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Turkish and Armenian businessmen await normalization of relations’

An interview with Kaan Soyak

Thursday 5 March 2009, by Yonca Poyraz Dogan

Kaan Soyak, co-founder and co-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC), has said Turkish and Armenian business people are waiting for relations between their two countries to see normalization so they can go ahead with new projects that will benefit both sides. One of these projects is the establishment of a qualified industrial zone between Turkey and Armenia for cooperation in the textile sector.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia and severed diplomatic links with Yerevan in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan over Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Speaking with Monday Talk, Soyak elaborated on these issues and more.

Q.: There seems to be increasing dialogue between Turkey and Armenia, although there have not yet been any concrete steps for normalizing relations. Do you expect a breakthrough soon? And what about the Nabucco project? Is Armenia a likely participant in the project if its relations with Turkey are being normalized?

Kaan Soyak: As we all know, due to political problems between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project bypassed Armenia and passed through Georgia at an extra 20 percent cost. The inclusion of Armenia in the Nabucco project is definitely on the table. I assume parties are waiting for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey to advance in this regard.

President Abdullah Gül’s visit to Yerevan in September last year marked a new era in Turkey’s relations with Armenia. But no immediate further steps were taken in October or November to normalize relations. However, serious contacts started by the end of January and they are continuing. Foreign ministers from both sides are talking frequently. The Turkish side wants to set up a joint historical commission to review past events, but the Armenian side wants to see the normalization of relations and the establishment of diplomatic relations first. Meanwhile, some minority nationalists in the Armenian diaspora believe this slow progress is to their advantage. Some claim that the Armenian side is using delays as a tactic and waiting for the genocide resolution to be passed in the US Congress first. Claims regarding the Turkish side are about delaying normalizing relations with Armenia to first see whether the US administration recognizes the genocide on April 24. If there are such tactics on the both sides, they will not bring any positive developments. Now is the right time for both sides to sit down, settle all existing problems and not leave any burdens for future generations.

Q.: You mentioned that only a minority of the Armenian diaspora thinks of benefiting from slow progress in improving relations between Turkey and Armenia. But most Turkish people would think that the Armenian diaspora is united on its negative stance. Who is correct?

Kaan Soyak: Indeed, a majority of the Armenian diaspora supports the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey and the opening of border gates, as well; however, this group will remain silent if there are no concrete steps taken for normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia. And the hard-line, nationalistic part of the diaspora will be heard much more because they speak so loudly.

Q.: You mostly deal with the business development side of the border issue. What opportunities would opening the border bring, given personal relations between Turks and Armenians?

Kaan Soyak: Armenia is a small country, but they have a large diaspora. There are two effective diasporas in the world: One is the Jewish diaspora and the other is the Armenian diaspora. And the Armenians are much closer to the values of Anatolia. We can see almost all Anatolian traditions in the lives of Armenians even today, even if they are born in the United States or Europe. Who would think that Armenians would serve irmik helvası during their funerals like Turks do? Armenians are very respectful of Islamic traditions, as well as religious holidays. The very first phone calls always come from my Armenian friends when there are Islamic religious holidays or holy nights. Armenians are also very sensitive to Middle Eastern problems and deeply empathize with the problems of the Palestinians. They are also extensively engaged in the business world of the Arab countries — an additional value to Turkish business circles that are willing to do business in the Middle East.

Q.: What would change in the lives of the Armenians if the border were opened?

Kaan Soyak: Armenia would benefit quite a lot financially from the opening of the border, since they currently have to purchase materials through Georgia, further increasing their costs. Armenia is a land-locked country. It is an economically poor country. And there are a lot of people who left Armenia. The population has decreased to 1.5 million from 3 million. When they are poor, the public is easily manipulated by nationalist sentiments. But the public is so fed up with their economic difficulties that they are ready for the opening of the border. The Armenian public will feel more relaxed and they will be free to visit Anatolian cities once the borders are opened. For example, they would start spending their weekends in Anatolian cities such as Kars, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Malatya. Diaspora Armenians would be very happy to regularly visit their ancestral cities.

Q.: What is the current trade volume between Turkey and Armenia and what is the expected rise after the border gates are opened?

