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ANKARA: From its Soviet past to a new era Yerevan

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  • ANKARA: From its Soviet past to a new era Yerevan

    Today's Zaman, Turkey
    Nov 30 2008

    From its Soviet past to a new era Yerevan

    With its sturdy stone structure, grimy appearance and abandoned state,
    it would not be a typical watchtower for a Western airport. It is hard
    not to notice, even in the dark hours of the early morning, when the
    only weekly flight from Turkey arrives at Yerevan's Zvartnots
    International Airport, about 12 kilometers from the city.

    The scene once could have served as the set for an Orwellian
    movie. But not anymore, as it now stands against the glitter of the
    new terminal, which welcomes passengers with all the amenities of
    international standards.

    And even with sleepy post-flight eyes, who can miss "Ararat." It's a
    well-known cognac from Armenia in variously sized bottles lined up on
    the shelves of the duty-free shop. The name appears many times in
    Armenia, sometimes as a male first name, sometimes as the title of a
    town or province. In Yerevan "Ararat" is everlasting in the form of a
    majestic mountain that is called "Mount AÄ?rı" by the
    Turkish people who reside on the western side of the border. In
    daylight in Yerevan the snow-capped mountain is usually hidden under
    heavy fog, but heads always turn to the site where it sits,
    stately. It represents a lost past for Armenians.

    But today's Yerevan has been dominated by cranes representing
    realities rather than sentiments. It is a city of about 1.2 million
    trying to erase the traces of some 70 years of Soviet
    dominance. Construction of modern buildings, sometimes at the expense
    of historic ones, is in progress everywhere.

    Casinos crowd the main street from the airport to the center of the
    city. International brand names and luxurious shops adorn the wide
    streets. Behind the dazzle, there are homes without running water and
    gas, even though the Armenian economy has seen some growth since the
    1994 cease-fire in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

    And income disparity is unmistakable. There are both ramshackle ladas
    and grand jeeps on the streets of Yerevan, where a loaf of bread costs
    70 cents, a kilogram of oranges is $2-3 and a kilogram of meat ranges
    between $5 and $7. Renting a regular two-bedroom apartment in the
    center of the city costs about $350-400 a month, while the average
    salary is around $200. So Armenians say young people and even
    newlyweds either live with their parents or far from the city to
    reduce their expenditures. Also, many Armenians subsidize their living
    expenses with money from their relatives living abroad, and this group
    is considerable in size. While there are approximately 3.2 million
    Armenians in Armenia, there are about five million outside, 1.5
    million of them living in the United States.

    Sometimes it is a give and take, as many diaspora Armenians go to
    Armenia for surgeries and dental treatment because it is much less
    expensive there.

    Oligarchs and their kitsch homes

    There is a big house out in the country in the middle of nowhere still
    under construction. The gates around the house complex are adorned
    with golden motifs. It looks like a small palace designed by someone
    with awful taste. The guide says this is a typical house owned by an
    oligarch. Leaving the rest of the group in the van, he tries to get
    some information from the watchmen outside who look like body
    guards. He returns empty handed, warning the group not to take

    But who are these oligarchs really? An Armenian economist says many of
    the oligarchs are in the parliament. And in the ruling Republican
    Party, there are only about 10 deputies who are not oligarchs.

    Armenia and Turkey sail to new seas

    The closed border between Armenia and Turkey makes things harder
    economically. The Armenian people look forward to the opening of the
    border -- closed in 1993 by Turkey in protest against the Armenian
    occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan -- since the country is
    dependent on other states for energy supplies and most raw materials.

    There are a lot of Russian investors in Armenia and there is not much
    other foreign direct investment. Some Armenians are concerned that
    dependence on Russia is a threat. Diaspora Armenians have also
    invested in Armenia, but they are weary because of corruption.

    Landlocked Armenia has highway routes through Georgia to the north and
    Iran to the south, but they are not enough. Armenia is forced to pay
    higher transit costs for imports coming from Turkey. Even though the
    Turkish province of Kars is 20 kilometers away from the Armenian
    province of Gyumri, it takes at least 14 hours for a truck to reach
    Armenia through Georgia, increasing the costs for Armenia.

    The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been the biggest challenge for the
    normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations because Turkey has made
    resolving the conflict a precondition. As there are signs of a
    possible resolution to the conflict and Turkey follows a "zero problem
    policy" with all its neighbors, there is hope. Both sides have started
    to emphasize a no-preconditions policy for the opening of the border.

    Making matters even more hopeful, Serzh Sarksyan will visit Turkey in
    October 2009 to watch a game between the national soccer teams of the
    two countries, reciprocating a similar visit by Turkish President
    Abdullah Gül in September.

    However, when exactly a concrete step will be taken by both sides is
    not known. Some observers worry that the Armenian diaspora could force
    the Armenian government to not go forward with the border opening
    until US President-elect Barack Obama delivers what he promised before
    his election: official recognition of the World War I-era killings of
    Anatolian Armenians as genocide. The Turkish government is equally
    adamant. Categorically denying "genocide" charges, Turkey says the
    killings of Anatolian Armenians came when Armenians revolted against
    the Ottoman Empire in collaboration with an invading Russian army.

