The final frontiers: The various borders between Armenia and Turkey

The final frontiers: The various borders between Armenia and Turkey

For many in the US and fans of its pop culture, the expression ‘the final frontier’ is immediately associated with TV shows and movies set in the future, following the adventures of a spaceship on its explorations of the far reaches of the galaxy. Today, and on this very planet, a kind of frontier exists that has not quite reached its finality and that finds itself drawing more than one line — the border between Armenia and Turkey.

That the Armenian and Turkish peoples have historical baggage between them is not news. One reason for that phenomenon is the fact that different pieces of territory that have over the course of millennia been referred to as “Armenia” are located in areas that make up present-day Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, even Syria and Iraq, apart from the Republic of Armenia itself. But, for the most part, the places that bear some Armenian heritage or other fall within Turkey today — and that heritage is almost entirely ignored, incessantly facing disrepair or purposeful destruction. The neglect becomes more evident when contrasted with the care given to the rich Ottoman heritage present in the country.

It is the past century in particular that has generated and sustained friction between Armenians and Turks. This is unsurprisingly accounted for by the historical legacy of the massacres and deportations of Armenians and other Christians of Asia Minor and Anatolia that took place in the late 19th and early 20th century, as the Ottoman Empire was drawing to a close and the Republic of Turkey was entering the arena of history. The qualification of that time period is disputed. Referred to as the Armenian genocide by most outside of Turkey and Azerbaijan, the characterization of “genocide” is disputed within the Turkish narrative.

One of the consequences of those events has been the Armenian Cause (Hay Tahd): a social and political movement of Armenians most active since the 1960s, led by the organized Armenian diaspora operating out of communities established over the course of the 20th century in the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and Australia. The efforts were joined in part by the Republic of Armenia, as an official state policy, some years after it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Cause does not invoke a specific endgame. There is as yet no concrete vision of resolution and reconciliation of the different points of view of the Armenian and Turkish peoples, nor for their states. What can be said about it with a great deal of certainty is that it is anchored in the struggle to gain recognition of the Armenian genocide, primarily by Turkey, but also by the international community, to incorporate it into public consciousness and the public conscience internationally as a human rights issue, the original of the “crimes against humanity” — the origins of that term being traced to those very events surrounding 1915 — as well as the modern prototype of genocide, the concept being built on the experiences of the Armenians and the Jews during the first and second world wars. Besides scholarly approaches and perpetuating its memory both within Armenian society and society at large in places where Armenians live, recognition of the Armenian genocide has become a political process very often involving legislatures and the political leadership of those countries and regions where organized Armenian diaspora communities exist.

The counter-cause, led mostly by the Turkish state, but also by Azerbaijan and communities of Turks and Azerbaijanis in the West, argues against “legislating history” and instead focuses on the historical narrative that is quite clear from the Turkish perspective: The Armenians were acting as a fifth column in the run-up to and during World War I, compromising the security of the eastern front under threat of Russian invasion, and the integrity of the Ottoman Empire more generally. The removal of the Christian demographic elements from what became Turkey was a requirement for the survival — and, some would say, for the necessary, perhaps inevitable transformation — of the state as a Turkish entity.

One of the major aspects of this international, inter-ethnic tug-of-war was the question of land. Perhaps it would be a little more appropriate to say that it has become a question of space because, at this point, the location in which the back-and-forth takes place is not limited to particular patches of territory, but has transcended to more figurative arenas that involve social interactions, academia, culture and the arts — even sports. Every level of interaction between Armenians and Turks is politicized or is easily subject to being politicized. Whatever way one views it, lines have been drawn, and a border exists between the Armenian and Turkish peoples. Or rather, several kinds of borders.

The physical border

Long after the fall of the capital Ani in Armenia proper in 1045 and the collapse of the Cilician Armenian kingdom in 1375, an Armenian state came to be created in modern times from the ashes of the Russian Empire in 1918. It did not last long, being very soon Sovietised in late 1920. For their part, Sultanate and Caliphate were also no more within a few years around the same time, and bold lines were drawn in between, in a confusing time of a medley of treaties and other international agreements. Within a few years of each other, various forces including the Great Powers of Alliance and Entente persuasions, the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish National Movement, Soviet Russia, independent Armenia, and Armenia under Soviet power, signed treaties at Brest-Litovsk, Trabzon, Batum, Sèvres, Alexandropol, Moscow, Kars and Lausanne. It is a complicated history, needless to say. And therein lies a legal rub: The two major forces on the ground never quite accepted and certainly did not implement many of those treaties, whereas the Western powers did not fully recognize those powers as the formal, sovereign authorities of what became the new Turkish and Soviet states until the passage of some years.

