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Page last updated at 23:36 GMT, Saturday, 4 July 2009 00:36 UK

Armenia-Turkey thaw tinged with pain

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Margara, Armenia

Attempts to reconcile Armenia and Turkey with a "roadmap" towards the restoration of full diplomatic ties have delighted some villagers near the countries' border - and angered others.

Sonik Ghazaryan and husband Haik Aramyan
We are ready for change. I think it is important that Armenia and Turkey become friends again
Sonik Ghazaryan (on the left)

Armenia's border with Turkey has not been open since 1993 - and it shows.

The path to an old rusty kiosk, where once people would have had their passports stamped, is overgrown with weeds.

Russian border guards and Armenian soldiers keep watch for anyone trying to cross illegally. And in a startling echo of the Cold War, troops from Nato member Turkey look back from the other side.

The lush border village of Margara is about as far south as you can go in landlocked Armenia. But residents are now hopeful that an open border could change everything. Gharnik Kharibyan is in favour of it.

"The prospect of a border opening is not only a personal issue. It will help everyone. We want to become friends with the Turkish people - they are our neighbours," he says.

From the end of his garden you can see across to the Biblical Mount Ararat, whose snow-capped peaks rise above lush vines and tomato plantations in Turkish Anatolia.

Mr Kharibyan points across to Ararat, and turns to me with an air of nostalgia.

"You see the mountain?" he asks. "A lot of our history is rooted there on the other side of the border, and it will be good to be able to go there again."

Mount Ararat in Turkey, seen from Armenia (pic: Ruben Mangasaryan)
Armenians look forward to the day they can visit Mount Ararat

The chapter of history Mr Kharibyan refers to is the time when hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed during their mass deportation from Anatolia, in World War I. Armenia wants the atrocities to be internationally recognised as genocide.

Turkey does not see them as systematic killings.

That is why some Margara residents, like Sonik Ghazaryan, still have concerns - even though now she is prepared to move on.

"We are very sensitive about this issue because we remember the stories [about the killings] our ancestors told us," she said.

"But we are ready for change. I think it is important that Armenia and Turkey become friends again."

Football diplomacy

A thaw in relations has been taking place since September 2008, when the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, visited the Armenian capital Yerevan to watch a football match between the two countries.

In April, the Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisian, announced a rapprochement with Turkey. The two countries agreed a roadmap to restoring diplomatic ties which, if adhered to, would pave the way for the border reopening as early as this autumn.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul alongside Armenian President Serge Sarkisian
Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Armenia in September

But some Armenians believe this must not happen without Turkey's acknowledgement that the killings amount to genocide.

At recent demonstrations in Yerevan, supporters of a prominent nationalist party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, burned Turkish flags to register their anger at the rapprochement.

The party also pulled out of the governing coalition over the divisive issue.

"Our position is that our government should not give in to what Turkey is asking for - that Armenia should not pursue the international recognition of the Armenian genocide," Giro Manoyan, a leading member of the party, explained.

"If Armenia gives in to these preconditions, it will only be on the losing side. It will gain nothing."

Mr Manoyan also says there are other prerequisites to the border reopening - namely that Armenia's unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh must be settled first.

Despite international mediators' efforts, many are pessimistic that this will happen soon.

Social benefits

It is not just politicians who have been lobbying hard for genocide recognition, but also members of Armenia's huge diaspora.

Arpi Vartanyan, who represents the Armenian Assembly of America in Yerevan, says there is still a degree of uncertainty about the issue of the border reopening.

Khachatur Terteryan
Recognition of the genocide will come from the Turkish people, probably before the Turkish state
Turkish Armenian in Yerevan

"The Armenian genocide took place less than 100 years ago. People have not forgotten. There is concern about the sincerity of the Turks. There's concern about the safety of Armenians," he says.

"Some just don't know what it is going to represent and a fear of the unknown is sometimes paralysing."

Some of the diaspora - many of them direct descendants of victims of the mass killings - still live in Turkey.

Others, like Khachatur Terteryan, have returned to Yerevan. He now runs a restaurant there designed to make fellow Turkish Armenians feel at home - and to bring down the barriers between the two nations.

As Turkish-style shish kebabs sizzle under a hot grill, he explains how his opinions changed when he came to live in Armenia.

"I started to think as local people think - that recognition of the genocide will come from the Turkish people, probably before the Turkish state. The Turkish intellectuals will soon come round to that opinion," he says.

Few doubt that landlocked Armenia - whose borders are closed with Azerbaijan as well as Turkey - would benefit economically from improved relations. In Margara, Gharnik Kharibyan says it would have social benefits, too.

"The border opening will help the two nations to become friends," she says.

"It might help us expand our horizons too. There is currently no entertainment in this village. But in the future, who knows? Maybe we can forge a new society with our Turkish neighbours."

Turkey and Armenia have set themselves a tight timetable for their path to friendship. The presidents of the two countries are due to meet for a second time this autumn.

If they fail to stick to that plan, the rusty barbed wire border fence in Margara may remain in place for some time.

If they succeed, a brand new chapter in Armenia's history could be written very soon indeed.



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