THE RAILWAY TIES THAT BIND
by Anush Babajanyan

Transitions on Line
April 29, 2009
Czech Rep.

All but totally cut off from each other, twin cities either side of
a closed border sense that change is coming.

GYUMRI, Armenia | A sign on a small streetside booth in central Gyumri
advertises, "Tickets to Istanbul." The head of this small ticket
agency, Artur Lazarian, sits near the booth talking with men from the
neighborhood. "Opening the border is good unless the compromises made
for it are too big," Lazarian says. What used to be the only crossing
from Armenia into Turkey lies just 20 kilometers outside Gyumri. The
border was closed in 1993, but now the possibility of it reopening as
bilateral relations thaw after years of tension is a lively discussion
point in this city that could see substantial economic benefits from
the renewal of communications with neighboring Turkey.

When the next bus working with Lazarian's firm departs en route
for Istanbul, it will head, not west toward the old crossing point,
but north into Georgia, making a tiresome, 10-hour journey to the
Turkish Black Sea coast. Until 1993, local people could take a train
from Gyumri to the Turkish city of Kars in two hours.

A street in central Gyumri.

THE KARS EXPRESS

"If the border opened, the route from Yerevan to Istanbul, which is
about 2,050 kilometers, would be 800 kilometers shorter," Lazarian
says. "It would be cheaper, and we would not have to go through the
anxious procedures on the Georgian border." Passengers and vehicles
must go through long document checks at Armenia's border with Georgia.

For much of the 20th century the railway was the only way to cross
the border and a reminder of the good relations the two towns once
enjoyed. Merchants in Kars shipped cattle and goods on the railway
to the south Caucasus and other Soviet republics.

Until the bloodshed and mass population movements brought about
by World War I and the Russian Revolution, the two towns shared
connections deeper than those of trade and commerce. Armenians
comprised a third of the population of Kars together with Turks,
Greeks, and Russians. People in Kars, who are mostly Kurdish nowadays,
say there are still many Armenians left who conceal their identities
behind Turkish names for safety.

The architecture of Kars carries echoes of that earlier time. Behind
shop signs and ranks of bicycles, an older building in the center of
town displays a black stone facade like those once common in the city
now known as Gyumri. (Gyumri, renamed Alexandropol under imperial
Russian rule, then became Soviet Leninakan before going back to
the older name following Armenia's independence from the USSR.) The
cobblestone streets threading through each town are another visual
reminder of the past.

Relations between the two towns ceased as Turks began to see the
Armenians as obstacles in the struggle to build a new state on the
ruins of the Ottoman Empire. About 1.5 million Armenians were murdered
or deported from Ottoman territory beginning in 1915, and when in 1921
the Treaty of Kars signed by the Turks and Soviets returned Kars to
Turkish control, killings and deportations of Armenians occurred there
as well. But for the railway and a road crossing opened after Armenia
broke away from the USSR, the Armenian-Turkish frontier was closed,
and both stopped working in 1993 when Turkey sealed the border as
a sign of solidarity with Azerbaijan during the Armenian-Azeri war
over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today, few in Gyumri know anything specific about modern Kars, a
Turkish provincial capital of 80,000 people. Not many know that most
people living in Kars are Kurds. What many on the Armenian side do
know is that Kars is where their grandparents came from.

The father of Rima Shakhparonyan, 73, was one of the last Armenians
to move to Alexandropol from Kars. "My grandmother starved to death
during the genocide," Shakhparonyan says. "My father followed her
body to the mass grave where hundreds of Armenians were buried." Her
father then worked for the family of a Turk who had two wives, a
Turk and an Armenian. In the 1920s he moved to Alexandropol, where
he had relatives.

The closing of the border in 1993 was a huge economic blow to both
towns. Unable to export goods to the Caucasus states, Kars went into
economic decline. A Yerevan-Istanbul flight was soon established,
and Armenian trade concentrated on Istanbul. Tradespeople from Gyumri
now take a bus or the plane to Istanbul, and Kars is for them just
another provincial city with a limited choice of goods.

After years of isolation from the Caucasus, the people of Kars are
looking to trade and business to restore the region's declining
economy. Already, one new communications corridor is being built,
but because the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway detours around Armenia,
the United States and other friends of Armenia are not happy about
it. Nonetheless, work on the Turkish section began last summer. Even
so, many in Kars are also placing their hopes in a reopened border
with Armenia. One local booster, former Mayor Naif Alibeyoglu, told
the Hurriyet newspaper that 50,000 of the city's 80,000 residents
signed a petition in favor of reopening the border that he circulated
while still in office.

"The economic life of Kars has been suspended since 1993. As a
municipality, we can't even collect taxes from the locals," he said.

LINGERING DOUBTS

Armenian business people are also hopeful the railway will reopen,
but doubts remain that Kars can regain its former position as an
important trading partner for Gyumri.

Kars residents waiting at a bus stop in the city center.

"Right now there is no business with Kars," the ticket agency owner
Lazarian says. If the railway reopens, "Armenian trade with Istanbul
will increase, only the route will be shorter." Many in Armenia, as in
Turkey, are alarmed at the compromises statesmen from both countries
might need to make to reach agreement on reopening the border. The
Turkish side anticipates compromises in the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict, and the Armenians hope for Turkish recognition of the
Armenian genocide.

"Even the trader who has to go an extra 800 kilometers will not
agree with the border opening if the price is too high," Lazarian
says. Armenia's main export route now runs through Georgia. Renewing
the Gyumri-Kars connection would bring greater flexibility and
security. "Armenians must have an alternative exit toward the world,"
says Anahit Merouzhanyan, 53, a professor of English at Gyumri State
Pedagogical University. "If Georgia suddenly decides to close its
border, Armenia will remain isolated."

Nor does the cultural community have high hopes for a renewal of old
cultural ties should the trains start running again. Like business
people, local artists looking toward Turkey have much stronger links
to Istanbul now. Vahan Topchyan, 59, a painter from Gyumri, says the
border holds little interest for him.

"Kars will change nothing in culture," he says. He says an important
happening for him is the International Istanbul Biennial coming up
in September, "but I can go there even if the border is closed."

Musician Gagik Barseghyan, 56, disapproves of the Turkish influence
on Armenian culture. "Armenians already sing Turkish songs translated
into Armenian," Barseghyan complains. If that influence were to grow
still stronger thanks to a reopened frontier, he says, "they will
simply sing in Turkish instead of Armenian."

"The borders must open in any case," Merozhounayan says. "It's
important psychologically to have open borders."

Armenian photojournalist Anush Babayanjan reported and took the photos
for this article.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress