Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 15:41 UK

Cold War haunts Armenian border

By Mark Grigoryan
BBC Russian Service

Man on bike in Igdir village, Turkey (pic: Ruben Mangasaryan)
Barbed wire marks the border zone at Igdir in Turkey

Armenia has been commemorating the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks - and a Cold War-style closed border remains a symbol of that deep scar.

The Armenia-Turkey border, laced with barbed wire, has been shut since 1927 - except for a very short period at the beginning of the 1990s.

Not even the North-South Korea border has been shut for as long as this one, analysts note. It has military installations dating back to the darkest days of the Cold War.

A derelict crane has become a new home for storks, their big nests precariously balanced among the struts.

The border is very strictly watched from both sides - Turkish guards facing Russian guards on the Armenian side.

Armenia has mandated Russia to protect its borders with Turkey to the west and Iran to the south.

Hints of a thaw

But earlier this week, Turkey and Armenia announced what amounted to a roadmap for an historic reconciliation.

Armenia map

There are no diplomatic relations between them. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the demand from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora for the 1915 massacres in Ottoman Turkey to be recognised as "genocide", are the main reasons.

Turkey wants its talks with Armenia to be conducted in parallel with negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory where the two nations fought a war in the early 1990s. Populated by ethnic Armenians, it lies outside Armenia's borders, within territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Last September, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia, when he attended a World Cup qualifying match in Yerevan.

Mount Ararat in Turkey, seen from Armenia (pic: Ruben Mangasaryan)
Mount Ararat in Turkey is 5,137m (16,854ft) high

The joint public appearance of President Gul alongside the Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisian, was controversial and criticised by hardliners in both countries. But it marked what could become a fundamental shift in relations between the two countries.

President Sarkisian this week reiterated his view that recognition of the killings as "genocide" by Turkey "is not a precondition for establishing bilateral relations".

The absence of diplomatic relations means no free trade and almost no cultural exchanges between the two countries. The isolation exacerbates Armenia's difficult economic situation; and it complicates the wider geopolitical situation in an already tense region.

Isolated from Europe

During the Soviet period it was the most strictly guarded border of the USSR, as Turkey was a member of Nato. But even after the USSR collapsed and Armenia gained its independence, the border remained firmly shut.

Railway at Akiaka near border (pic: Ruben Mangasaryan)
Akiaka in Turkey is the end of the line for this railway

Seen from Armenia, the border is "the closed gate to Europe".

People on either side live isolated from one another. Their villages are geographically very close, yet they cannot move freely and develop normal relations. It strongly influences how they perceive their lives and "the other side".

In Bagaran village, on the Armenian side of the border, I heard a woman tell me that her dream was not to go to Paris, but merely across the border for half an hour - "to see how they live there".

The physical border is actually just a small mountainous river - the Arax - that separates the two countries. To cross the river you must travel north to Georgia, and then back south from the other side of the border.

And though the countries agreed this week to a "roadmap" which would normalise relations between them, the shortest and most direct road link - across the shared border - remains for now firmly shut.

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