ISTANBUL—Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend ordered a monument to friendship between Turkey and Armenia torn down, signaling the depth of a freeze in efforts to reopen the border and improve relations between the two neighbors.
Mr. Erdogan described the monument as “a freak,” speaking Saturday in the city of Kars in Eastern Turkey. He called on the local mayor, who is from Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, to pull it down by the time of his next visit and build a park instead, according to Anadolu Ajansi, Turkey’s state-owned news agency.
The prime minister based his objections on artistic grounds. “They put a freak there…it is impossible to think that such a thing should exist next to fundamental works of art,” he said, according to AA.
Mr. Erdogan’s decision is likely to prove good domestic politics ahead of elections in June. It brought a quick response from the main opposition Republican Peoples Party, or CHP.
“The sculpture…is neither strange nor ugly,” AA quoted former culture minister and CHP legislator Ercan Karakas as saying. He described the monument as high art and an antidote to genocide monuments and called on Mr. Erdogan to reverse his decision. There are monuments to claims of genocide by Turks on Armenians in Armenia, and by Armenians on Turks in Turkey.
The statue of two 100 foot-tall (30-meter tall) concrete figures reaching out to each other was built on a rise above Kars, just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Armenian border, in 2008. It was commissioned by the former mayor of Kars, who made extensive efforts to build relations with Armenia, believing that reopening the border for trade could only benefit the remote town.
At the time, Turkey and Armenia were in talks aimed at overcoming decades of mistrust fired by the former Ottoman empire’s slaughter of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians during World War I, and by Armenia’s occupation since the 1990s of a swathe or territory in Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan. The effort reached a high point in October 2009, when the two governments signed protocols to reopen the border and set up a joint historical commission, among other measures. The protocols were never ratified, however, and the process is moribund.
The statues were controversial from the start. Nationalists and representatives from the city’s 20% ethnic Azeri population objected to the Ministry of Culture, on grounds that no permission had been obtained. The final hand on one statue was never installed, and was abandoned instead on the gravel below.
A stalemate followed as the local administration awaited instructions from Ankara, which saw little benefit in taking steps during efforts at rapprochement with Armenia. This weekend, the stalemate appeared to be broken.

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