[lg policy] At Turkish Border, Armenians Are Wary of a Thaw (fwd)

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Tue Jun 2 19:41:50 UTC 2009

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Date: Fri, 22 May 2009 15:33:13 -0400
From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com>
Reply-To: Language Policy List <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Subject: [lg policy] At Turkish Border, Armenians Are Wary of a Thaw

May 22, 2009
Lusarat Journal

At Turkish Border, Armenians Are Wary of a Thaw


LUSARAT, Armenia — Vazgen Shmavonyan keeps a flock of doves at an
Armenian Orthodox pilgrimage site here, and they readily venture
across the border into Turkey, less than a mile away. But Mr.
Shmavonyan cannot follow, as if he is the caged one. Off they go,
symbols of something that this region has not had a whole lot of. The
border between Armenia and Turkey has been closed since 1993, a mini
Iron Curtain that is in part a legacy of one of the world’s more
rancorous conflicts, nearly a century old. Recent weeks have brought
news of a possible thaw, with the two countries outlining a plan for
establishing diplomatic ties and lifting barriers.

Yet as much as Mr. Shmavonyan and others at the pilgrimage site would
like to roam, they reacted warily to the official contacts with
Turkey. Of course, open the border, they said, it will help the
economy and improve prospects for the future.But first, most insisted,
Turkey must address the past. They said that before negotiations
proceeded, the Turkish government must acknowledge that 1.5 million
ethnic Armenians were systematically killed under Ottoman rule in
Turkey during World War I.

“We want Turkey to admit that there was a genocide,” said Mr.
Shmavonyan, 38. “Certainly, it’s bad that the border is blocked. If it
were open, it would be good for everyone. For the people who trade,
everything would be cheaper. However, let them admit it, and then we
can talk.”

Mr. Shmavonyan makes his living charging visitors a few dollars to pet
and release his doves off the hilltop pilgrimage site, which is an
ancient monastery that is considered a birthplace of Armenian
Christianity and a redoubt against encroaching Islam.

The tension at the border here is reflected in the troops that guard
the Armenian side: they are Russian, deployed at Armenia’s request to
help protect it from its far larger neighbor. (Armenia has three
million people, while Turkey has 72 million.)

Armenia, a former Soviet republic, maintains close ties with Russia.
In fact, this is perhaps one of the last places on earth where, in an
echo of the cold war, NATO soldiers — in this case, from Turkey — face
Russian ones across a sealed border.

>>From the Orthodox pilgrimage site, called Khor Virap, it is easy to
see Turkish land that was once settled by ethnic Armenians, including
the area around Mount Ararat, where the Bible suggests Noah landed his
ark after the flood.

Among those Armenians were Mr. Shmavonyan’s paternal grandparents, who
were killed by Turkish troops, he said. His father survived and fled

Many workers and visitors at the site recounted similar tales. And
some expressed anxiety about new clashes if negotiations succeeded.

“Turkey immediately will come over here; who knows what will happen?”
said Hayk Avetisyan, 38, a taxi driver who had ferried some tourists
here from Yerevan, the Armenian capital. “If you know the history
between us — immediately Turkey will try to take over half of

Not everyone was as pessimistic. The Rev. Narek Avakyan, 29, the chief
Armenian Orthodox priest at Khor Virap, said Armenia should not impose
conditions on the talks.

“Whether or not they want to admit the genocide, today or tomorrow or
sometime soon, they will do it,” he said of the Turkish government.
“It is a fact, and they know it. It has been so many years. And it was
not they who did it; it was their grandfathers and fathers.”

The Turkish government has long disputed that a genocide occurred,
asserting that Armenia peddles false history.

Turkish officials say World War I was a dark time when many ethnic
Armenians tragically died in the upheaval caused by the fighting. But
they say there was no methodical campaign to kill them, and they
emphasize that many ethnic Turks died during that period as well.

Historians have generally said that Turkey’s claims are not credible.

Armenia has sought to persuade other countries to recognize the
genocide, and the United States has often been drawn into the fray.

As a candidate, President Obama said he would acknowledge it. However,
last month, apparently concerned about offending Turkey, an important
American ally, the White House released a statement on Armenian
Remembrance Day that paid tribute to those who died but did not
explicitly use the word genocide.

The intense feelings of people at Khor Virap show how difficult it
will be to heal divisions in this strategically important yet volatile

Besides its troubled relationship with Turkey, Armenia has a closed
border with another Muslim neighbor, Azerbaijan, also a former Soviet
republic. Soon after the two countries became independent after the
demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, they went to war over the disputed
enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey, which has strong ethnic and political ties to Azerbaijan, shut
its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan.

The discord between Turkey and Armenia then grew far worse, as Armenia
and influential Armenian immigrant groups around the world pressed the
issue of the World War I killings.

Armenia’s only open borders are with Georgia, to the north, and Iran
to the south.

The hostility here toward the Turkish government does not necessarily
extend to its people. In fact, Mr. Shmavonyan, who keeps the flock of
doves at the monastery, said he worked for a decade in Istanbul as a
textile trader.

“They treated us very well,” he said. “They know that Armenians are
very good and hard-working people.”

Still, he and others were not hopeful that the rift would end soon.
And they conceded that their insistence that Turkey acknowledge the
genocide before the border was opened carried bittersweet overtones.

“Our land is there,” said David Arakelyan, 50, who runs a picnic area
for visitors to the monastery. “We want to go over there and walk
around and see how our grandparents lived. I want to go over there and
see their graves.”

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