article on Gyumri-Kars

May 6, 2009

I decided lately to go back to more writing, here’s an article I wrote for Transitions Online, on Armenian-Turkish relations.

TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Armenia-Turkey

The Railway Ties That Bind
by Anush Babajanyan
29 April 2009

All but totally cut off from each other, twin cities either side of a closed border sense that change is coming.

GYUMRI, Armenia | A sign on a small streetside booth in central Gyumri advertises, “Tickets to Istanbul.” The head of this small ticket agency, Artur Mkrtchyan, sits near the booth talking with men from the neighborhood. “Opening the border is good unless the compromises made for it are too big,” Mkrtchyan says. What used to be the only crossing from Armenia into Turkey lies just 20 kilometers outside Gyumri. The border was closed in 1993, but now the possibility of it reopening as bilateral relations thaw after years of tension is a lively discussion point in this city that could see substantial economic benefits from the renewal of communications with neighboring Turkey.

When the next bus working with Mkrtchyan’s firm departs en route for Istanbul, it will head, not west toward the old crossing point, but north into Georgia, making a tiresome, 10-hour journey to the Turkish Black Sea coast. Until 1993, local people could take a train from Gyumri to the Turkish city of Kars in two hours.

A street in central Gyumri.


THE KARS EXPRESS

“If the border opened, the route from Yerevan to Istanbul, which is about 2,050 kilometers, would be 800 kilometers shorter,” Mkrtchyan says. “It would be cheaper, and we would not have to go through the anxious procedures on the Georgian border.” Passengers and vehicles must go through long document checks at Armenia’s border with Georgia.

For much of the 20th century the railway was the only way to cross the border and a reminder of the good relations the two towns once enjoyed. Merchants in Kars shipped cattle and goods on the railway to the south Caucasus and other Soviet republics.

Until the bloodshed and mass population movements brought about by World War I and the Russian Revolution, the two towns shared connections deeper than those of trade and commerce. Armenians comprised a third of the population of Kars together with Turks, Greeks, and Russians. People in Kars, who are mostly Kurdish nowadays, say there are still many Armenians left who conceal their identities behind Turkish names for safety.

The architecture of Kars carries echoes of that earlier time. Behind shop signs and ranks of bicycles, an older building in the center of town displays a black stone façade like those once common in the city now known as Gyumri. (Gyumri, renamed Alexandropol under imperial Russian rule, then became Soviet Leninakan before going back to the older name following Armenia’s independence from the USSR.) The cobblestone streets threading through each town are another visual reminder of the past.

Relations between the two towns ceased as Turks began to see the Armenians as obstacles in the struggle to build a new state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. About 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or deported from Ottoman territory beginning in 1915, and when in 1921 the Treaty of Kars signed by the Turks and Soviets returned Kars to Turkish control, killings and deportations of Armenians occurred there as well. But for the railway and a road crossing opened after Armenia broke away from the USSR, the Armenian-Turkish frontier was closed, and both stopped working in 1993 when Turkey sealed the border as a sign of solidarity with Azerbaijan during the Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today, few in Gyumri know anything specific about modern Kars, a Turkish provincial capital of 80,000 people. Not many know that most people living in Kars are Kurds. What many on the Armenian side do know is that Kars is where their grandparents came from.

The father of Rima Shakhparonyan, 73, was one of the last Armenians to move to Alexandropol from Kars. “My grandmother starved to death during the genocide,” Shakhparonyan says. “My father followed her body to the mass grave where hundreds of Armenians were buried.” Her father then worked for the family of a Turk who had two wives, a Turk and an Armenian. In the 1920s he moved to Alexandropol, where he had relatives.

The closing of the border in 1993 was a huge economic blow to both towns. Unable to export goods to the Caucasus states, Kars went into economic decline. A Yerevan-Istanbul flight was soon established, and Armenian trade concentrated on Istanbul. Tradespeople from Gyumri now take a bus or the plane to Istanbul, and Kars is for them just another provincial city with a limited choice of goods.

After years of isolation from the Caucasus, the people of Kars are looking to trade and business to restore the region’s declining economy. Already, one new communications corridor is being built, but because the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway detours around Armenia, the United States and other friends of Armenia are not happy about it. Nonetheless, work on the Turkish section began last summer. Even so, many in Kars are also placing their hopes in a reopened border with Armenia. One local booster, former Mayor Naif Alibeyoglu, told the Hurriyet newspaper that 50,000 of the city’s 80,000 residents signed a petition in favor of reopening the border that he circulated while still in office.

“The economic life of Kars has been suspended since 1993. As a municipality, we can’t even collect taxes from the locals,” he said.

Black-stone buildings like this one in Kars once were common
in Gyumri as well.


LINGERING DOUBTS

Armenian business people are also hopeful the railway will reopen, but doubts remain that Kars can regain its former position as an important trading partner for Gyumri.

Kars residents waiting at a bus stop in the city center.

“Right now there is no business with Kars,” the ticket agency owner Mkrtchyan says. If the railway reopens, “Armenian trade with Istanbul will increase, only the route will be shorter.” Many in Armenia, as in Turkey, are alarmed at the compromises statesmen from both countries might need to make to reach agreement on reopening the border. The Turkish side anticipates compromises in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the Armenians hope for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide.

“Even the trader who has to go an extra 800 kilometers will not agree with the border opening if the price is too high,” Mkrtchyan says. Armenia’s main export route now runs through Georgia. Renewing the Gyumri-Kars connection would bring greater flexibility and security. “Armenians must have an alternative exit toward the world,” says Anahit Mirijanyan, 53, a professor of English at Gyumri State Pedagogical University. “If Georgia suddenly decides to close its border, Armenia will remain isolated.”

Nor does the cultural community have high hopes for a renewal of old cultural ties should the trains start running again. Like business people, local artists looking toward Turkey have much stronger links to Istanbul now. Vahan Topchyan, 59, a painter from Gyumri, says the border holds little interest for him.

“Kars will change nothing in culture,” he says. He says an important happening for him is the International Istanbul Biennial coming up in September, “but I can go there even if the border is closed.”

Musician Gagik Barseghyan, 56, disapproves of the Turkish influence on Armenian culture. “Armenians already sing Turkish songs translated into Armenian,” Barseghyan complains. If that influence were to grow still stronger thanks to a reopened frontier, he says, “they will simply sing in Turkish instead of Armenian.”

“The borders must open in any case,” Mirijanyan says. “It’s important psychologically to have open borders.”

Armenian photojournalist Anush Babajanyan reported and took the photos for this article.

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One Response to “article on Gyumri-Kars”

  1. Gayane Shagoyan Says:

    Dear Anush,
    I need to contact with to take some suggestion for participation in the international project on destroyed cities. Please, contact me by e-mail: gayashag@yahoo.com

    Gayane Shagoyan


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