870) Kars battles for access to Armenia and beyond

Reopening of the border with Armenia will be a move that will not only boost the local economy but will also be a major breakthrough for Turkish exporters

Kars Mayor Naif Alibeyoğlu is waging an uphill battle to overcome nationalist sentiments against Armenia that are boosted by the continued occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh district of Azerbaijan and to once again get the Turkish-Armenian border reopened to civilian traffic and trade since being shut down in 1993.

Alibeyoğlu says that reopening the border crossing with Armenia will not be simply a move that will boost the local economy of the region but will also constitute a major breakthrough for Turkish exporters who have been dreaming of acquiring cheap and secure land and rail access to markets in Central Asia and beyond.

Once a wealthy and diverse city full of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Russians and Georgians; Kars today is among the country's poorest and most neglected provinces. The unique character of the city is a stunning reminder of ethnic influences in times past. Conquered by Russia in the Crimean War, then again in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, Kars was taken back by Turkey during the War of Independence and remained behind the Iron Curtain for the next 70 years, gradually losing vigor and experiencing the start of migration.

Exodus of the 1970s and 1980s

The first wave of migrants in recent times left the city in the 70s at a time of intense armed conflict of right and left ideologies. The progressive culture of Kars made it a stronghold for a wide range of leftist groups which worked against the city's urban manners, according to Gürbüz Çapan, former mayor of Istanbul's Esenyurt district, inhabited by a large number of migrants of Kars origin.

“Kars then had a city culture,” recalls Çapan.

“Locals here would attend the theater and ballet. You can't find another town like Kars in Anatolia. People had an urban culture where the social hierarchy mattered. Dreams of a classless society by leftist youth worked to destroy that culture,” admits Çapan in retrospect.

The first wave of migrants was followed by a second wave in the 1980s as the city languished in growing poverty and fell into the hands of gangs and mobsters.

With the fall of the Soviets and the emergence of an independent Armenia, the border reopened and Kars finally started to awaken as a trade center once again until 1993, when the Armenia-Azerbaijan war broke out. Upset with the text of the Armenian declaration of independence, which included a territorial claim on parts of Turkey, and acting in solidarity with Azerbaijan, Turkey closed the border.

Kars Mayor Alibeyoğlu is a devout believer that the city can regain at least some of its past splendor. Alibeyoğlu pictures Kars as the “Davos of the Caucasus.”

“If that was its status 80 years ago, then why shouldn't it be so now?” he asks.

Kars will be home to the 3rd Festival of Caucasus Cultures between Sept. 15-17, hosting groups from 30 countries including Armenia, Ukraine, Sudan and even Cuba. The festival is just one attempt to earn Kars the recognition it deserves. Apart from that, the municipality has a number of projects to preserve the unique Tsarist-era architecture of the city, responsible for the city's decrepit charm. In addition, a large citadel, currently surrounded by shanty-houses awaiting to be demolished by the municipality -- which has built new homes in another part of town for the current occupants -- and a crumbling Armenian church-turned-mosque are some of the sights accounting for Kars' specialization in ruins.

The current local government, however, is focusing not only on restoration projects and international festivals to expand Kars' recognition but also on arts and culture in hopes to revive some of the city's grandeur. The municipality has photography, painting, sculpture and chess workshops. It also offers ballet classes to 250 children. The recently restored Fine Arts School has one of the most elegant buildings in town.

The Armenian border:

Kars, with 70 percent of its population having left for bigger cities in the past two decades and its only source of income being livestock breeding, has little chance of attracting any investment from national or local businessmen. “The period of state investments is long gone,” says Alibeyoğlu. The eventual reopening of the Armenian border would reawaken the city, the mayor and almost all of Kars' residents believe and pray.

“Turkey's future is in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Turkey lost this market to Russia and America,” Alibeyoğlu says.

Until the bid to preserve the city's buildings is shared at a national level and its Armenian border reopens, Kars will continue to suffer the gloomy feeling that pervades it.

‘This is not who we are'

Kars is mentioned in renowned Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's book “Snow.” Although the locals were initially proud of their city being mentioned in a Pamuk book, most were exasperated when they were introduced to its content, which tells the story of a Turkish poet who spent 12 years in political exile in Germany and then moved to Kars, portrayed as a tangle of poverty-stricken families, Kurdish separatists and political Islamists. The people of Kars, who take pride in their city's progressive character and frequently underline the heavy influence of left groups in the city's past, are angry with Pamuk's book, which they feel has been grossly unfair to their town.

“Yes, what he describes in the book could have happened anywhere in Turkey,” a local driver admits. “But out of all the towns in Turkey to place Islamists, why chose Kars as the backdrop to your novel? This is not who we are.”

Sunday, July 30, 2006
Barış Altıntaş
ANKARA - Turkish Daily news


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