The Treaty of Sèvres was negotiated with the House of Osman still recognized as the legitimate and legal authority. According to that document, among other things, Ottoman Turkey and the still-independent Republic of Armenia agreed to have US President Woodrow Wilson decide on their border. The Wilsonian Arbitral Award of 1920 granted vast swathes of territory to Armenia, stretching all the way from Trabzon in the north, through Bitlis, and down to Lake Van.

Of course, by the time of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, it was made clear internationally that the Turkish National Movement was the new government of a new Turkey. In any case, the Treaty of Sèvres was done away with as far as Ankara was concerned, and the only obligations reminiscent of the Western influence over internal Turkish policy of the preceding years were the Lausanne stipulations guaranteeing the rights of the Armenian, Greek and Jewish minorities of Turkey.

Regarding the Turkish National Movement — and, consequently, the Republic of Turkey — as a rebel and illegal entity under international law while simultaneously considering the state succession of the 1918 Republic of Armenia to the 1991 Republic of Armenia, the Armenian Cause makes the argument that the Armenian and Turkish border has been left in an international legal limbo. For 1918 Yerevan dealt with the then-still-Ottoman Constantinople, and so whatever they agreed when it came to their frontiers bore international legality, but whatever else was decided later ran counter to international law. At the same time, even for the Armenian Cause, it is impossible not to acknowledge that the de facto situation over the Turkish-Armenian border has not changed since the 1920s.

As far as that region was concerned, Ardahan, Kars, Erzurum, İğdir, and Ararat came under Turkish control after some decades under the Russian Empire. Within the South Caucasus, Zangezour remained a part of Soviet Armenia, while Nakhichevan and Gharabagh got to form part of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, the highland section of the latter being organized into an Armenian-populated autonomous region that came to be known in Russian as Nagorno-Karabakh (“Mountainous Gharabagh”).

The USSR pursued a revision of that border in the run-up to and after World War II. Throughout the early decades of the Soviet Union and, most particularly, in 1946 and 1948, there were drives for immigration from the Armenian diaspora to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. A part of the project was to acquire and populate the easternmost regions of Turkey. The idea was to pressure Turkey into allowing the Soviet Union to have military bases in the straits, and the issue of the Armenians was used as a lever in negotiations. By 1953, however, Moscow relinquished such claims, as an international order found itself drawing lines (and curtains) of its own.

Needless to add, then, even with some contact going on across and in between at various times, that particular border gained additional significance over the next decades as the frontier between NATO and the USSR.

With perestroika and glasnost came much more re-structuring and openness than foreseen. As the USSR collapsed towards the end of 1991, Turkey became one of the first countries to offer recognition to Armenia. The land border was briefly more open than it had been for decades, even though it was select people and goods that were allowed across — only official delegations and humanitarian shipments.

That respite did not last long, however, as a territorial dispute had arisen across Armenia’s eastern frontier over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which had declared itself independent of Soviet Azerbaijan. An armed conflict ended with a tenuous cease-fire in place since 1994, with negotiations regulated by American, French, and Russian mediators under the auspices of the OSCE. In solidarity with its ethnic kin — the Azerbaijanis are a Turkic people — Turkey sealed the land border with Armenia unilaterally in 1993. It has remained closed ever since.

The protocols between Turkey and Armenia were signed in 2009, but the stalemate in relations continues. Oct. 10, 2009 (Photo: Onur Çoban, Zaman)

The mental border

That does not mean, however, that Armenia and Turkey have had no avenues for interaction. Diplomacy with one another has been on the agenda for both states ever since the early 1990s, whether formal negotiations or secret ones, with intermediaries or without anyone’s good offices. The latest round held promises of a real détente with the administrations of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Ankara and Serge Sargsyan’s presidency in Yerevan. Alongside some “football diplomacy” — visits by the two heads of state to football matches held in each country — two protocols were signed in October 2009, one on establishing diplomatic relations and a second on the development of relations in general. The protocols were not exhaustive, but they were more than simple declarations, with clauses that imposed certain conditions on the normalization of relations. Included in the protocols was “the mutual recognition of the existing border,” a phrase that many Armenians perceived as a means to legally bind the Republic of Armenia to the de facto frontier with Turkey. In addition, the protocols called for consultations on regulating affairs, including one on “the historical dimension” — widely perceived by Armenian groups as a mechanism to downplay or even deny the Armenian genocide.

Thus, it was not hard for many in Armenia and certainly most of the organized Armenian diaspora to oppose this move, which was made public only at its later stages. Turkey, for its part, saw great pressure from Azerbaijan and in the end it was considerations for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that were made to get in the way. The protocols that were to be the beginning of the end of the impasse between Armenia and Turkey ended up in yet another international legal limbo. Neither parliament has taken up the ratification of the documents nor does it look likely that they will do so in the near future — although, as per international law, they cannot be considered to be entirely off the table.

