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Turkey and Armenia discuss opening borders to more trade and travel


Turkey and Armenia are historic adversaries. Their border has been mostly shut ever since Armenia emerged from the old Soviet Union. But recently, they've agreed to resume air travel and envoys sat down across the negotiating table for the first time in years. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more on why this is happening now and the chances for normal relations.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: From his perch in Istanbul, Yetvart Denzikyan edits the weekly newspaper Agos, serving the city's Armenian population, estimated at some 60,000 to 70,000. Denzikyan has seen the ups and downs of Turkish-Armenian relations, and he welcomes the latest talks, but isn't overly enthusiastic.

YETVART DENZIKYAN: (Through translator) I, of course, support it as the editor-in-chief of this newspaper or simply as a person, but we know it collapsed many times. The last time was in 2009, so we are cautiously optimistic.

KENYON: Denzikyan says getting the border reopened would be an important boost for traders who might like to do business with Armenia. He says off the top of his head, he can't think of another country that's kept its border closed for so long.

In the Armenian capital, Yerevan, I reached Richard Giragosian at the Regional Studies Center. He recently spent time in Ankara to get a sense of Turkish views. He says ambitions have narrowed since 2009, when a tentative agreement that was never ratified would have spelled out a roadmap to normalize relations, with an eye toward an eventual full reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. Giragosian says this effort feels more realistic

RICHARD GIRAGOSIAN: Based on the information I have, the pending or possible agreement will be actually much less than the protocols that were signed back in 2009 - much more of a focus on practical measures, but much less of a step toward reconciliation.

KENYON: Giragosian says it appears some major issues will be set aside so the talks can go on. That includes the massacres and deportations of Armenians by Turkish forces during World War I that most historians and the U.S. describe as genocide.

One reason for the current optimism is a change in the position of Turkey's ally Azerbaijan. In the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan fought a war with Armenia and recaptured parts of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. With that territory back under its control, Azerbaijan dropped its opposition to a normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties. Giragosian says that gives him reason for hope.

GIRAGOSIAN: Yes, in many ways, I'm optimistic, mainly because the stars are realigning. In other words, normalization between Armenia and Turkey is no longer opposed by Azerbaijan. And the economic crisis, political weakness within Turkey is driving Turkey closer to Armenia in terms of pursuing the basic minimum of normalization.

KENYON: But there are other parties involved in this effort, namely Russia. Retired Turkish Ambassador Selim Kuneralp says last time it was neutral Switzerland with no acts of its own to grind overseeing the talks. This time, it's Moscow.

SELIM KUNERALP: Russia is not really interested in peace between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, because if that was going to happen, then Russia's role in the Caucasus would shrink.

KENYON: But Kuneralp adds that Washington's views also play a role. He says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hopes of repairing relations with the U.S. could get a boost from making the effort to patch up relations with Armenia, but he doesn't expect it to go as far as full diplomatic ties.

KUNERALP: I don't think that, you know, Turkey is quite ready for that yet. And then the main question would be whether the border is reopened or not.

KENYON: Erdogan is likely to face opposition to a deal with Armenia from nationalists in his own coalition, but that could be outweighed by the benefits of a deal - trade, travel and approval from the West for finally settling a dispute between longtime adversaries.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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