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Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Refusing the hand of friendship

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Kars, northeastern Turkey

High on a hill overlooking the city of Kars, there is a vast column of concrete obscured by wooden scaffolding.

Friendship statue, Kars
The hand of friendship has yet to be proffered, let alone accepted

What is inside was meant as a 32m (100ft) peace gesture from Turkey to Armenia.

"It's an image of two human figures, facing one another with a hand of friendship held out between them," explains the security guard, emerging from the portable building at the statue's feet.

But on the day the finished project should have been unveiled its giant hand stands severed on the hillside.

This friendship statue has enemies, and they have forced construction to stop.

Kars is in Turkey's far north-east, within sight of the Armenian border.

But that border has been closed since 1993. Turkey broke off diplomatic ties with Armenia then, backing Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The relationship deteriorated further after Armenians stepped up pressure for international recognition that the 1915 deportation and massacre of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians was genocide. That is something Turkey vigorously denies.

Now there are signs of a thaw in relations.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul broke the ice in September, when he became the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia - invited to watch his own national side take on Armenia in a football match.

Since then, the two countries' foreign ministers have held three meetings in as many months. Diplomats on both sides say they are "cautiously optimistic" for the future.

"I see no serious obstacle to the normalisation of relations very soon," Armenia's Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said this week, on a visit to Istanbul.

So it seems the mayor of Kars was ahead of the game when he commissioned his enormous friendship statue.

I think both sides are increasingly aware that normalising relations is to their benefit
Sahin Alpay
Istanbul politics professor

Naif Alibeyoglu had already collected 50,000 signatures in favour of reopening the Armenian border - almost 70% support.

Activists argue increased contact between Turks and Armenians is crucial to fostering mutual understanding and tolerance.

Most locals simply hope opening the border would pull their remote region out of its poverty.

"We'd love to do business. Kars can develop as a result," says Mehmet, a trader, scooping huge handfuls of stringy white cheese from a barrel at the local market.

"I think the border should open," another stall-holder agrees.

"Kars hasn't got much. Our farming and cattle sectors are almost finished. If there's demand for our cheese in Armenia we could double our income," Soner says.

'Delicate' situation

Annual trade volume between Turkey and Armenia is now estimated at around $150m. But since the border closed it is mostly firms in Istanbul and Ankara doing the business. The lengthy detour via Georgia adds up to 35% to costs.

Kars Mayor Naif Alibeyoglu
Kars Mayor Naif Alibeyoglu says both sides struggle with history

Armenia's foreign minister said again this week that his country sets no preconditions for reopening the border.

Here in Turkey, diplomats will not disclose their terms, describing the situation as "too delicate".

But they confirm that settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and an end to genocide allegations are among the issues under discussion.

"I think both sides are increasingly aware that normalising relations is to their benefit," explains Istanbul politics professor Sahin Alpay.

"There are economic issues... and of course Turkey wants to prevent the genocide bills passed by Western parliaments. It's not helping its image in the world as a whole."

He means bills recognising the 1915 Armenian massacres as genocide, already passed by many European parliaments. Turkey now fears that the US Congress will pass such a resolution next year, and that President-elect Barack Obama will accept it.

A historic breakthrough in relations with Armenia could help avert that.

Discussion closed

Up in Kars, the economic benefits of increased trade and tourism are much sought after.

But on Turkey's closed border, people's minds remain firmly closed to any discussion of history.

Historic site on Turkish-Armenian border
The closed border restricts tourism to the region's historic sites

"I don't see any need to open the border," Gurbet says, hanging strings of home-made spaghetti to dry in the sun.

"The Armenians keep bringing up the past, claiming there was genocide. That only creates hatred here," she says.

"President Gul's visit to Armenia broke Turkey's pride and honour," insists Oktay Aktas, more forcefully.

He is chair of the local MHP nationalist party that is blocking construction of the mayor's peace statue.

"What did Armenia give us in return? They have to drop their genocide claims, and stop demanding land and compensation. There can be no friendship in these conditions."

There has been so much fuss about his statue that the mayor has given up linking it to Armenia now. Now he calls it a statue for world peace, instead. But he has vowed to finish it.

"Facing history will come together with the peace process," Naif Alibeyoglu says.

"Neither side is ready for that yet. How can two neighbours discuss their history and have a dialogue when they don't even have an official relationship?"

Slowly - and very tentatively - that could now be changing.



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