Whereas the two republics, the two states have had these spurts of ties, the two peoples have had other levels and kinds of interaction. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of Armenian-Turkish relations to consider: pertaining to the people of Armenia, to those of Turkey, and to the Armenian diaspora.

The Armenians of the Republic of Armenia have had to abide by the reality on the ground, working within and around the prevailing conditions, as inhabitants of the same region. These include the ability to travel back and forth to Turkey, either for work or for pleasure (although Armenian citizens were denied visas upon entry for almost a year in 2001-2002, in response to heightened Armenian genocide recognition efforts), and also within more pointed arenas of Track II diplomacy, civil society projects, academic or artistic exchanges, sporting events, and other attempts at building trust and goodwill. Most such activities are funded by Western agencies. Projects have also taken place under wider formats bringing together Turkey and the Caucasus, and there have even been events for civil society representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The physical border is not without meaning in these cases, but it is significant to note that “the mental border,” as it has been called, remains in any case open for many individuals in the neighborhood.

The church of St. Grigaros in Diyarbakır has been restored and reopened as a place of worship. Oct. 22, 2011 (Photo: Kürşat Bayhan, Zaman)

The border within

The second category offers something of a paradox: the circumstances of the native Armenian population in Turkey, almost exclusively relegated to İstanbul. Indeed, Armenians of the diaspora who originate from İstanbul often find they have to accommodate their more immediate connections to Turkey and to Turks with the harder line that many in the diaspora take when it comes to attitudes to the country and its people. It is not unusual in the least to have Armenians go to school and work with Turks, to attend everything from national political rallies to family events side-by-side with Turks; sharing a language, food, and other aspects of the day-to-day in Turkey, not to mention inter-marriage. The Armenians of İstanbul are, after all, part of the city, having been there for quite a few centuries and more, considering the Armenian presence of Byzantine times.

Alongside the other major non-Muslim minority groups — Orthodox (Greeks or Rum, as they are locally called), Jews, and the Assyrians or Syriacs — their numbers have been dwindling over the past century. Many minorities have moved away after the stipulations of the Treaty of Lausanne were violated time and again, such as with the Varlık Vergisi (“Wealth Tax”) of 1942 and also the pogroms of 1955. The dispute over Cyprus in the 1960s and 1970s also exacerbated matters.

Besides the people, much of the Armenian heritage of millennia — churches, monasteries, schools, even homes — has been neglected or purposefully destroyed, and their existence in Anatolia or Asia Minor remain mostly unacknowledged, either in the teaching of history to Turkey’s own people or even through more mundane arenas such as in plaques for tourists. For example, the monastic complex of Beşkilise (literally “Five Churches,” known as Khtskonk in Armenian), near the city of Kars, contains the ruins of barely a single church today, the rest having been blown up with explosives sometime between 1920 and 1959.

It is all the same undeniable that some shifts have taken place over the course of the past 10 or 15 years. There is now much more openness about the Armenian legacy of Turkey, at least in official rhetoric. The renovation of the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Aghtamar on Lake Van was touted with much ceremony. It was controversial, however, as the state refused to transfer the property as a holy site to the Armenian Patriarchate, maintaining it as a museum instead, even though a mass is allowed at the church once a year. The attendance after the first year has been poor, but the island itself is visited by tourists, Armenian and otherwise, throughout the year.

While still an official, government-backed project, the renovation of the St. Giragos Armenian church in Diyarbakır, for its part, has been a much more local initiative, led by Kurdish politicians and private individuals of the region, with support from descendants of Armenians from Diyarbakır and İstanbul now residing in the West. Its re-consecration was attended with great fanfare in the city and was welcomed by both the Armenian state and organized diaspora in October, 2011.

In contrast, the municipality of Kars commissioned a “Statue of Humanity” in 2008 to symbolize goodwill and the reconciliation of the Turkish and Armenian peoples. If completed, it would have depicted two individuals reaching out to each other, with gestures of shaking hands and shedding tears. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the monument as an ücübe, a “freak” or “monstrosity.” It turned out that it was being constructed in a protected area, and has since been torn down.

The greatest watershed moment for this issue in recent years, however, was undoubtedly the killing in 2007 of Hrant Dink, the well-known editor of the bilingual weekly Agos. The subsequent legal process has been mired in controversy. Unprecedented street rallies erupted in the wake of his public murder, and more took place to mark the fifth anniversary of his death in 2012. An anti-Armenian protest was held not too long afterwards at Taksim Square that involved the participation of Turkey’s interior minister and included hate speech directed against Armenians.It would seem, then, that some progress has been made in the field of minority rights in general in Turkey, including matters that pertain to Armenians. But much more needs to be done and barriers that still exist need to be lifted in order that the citizens of Turkey of Armenian descent find their place as full-fledged stakeholders of the state.

