By Handan Kazanci
“If, fifteen years ago, someone had told me that I would be working on Armenia-Turkey relations, I would have said: ‘No, you are joking’.”
This was the view of one of the organizers of a new engagement program which has brought together 18 journalists and bloggers – 10 from Armenia and eight from Turkey – to spend a fortnight travelling around these two countries which share a divided and troubled past.
Vazgen Karapetyan, 44, studied medicine but never practiced, claiming it was difficult to find a job in Armenia just after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He is the deputy director of the Yerevan-based Eurasia Partnership Foundation, a mainly U.S. and E.U.-backed institution.
The tour claims that it will provide an opportunity for participants to explore the neighboring country while rediscovering their own nation.
Relations between Ankara and Yerevan have historically been poor owing to bitter disagreements over events in 1915 which the Armenian diaspora and government describe as ‘genocide’, fuelling demands for compensation.
Turkey says that, although Armenians died during deportations in 1915, many Turks also lost their lives in attacks carried out by Armenian gangs in Anatolia.
In April this year, Turkey’s then-prime minister – now president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became the first Turkish statesman to offer condolences for the Armenian deaths.
As diplomatic ties between Ankara and Yerevan stall, engagement between the two countries is now mainly through non-governmental groups and civil society.
Karapetyan’s family is originally from Turkey’s eastern city of Van which was once an important center of Armenian culture.
When Karapetyan had a chance to visit Istanbul for the first time in 2004, he didn’t want it "because I was prejudiced about Turks and Turkey.”
“I said I would never visit eastern Turkey, historical Armenian land, because it is painful,” he adds.
Speaking in Turkey’s Aegean province of Izmir he says: “I couldn’t imagine even talking with a Turkish person because Turks were our enemies. When I started to communicate with Turkish intellectuals, I saw that it wasn’t true.”
Karapetyan has since been working on normalization projects, first between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and then Armenia and Turkey, that bring together civil society and non-governmental organizations.
He recalls his first visit to Van in eastern Turkey where his grandfather was born.
“It was ok,” he says, reflectively. “I wouldn’t say it was painful, no.”
“My grandfather, who died in 1994, had always dreamed about going back to his hometown, to see the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island in Lake Van. It was gorgeous. It was also reconstructed under the current [Turkish] administration.”
According to Karapetyan, Armenia was a closed society during the Soviet era and the 1915 events were not openly discussed as a result of Russian central government policies until 1965 when Moscow permitted the building of a memorial in Yerevan.
Turkish-Armenian relations also mean Armenian-Azerbaijan relations as Turkey closed its border in 1993 to protest Yerevan’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“When the Turkish government decided to close the border, it was perceived in Armenia as a hostile step. It increased the notion that Azerbaijanis and Turks are the same and they are against Armenia,” says Karapetyan.
Turkey’s foreign ministry says Ankara was one of the first to recognize the independence of Armenia in 1991 and “actively supported the country’s integration with regional and Euro-Atlantic organizations.”
“It is not only an Azerbaijan-Armenia problem, there is also Russia,” says Mensur Akgun, a professor from Istanbul Kultur University, who adds that today Moscow almost wholly controls Armenia’s security, for example at airports.
Pointing out that Armenia agreed to become part of a Russia-led custom union on October 10, Akgun foresees that Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus country will increase.
The Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union will come into force on January 1, 2015 and it is seen as an alternative to the European Union for Russia and former Soviet countries.
One of the Armenian participants in the project is Gayane Arustamyan, a 44-year-old freelance journalist who was born in Nagorno Karabakh: “The new custom union limits the independence of Armenia,” she says.
Arustamyan points to Russian influence on Armenia-Turkey relations: “The question of influence on the Caucasus becomes an issue for Russia,” she says.
“Armenia is on the verge of losing its independence. It depends on Russia. In Armenia people are demanding a halt to this process. The opposition doesn’t want to be part of custom union.
“I am one of those people who are against it. Because it doesn’t matter how small your country is you should govern yourself,” she adds.
In May this year, Turkey’ current prime minister, then-foreign minister, penned an article for British newspaper The Guardian. Ahmet Davutoglu recalled a protocol signed in Zurich on October 10, 2009 – derailed at the last moment – which would have normalized relations between Turkey and Armenia.
Davutoglu wrote: “I believe we now have the opportunity to recapture the engagement and conciliation that eluded us in 2009.”
“What we share is a ‘common pain’ inherited from our grandparents,” he added.
Although political relations almost halted, discussing Turkish-Armenian relations now is different than in the past, according to Akgun.
In Armenia, economic conditions have also colored the political debate. The collapse of the Soviet Union lowered the living standards in Armenia.
“Starting from 1991 to 1995 we had two hours of electricity a day. Natural gas supply was cut down. One-fourth of the population left for Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and also small groups of people preferred to emigrate to Turkey,” says project organizer Karapetyan.
Although the land border is still closed, there is some trade between the two countries through Georgia, says Karapetyan.
In 2008 Turkey had no exports to Armenia, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. This has since increased, if only marginally.
In 2009, exports were $2,000 but in 2012 they reached a high point of $241,000, according to Turkstat, Turkey’s statistics institution.
“In Armenia, there are a lot of goods and constriction materials which were made in Turkey,” says Karapetyan.
Another traveller is Meri Musinyan, 37, from Yerevan who works for state-owned Public Radio of Armenia.
According to Musinyan, who visited Turkey for the first time last October, ordinary people living in the two countries have a huge role to play in normalizing relations.
“This kind of visits are very important because governments make their politics but the ordinary people should talk to each other,” she says.
“I have met a lot of people who are open-minded and very open to discussing things which were dangerous to discuss before" she explained, adding that she was not aware that in Turkey the new generation and intellectuals were more ready to discuss the 1915 events.
David Vardazaryan, 30, is a blogger for a leading Armenian news-site, Tert.am. Speaking about speculation on the 1915 events he says that whenever Western countries want to press Turkey on something they use the issue of 1915.
“I can clearly see this; France or the U.S. do this,” he says.
Vardazaryan believes in the Armenia-Azerbaijan or Armenia-Turkey normalization process.
“It would never have been guessed that someday France and Germany – in conflict and territorial disputes for hundreds of years – would live peacefully,” he says.
“So, if they did this then, it means there is a hope for the Caucasus,” he adds.
Next week Turkish reporters – including the Anadolu Agency – will report from inside Armenia.