A group of Armenian youths on their first visit to Turkey is seeking the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border, calling for regular dialogue between the youths of both countries, which it believes to be of vital importance for reducing tensions and improving relations between Turkey and Armenia, which have a long history of estrangement.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan after Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan in 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a territorial conflict that has remained unresolved between Armenia and Azerbaijan since then.
“The closed border has a negative effect on both sides, and it should be reopened. I am hopeful, although I do not know when this might happen. But it would be great if it did as it will not only affect our [Armenia’s] economic development, but we would have friendlier relations between our peoples,” Mkrtich Dallakyan from the Yerevan Youth Bank said in an interview with Today’s Zaman in İstanbul.
Trying to learn more about Turkey and Turks during his first visit to the country, Dallakyan noted that the role of youths from both Turkey and Armenia is vital and will have a considerable effect on relations between the two countries.
Twelve Armenian youths visited Turkey from Aug. 27-Sept. 2 through a Youth Bank project developed by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), a legacy institution of the Eurasia Foundation in the South Caucasus, and put into effect together with the İstanbul-based Toplum Gönüllüleri Vakfı (Community Volunteers Foundation). Representing Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the EPF developed the Youth Bank project based on Youth Bank’s experience in Northern Ireland in setting up the Belfast-based organization, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.
The Youth Bank Project is a civic activism and leadership project working with active young people who appear to be potential leaders of their countries.
The Youth Bank project was previously used as a tool for the young to fight against conflict, for example, in Northern Ireland, where it was used during the civil war to reduce conflict between members of different religious. The program in the South Caucasus is being used to encourage dialogue and exchanges between young people.
Starting out with a visit to the province of Samsun and subsequently heading to İstanbul under the project of “Support to Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement” project, the Armenian youths, in cooperation with their Turkish counterparts, delivered messages of peace that concern both societies. Before the Armenian group’s visit to Turkey, Turkish youth bankers visited Armenia in April under the same project.Commenting on the importance of initiatives involving youths, Dallakyan said, “Such types of projects that encourage youths from both sides to do joint projects, work together, exchange ideas and to find similarities will certainly help both sides to think of positive solutions for reopening the border.”
Saying that it is not easy to change relations between Armenia and Turkey all at once, Arman Azizyan, a member of the Armavir Development Center, told Today’s Zaman that although it would certainly take some time to erase the suspicions between Turkey and Armenia, he is hopeful that the small steps which they are taking will achieve something positive.
“The process demands a lot of time and a lot of effort from youths from both sides, as the nature of the dispute is complicated. I am hopeful, though, that we can change some parts of the conflict. The situation can be changed if many more youths come together, if there are more visits. These might be small steps, but they might become bigger steps in the future,” said Azizyan.
Commenting on the importance of the program as a tool for dialogue for youths in both countries, Gayane Mkrtchyan, the program manager at the Yerevan-based EPF, told Today’s Zaman that these forms of cooperation and establishing dialogue are important as they play a role in changing people’s mentalities.
“In countries where there are conflicts, there is strong propaganda, especially in rural areas. Those people are locked into feelings of hatred and aggression based on the information that is provided to them. What our project does is provide them with the real picture and a chance for youths to communicate,” Mkrtchyan noted, adding that communication between the conflicting sides is vital as “it has a dramatic effect and diminishes tensions, which helps to immediately break down prejudices.”
Very optimistic about establishing positive relationships at this level, Mkrtchyan says that the aim of the project is not to ultimately change politics, but expresses his strong belief in such initiatives, saying: “These types of relationships will affect tomorrow’s leaders because this project is not the only one. There are a lot of other exchanges and peace building initiatives, and all the active, civic-minded young people are the ones who will become the politicians of the future. They will carry the positive rather than the negative into politics.”
The young Armenians are expected to make presentations about their trips to Turkey and their impressions of the region when they return to Armenia.