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
pictures.

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
feeling."

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
cities.

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 Fotoroportaj.org, 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
YONCA POYRAZ DOÄ?AN YEREVAN Ä°STANBUL