    But for the general public in Armenia, the opening of the border
    carries more importance than "genocide" recognition, at least for the
    time being.

    For some, the question is whether or not Turkey can marginalize the
    diaspora even more.

    Museum against magnificent view of Mt. AÄ?rı

    "I've become a changed person since I started working here for the
    last two years. I constantly collect stories of death. And when you
    that you have that pressure in your brain, you have this helpless

    These are the words of Hayk Demoyan, director of the Museum-Institute
    of the Armenian Genocide, opened in 1995.

    At the end of the special tour he kindly offered to our group of
    journalists and civil society representatives, he complained that
    there was no direct contact between Turkish and Armenian historians.

    The museum had a temporary exhibition on Sep. 2-15 called "Armenian
    Sport in the Ottoman Empire" reflecting the history of Armenian sports
    clubs and football teams in the Ottoman Empire until 1915. A total of
    about 70 photos, documents, newspapers and magazines were
    shown. According to the documents, the number of Armenian sports clubs
    in the Ottoman Empire reached 100 and two Armenian sportsmen
    represented Ottoman Turkey in the Fifth International Olympic Games in
    Stockholm in 1912.

    Demoyan mentions that they have plans to expand the museum and add an
    educational complex, particularly for the young visitors of the museum
    -- to help their psychological well-being. He stresses that there are
    no efforts to demonize Turks in the museum.

    Outside, Armenians privately admit that they need to change their
    education system, which is full of hatred toward the Turkish
    people. And, speaking of young visitors, a two-year-old, holding his
    grandfather's hand, leaves the memorial complex, consisting of a
    40-meter-high spire next to a circle of 12 tilted slabs representing
    lost provinces of what the Armenians call "Western Armenia" (Eastern
    Turkey) leaning over to guard an eternal flame.

    Speaking Turkish in Yerevan

    "Ne güzel!" (So beautiful!) a Turkish visitor says to another
    Turk as they look at the beautiful woodcarvings at the arts and crafts
    market, called Vernisage, close to the Republic Square. "Hadi
    alın o zaman" (Then come and buy) says the smiling vendor to
    the surprise of the Turkish visitors. Immediately, a conversations
    starts. The visitors learn that he moved to Yerevan from
    Ä°stanbul in 1980 and that he is from the sports team
    BeyoÄ?luspor. His name is Stephan Galloshyan, known by the last
    name KalataÅ? in Ä°stanbul.

    He says he lived in the district of Bakırköy for a long
    time, adding that he loves Ä°stanbul and that his children still
    go back and forth. But, after seeing so much, he likes living in
    Yerevan more.

    His hands show all the signs that he carves the wood products himself.

    Indeed, there are handmade backgammon boards sold at Vernisage. Their
    covers are delicately carved. Vernisage also features handmade
    lacework, silver jewelry and carpets. Additionally, ornamental
    pomegranates, a symbol of Armenia that also represent fertility, are
    sold in abundance at the market.

    There is a flea market next to Vernisage featuring such strange items
    as used surgical devices, small and big parts of random machines and
    strange chemicals placed in hundreds of jars.

    And then there is Sarkis, the owner of a small fast-food restaurant
    that features Turkish "lahmacun" or "Armenian pizza" combined with the
    drink "ayran." Sarkis is a talkative Turkish-speaking person. Once you
    ask this man in his 40s where he learned the language, he will start
    telling his story: "Once upon a time, something happened. I won't tell
    you what happened because you are guests here. But I can tell you that
    your grandfather did something to my grandmother. And my grandmother
    was in an orphanage in Syria. She was forbidden to speak Armenian. My
    Turkish is a legacy to my grandmother."

    MerhaBarev project continues

    Turkish people say "merhaba," Armenians "barev." A photography project
    was born out of the combination: MerhaBarev.

    It started in 2006, when five Armenian photojournalists from the
    Patker Photo Agency went to Ä°stanbul to take photos for a
    week. And so did five Turkish photojournalists from the Nar Photo
    Agency in Yerevan. Using the black-and-white language of photography,
    they narrated the traditions, every-day life and people of the two

    The project was showcased in a number of exhibitions in Yerevan and
    Gyumri in Armenia and in İstanbul and Diyarbakır in
    Turkey, as well as in Georgia's Tbilisi. A book was created out of the
    MerhaBarev project in four languages -- Armenian, Turkish, English and
    German -- as well as calendars and posters.

    Following that success, the Patker Photo Agency, in a partnership with
    the Turkish, further developed another project this
    year by sending five photographers from Turkey to shoot in Gyumri and
    five Armenian photographers to Kars for a week in April and
    June. Then, as the last part of MerhaBarev, a border journey was
    embarked upon by Armenian Ruben Mangasaryan and Turk Ali Saltan, who
    made a two-week journey together along both sides of the closed border
    in October.

    Together with National Geographic Traveler Armenia, they are producing
    a special issue of the magazine dedicated entirely to MerhaBarev. The
    magazine will be in Armenian with inserts in Turkish and English. Four
    thousand copies will be freely distributed to the people living on
    both sides of the border. They indicate that the special issue is
    probably the best way to reach their most important target audience:
    people living on both sides of the closed border.

    30 November 2008, Sunday