As the person responsible for the Turkey section of a project examining the state of Turkish-Armenian economic relations and the future of the two nations’ relations, a project being run by the Armenian Association of Businessmen and Industrialists and the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, I have visited many regions and cities throughout Turkey.
In doing so, I have met with various business figures, groups with an active interest in this subject and people from different sectors. Most of the people I met with spoke of the absolute meaninglessness of the lack of trade relations between the two countries, pointing to partnerships and friendships that they had formed, as well as the vast similarities between certain words used and foods eaten in both Turkey and Armenia. Not a single person with whom I met was opposed to the opening up of the border between these two nations, but the conversation always came back to the point: “What’s happened has happened; 90 years have passed in the meantime. It’s time to forget, to forget and start all over again.” Some were in favor of a mass confession of faults, while others held fast to the idea of forgetting. It could be that “forgetting” or even “making people forget” were the most constructive steps that could be taken in this region. After all, we needed a milestone of some sort in order to prompt the opening up of the Turkish-Armenian border, and to build relations that have been ongoing “under the counter” for years on an official and open foundation instead. And in order to declare this milestone, there was a need for “forgetting.”Was it really this impossible to build up diplomatic relations without pre-conditions 90 years later? Could these two countries really not appoint diplomatic envoys and get started on the job of creating diplomatic relations without betraying Armenian memories?
The first Armenian representative in 1918
Well, as it turns out, these two countries could do all this, have done all this and are at work right now doing all this. But at the same time, it is clear that we know very little about this subject, as there is unfortunately very limited discussion of and very few documents related to Armenian diplomatic representatives in Turkey.
When we look back at the years when the Soviet Union was just being formed, and before Armenia even joined the USSR (Dec. 30, 1922), in fact even before the Transcaucasian federation was formed (March 12, 1922), in other words when the Dashnak Party formed the first Armenian independent republic (May 28, 1918), we encounter many truths that we may not have even known about.
In November of 1918, the Armenian government sent Ferdinand Tahtadjian to the Ottoman capital as a “charge d’affaires” for Armenia. Tahtadjian, who stayed at his post until Armenia entered the Soviet Union, was forced to leave his job when Kemalist supporters entered İstanbul. The government that took over from the Dashnak government before Armenia entered the Soviet Union was able to carry out freer policies than it was later when it was a part of the USSR. One of these “freer” policies was to assign “representatives of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic” to capitals such as Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Tashkent, Kiev and İstanbul.
The Armenian Consulate in Kars in 1921
After the Treaty of Kars was signed in October of 1921, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic opened a consulate in Kars, sending Consul Gagik Sargisian and a few other diplomats to Kars (1921-1925), while at the same time, the Turkish government sent not only Turkish representatives to Yerevan, but also set up a Turkish consulate in the Armenian city of Gyumri.
Poghos Makintsian was, between the years of 1921-1922, working in the Internal Affairs and Education Ministry of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Almost every Turkish journalist who arrived in Armenia would ask, if given the chance to speak with a state official in Yerevan, “Do you recognize the Kars pact?” In short, the Kars treaty and its general acceptance were important topics. What a coincidence it was that Makintsian, who signed off on this treaty in the name of Armenia as its internal affairs minister, was sent to İstanbul later along with Armenian Foreign Affairs Minister Askanaz Mravian, who had also signed the pact.
The first representatives were important government ministers
The first official Armenian representative offices were located on Voyvoda Sokak in İstanbul’s Karaköy district, in the Sigorta Han building. This building now houses a bank. Makintsian served until 1924, and the man who took over from him was an exceptionally famous politician in Soviet Armenia, Danush Shahverdian, who served between the years of 1922-1923 as justice minister. Shahverdian, who was Armenia’s second envoy to Turkey, also served in such important postings as England, Germany, Belgium and France for Yerevan. Interestingly, both Shahverdian, who wound up serving between 1924 and 1928, and the envoy before him, Makintsian, were sentenced to execution as a result of allegations of treason made against them during the Stalin regime. Though it later emerged in the wake of Stalin’s death that both men had been innocent, it was too late; the two diplomats shared the same fate, Makintsian having been executed in 1938 and Shahverdian in 1940.
A permanent Armenian representative in Black Sea business forum
After the dissipation of the Soviet Union in 1990, Armenia once again found the opportunity to set up a representative office in Turkey. It was announced in June of 1992 that the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) group of 11 countries was being formed, a group that included Armenia. In 2001, the BSEC began to accept the Armenian permanent representative as an official representative. While the other countries in this organization had their BSEC representative work out of their İstanbul consulates, since Armenia had no diplomatic relations with Turkey, its BSEC representatives worked from their own offices. Thus, from 2001 up until 2011, Armenia has had three “permanent” Armenian representatives and two “advisers” who work with them, located in İstanbul. It is no great secret that these five diplomats are all popular figures with the Armenian Foreign Ministry, and that they are each experts on Turkey in their own right.
Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council
The only topic that those not following this whole matter know these days is this: Due to a lack of agreement on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in April of 1993. There is absolutely nothing to be done about the Turkish embargo against Armenia… But actually, this is not the situation today. In 1996, the idea began to be developed that trade between Turkey and Armenia, which had previously been carried out through third nations, should start occurring directly. The goal became that those trading with each other should start recognizing one another. Within this framework, then-Turkish President Süleyman Demirel and then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who came together in 1997 at a BSEC meeting, decided to create a business council. As a result of this decision, the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council was formed.
The illusion of a closed border
Though borders remained closed, trade between the two nations has now reached a volume of $200 million annually. What’s more, there are two regular weekly flights between İstanbul and Yerevan. There is also a very loose visa requirement system in place between Turkey and Armenia, with citizens of both nations offered visas for very reasonable prices at the airport. In addition to all of the above, civil society organizations are busy carrying out every sort of project imaginable in these countries.
In the meantime, those interested in reciprocal relations and working together long ago opened up the borders in their own minds, without placing conditions or finding reasons not to, and now they are growing tired of asking for the other borders to be reopened. Civil society representatives and other volunteers working in both Armenia and Turkey have made an incredible amount of progress. At the same time though, people keep repeating over and over a hypocritical refrain of “Let’s just forget the past, if we can’t forget it, we won’t be able to have relations again.” But why is it that there was an Armenian consulate in Kars in 1921, and there is no longer? Have the pains from 1921 really scabbed over? In order to form unconditional relations, do we really need to toss our memories into the trash? If this is not the case, then we should also accept just how sacred the past and the pains experienced by almost every human are, and that to want to forget them is completely unreasonable. Rather than choosing to forget the past, let’s choose to remember it, and let us in the process recall how we were able to live together, what we did and how much we resembled one another. Let us not fear to remember all this…
There are some pains that cannot be lessened by the passage of years, nor by economic or political interests. And these pains, which have burned in us for years, become worse and worse the more they are ignored or misunderstood. This is why the path to lessening these pains is not by trying to get people to forget them, but rather by listening and sharing them. When there is no communication in place, ears become deaf and hearts blind. For as long as the borders remain closed, everything becomes toughened, including people’s consciences.
*Alin Ozinian is an independent analyst.