The border without

The more immediate interactions of Armenians and Turks within Turkey often fly in the face of the third category under consideration, for they go against the prevailing narrative and customs of the Armenians of the organized diaspora. Communities, especially in the Western world, can afford to be insular and anonymous, and so there are very few meaningful, purposeful contacts among diasporan Armenians and either groups or individuals of Turks or Azerbaijanis. There have been some initiatives with limited results, such as the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission that functioned from 2001 to 2004 in the United States. But the most impactful events that relate to Armenian-Turkish relations based in the diaspora have negative connotations: demonstrations in front of embassies, advocacy campaigns of one sort or another, and the period in the 1970s and 1980s characterized by organized violence on the part of some Armenian individuals and groups targeting Turkish diplomats, embassies and other interests.

The changes in Turkey over the past decade have not gone unnoticed by many in the organized diaspora. Besides individuals who happen to have Turkish friends or those who are originally from Turkey, leaders of organized Armenian diaspora communities tend to follow goings-on in Turkey with seriousness and vigilance. Some of the latest changes, however, have often been perceived as drops in the ocean, or “too little, too late.” To be allowed a religious service once a year in what is otherwise maintained as a museum, for example, is perceived as an insult to the sentiments of many Armenians. Moreover, such moves can also be domestically controversial for extremist nationalist Turks. Not long after the first service at Aghtamar, a group led by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) organized prayers at what used to be a mosque in the ruins of the mediaeval Armenian capital of Ani, just across from the border with Armenia — still closed for many, whether physically or mentally, within or without.

Protestors mourn slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink on the fifth anniversary of his murder. Jan. 20, 2012 (Photo: Kürşat Bayhan, Zaman)

The borderless border

“Closed,” as can be surmised by this point, is a rather relative concept.

Armenia and Turkey share probably the most paradoxical relationship between any two states in the world today, in particular given the fact that these are neighboring states. The two countries recognize each other, but they do not have embassies in each other’s capitals. The citizens of Turkey and Armenia, however, are free to travel to each country; their visas are acquired on arrival without undue complications. Many move in either direction, short-term, medium-term, or even long-term. There is a significant population of Armenians from Armenia living and working in İstanbul (some of them illegally), besides the many citizens of the Republic of Armenia who holiday on the Turkish coast. There is much trade between the two countries. Georgia gains in the transit of goods and also of people, for those who prefer to travel by land. But for travelers pressed for time, even though the immediate land border is closed, there are now regular flights between the two largest cities of each country, İstanbul and Yerevan, following a period in the mid-1990s of impositions against the use of Turkish airspace for flights to and from Armenia.

To add to the paradox, there may not be embassies in Ankara or Yerevan, but there is a representative of the Republic of Armenia in Turkey, a delegation to the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), headquartered in İstanbul. It seems that neither people nor either state are keen to close off all relations, and yet they have trouble deciding just how to regulate their affairs. “Good fences make good neighbors,” so the saying goes. But it seems that the Turks and the Armenians do not even know through where exactly their fences run.


Individuals or vehicles cannot go directly across from Kars to Gyumri or from Vagharshapat to İğdir, and even though that has not meant that Armenians have not come across Turks or even Azerbaijanis somehow or other since 1993, a closed frontier — the last one in Europe, it is said — affords plenty of opportunities for conceptual limitations, especially given the rhetoric of a blockade against Armenia in light of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The mental border remains in place, if not as firmly shut as in the past. For the organized Armenian diaspora, in far-off lands that do not deal with the day-to-day of Western Asia, it becomes easier to paint in broad, bold strokes when describing and thinking about the situation. The mentality of “a general Armeno-Turkic antagonism” is heightened with the image of a land-locked, besieged Armenia hemmed in, its inhabitants prohibited from going anywhere by land toward the east or the west. Pointing fingers as to whose fault that is would be complicated for the border to the east with Azerbaijan, but as far as the west is concerned, Turkey unilaterally closed that path off, even while invoking the Nagorno-Karabakh war (and while planning, nearly fully executing, military incursions into Armenia).

What is more, the border on the east for Turkey is very much a “local” affair as far as many citizens and leaders of Turkey are concerned. Maybe that farmer in Ardahan will be able to sell his crop in a market in Vanadzor that he otherwise would not have thought to do or been able to afford to do before the border was opened. Or maybe not. What does he grow anyway, and are there even any markets for such produce in Armenia? Sitting in Ankara or İstanbul, the conceptual border can be easily extended to people who are more used to dealing with Brussels or Beijing, whereas in Yerevan itself are the very same people who can see Mount Ararat right outside their office windows while making their own phone calls to Washington or Moscow. The story of the still-born “Statue of Humanity” in Kars is perhaps the most apt to reflect the rocky road that Armenia and Turkey have been on; “humanity” or even simply “neighborliness” overtaken, overwhelmed, overpowered by other forces with other ideas. The path wends on somehow, and someday it may yet find itself beyond a crossroads.