academic. Milena Abrahamyan presented her paper entitled, “Women Beyond Borders: Linking our Stories,” which explored the female experience on both sides of the closed border. Urban Jaksa, a doctoral student at the University of York, has been involved in civil society and non-governmental organizations since 2006, focusing primarily on anti-corruption and transparency. In his talk, he focused on Armenian and Turkish youth in civil society dialogue and how NGOs engaged in intercultural dialogue can challenge certain misconceptions and stereotypes that exist on both sides of the Turkish-Armenian border. The co-founder and co-director of the Imagine Centre for Conflict Transformation, Philip Gameghelyan, presented his critical paper on the prospects of track-two diplomacy in the political context of closed borders.
The ninth and final session of the conference looked at the prospects for open borders and was chaired by Marc Pierini, a former diplomat and current visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Dr. Burcu Gultekin Punsmann, a senior foreign policy analyst at TEPAV, presented her paper that explored the borderlands around Turkey on the Georgian, Iraqi, and Syrian border, while James Derounian, principal lecturer in community development and local governance and a national teaching fellow in the department of natural and social sciences of the University of Gloucestershire, examined the way localized community development could unlock cross-border potential in sealed border situations.
Although participants were generally well-engaged and participating constructively, a few members of the audience tried hard to provoke and distract some of the presenters with unrelated questions, usually about the validity of the Armenian Genocide and the “illegal occupation of Karabagh.” These questions were largely ignored and disregarded by the panelists, who chose not to give into the provocations.
The conference came to an end with an interactive evaluation and discussion led by Cengiz Aktar and Salpi Ghazarian. Both concluded that borders are mainly in the minds of people and that the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath created both physical and emotional borders between Armenia and Turkey, and Armenians and Turks. While the responsibility of normalizing relations between the two countries should not be taken away from state-level diplomats, they said, interactions between the two peoples are necessary if we want to achieve full normalization.