Kaan Soyak: The trade volume is currently about $100 million a year and it is expected to increase to $300 million. This may not be considered a high volume for businessmen in İstanbul, but this amount is important for businesses in the southeastern and eastern provinces of Turkey. Take the tourism sector, for example; it is one of the areas in which Turkey may make significant gains, especially in the area of religious and cultural tourism. The records show that 400,000 European and American Armenian tourists visited Armenia last year. These are people who can afford expensive visits, people in the Armenian diaspora. If they spend $100 a day, it would add up to $40 million. And if they stay for three days, then you have $120 million in a year. This may not be a noteworthy amount for the businessmen in İstanbul, but it is important for businessmen in Batman or other southeastern provinces in Turkey. It is important for those regions even if the amount is an extra $5 million a year.

Q.: What do you think are the most lucrative sectors for Turkish and Armenian businessmen?

Kaan Soyak: One sector is textiles. Armenia was the production center of textiles in the former Soviet Union. Armenia is still active in the textiles business abroad. They have a very effective marketing network in the United States. We can use this to the advantage of both sides. One idea is to develop a qualified industrial zone or free zone in both Turkey and Armenia. In Turkey, we have machines and fabrics, and there is a labor force in Armenia. It is possible to produce cost-effective textiles and sell them to the United States without taxes or customs tariffs.

Q.: Isn’t there a need to pass legislation in the US Congress to do that?

Kaan Soyak: Yes, there is. We have had initiatives in that regard. We had meetings with both US Rep. Robert Wexler, co-chairman of the US-Turkish Caucus in the US Congress and Frank Pallone, co-chairman of the US-Armenian Caucus in the US Congress.

Q.: When did you have those meetings?

Kaan Soyak: Since 2001, we have explained to them about our project to establish a qualified industrial zone between Turkey and Armenia. Turkish and Armenian textiles associations would need to pay a visit to the US Congress to map out the details of the project, but we are waiting on the improvement of Turkey-Armenia relations.

Q.: Isn’t this a hard task considering that the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues supports the bill on the recognition of the “genocide”? Do you think the group would be willing to back such a development? The Armenians in Armenia say that the diaspora does not really care about the improvement of relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Kaan Soyak: We believe the US-Armenian Caucus in the US Congress can also work for the economic benefit of the Republic of Armenia aside from their traditional political agenda. The people of Armenia are in need of economic openings more than other openings today and this has to be understood well by the members of the US-Armenian Caucus in the US Congress.

Q.: When you try to put public pressure on Turkish or Armenian diplomats regarding normalization of relations, what is the most difficult situation you face?

Kaan Soyak: We have been involved in Armenian-Turkish relations for about 12 years and our experience has shown us that there are no bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey, but there has always been third-party involvement. There were times that all the existing problems were about to be solved but there were hands involved that influenced the processes negatively in the past. Turkish and Armenian businessmen are anxiously waiting for positive developments on the diplomatic front so we can go forward with our projects. There is a need for the people of these countries to determine their own future. Once the border opens, many problems between the two countries can be discussed and solved in the commissions that will be established.

Q.: Do you think the online petition circulated by Turkish intellectuals offering an apology for the “great catastrophe” of 1915, to which several thousand Turkish citizens added their names in support, has had any effect, positive or negative, on the process of normalizing relations?

Kaan Soyak: I agree with President Gül’s remarks in this regard. Every person can define his or her thoughts freely. On the other hand, all kinds of statements in favor or not in favor of the petition have an influence on the process. I cannot say negative or positive but it certainly has an effect. Negotiations between Armenia and Turkey have progressed very far as of today, so I personally think both governments would welcome all public diplomacy efforts.

Kaan Soyak Working tirelessly for normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations

He co-founded the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) in 1997 and he is co-chairman of the organization, together with Arsen Ghazarian, who is based in Yerevan. Soyak is also the co-chairman and co-founder of the US-Turkish-Armenian Business Council and the Turkish-Armenian Business Council in the European Union in Brussels. Also co-founder and CEO of Trusa Consulting Services in the United States, he represents several US-based security firms on biometrics, pipeline security, tracking, secure data transfer and secure surveillance systems in the Middle East, Turkey and the Caucasus. In addition to his efforts to facilitate relations between Armenia and Turkey, he is currently working on interfaith dialogue between different religious institutions and promoting US-Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish economic relations.

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Source : 16 February 2009, Monday talk, Today’s Zaman, Istanbul

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