As ancient as Herodotus' Histories, the waters of the Aras River today trace the Turkish-Armenian border, a messy, 20th century creation of broken bridges and shuttered rail tracks. In the shadow of snow-topped Mount Ararat, the river divides the villages of Halikisla, on the Turkish side, and Bagaran, on the Armenian. Once united, the villages are now separated by a stretch of water little wider than a double bed. Residents never meet, except to cast for trout under the watchful gaze of military guards, or to return an errant cow.
But one of Europe's last closed frontiers may finally be reopening, marking the end of almost a century of animosity between the two countries that stems from the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish army. On Sept. 1, the two countries launched six weeks of negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations. The goal is for both parliaments to ratify a deal by Oct. 14. The border could then reopen by the end of the year.
There is much at stake. Securing the Caucasus region, which is veined with oil and gas pipelines, has become a priority for both Russia and the U.S. But history is a potent saboteur in this part of the world and talks have collapsed before under its weight. In 1915, the Ottoman Turkish army, fighting against Russia to maintain its territories, sent the region's Armenian population on a "death march" toward Syria. Armenians say 1.5 million were killed in a genocide. Turkey rejects that term, maintaining that the expulsion was a wartime measure necessary to quash Armenian nationalists who sided with the Russians.
Armenian hard-liners criticize their government for not making Turkey's recognition of the 1915 genocide a precondition for diplomatic talks. Instead, the new plan calls for the establishment of a commission to study historical records and promote dialogue. "It isn't just history from a book, it is [about] our grandmothers," says Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Caucasus Institute. "It is part of our historical memory, and the reason why an Armenian diaspora exists ... But, that doesn't mean the border should be closed. The problems between two peoples will disappear as we continue to discuss."
Turkey, for its part, has suspended its insistence that a solution to the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh over which Armenia and Azerbaijan are in dispute precede any deal. Turks and Azeris are ethnic kin and Azeri gas and oil travels to the West via Turkey. Azerbaijan scuppered negotiations between Turkey and Armenia earlier this year by threatening to limit gas supplies if Ankara didn't demand a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. This time, Turkey's opposition parties are up in arms over what they say is a unilateral concession.
"Both Turkey and Armenia have taken a brave and statesmanlike step," says Hugh Pope, analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "Both will win if it succeeds." For landlocked Armenia, an open border could mean huge economic gains. Ali Guvensoy, head of the chamber of commerce of Kars in eastern Turkey, estimates the regional economy could grow by 20%, a boon for the impoverished area. Opening the border will also bolster Turkey's ambitions to become a political heavyweight in the region. "If successful, [the talks] could win back for Turkey much of its recently faded prestige as domestic reformer, as regional peacemaker and as a country seriously pushing forward with its accession process to the European Union," says Pope.
In Kars, which lies on the border, there is little of the bitter nationalism that racks the capital. Locals recall a once lively trade in livestock from Armenia and textiles from Turkey. Work on renovating the cross-border rail lines is due to begin soon. Restoration of Armenian monuments at the ancient site of Ani is underway. "Once trade, human interaction and dialogue begin, finding common ground on more complicated issues will become easier," says Aybars Gorgulu of the Istanbul think tank TESEV. It will take time for Turkey and Armenia to overcome decades of mutual distrust. But the announcement of new peace talks is the first step in a long overdue healing process.