YEREVAN — More than 100 entrepreneurs from Armenia and Turkey explored greater business opportunities in each other’s country during a U.S.-sponsored conference that began in Yerevan on Tuesday.
The two-day forum was organized by Armenia’s leading business association and the Chamber of Commerce of Diarberkir, the largest city in eastern Turkey, as part of a project to improve Turkish-Armenian relations financed by the U.S. government’s Agency For International Development (USAID).
Most of its 50 or so Turkish participants represented businesses operating in Diarbekir and nearby regions located not far from the Turkish-Armenian border. Many of them called for the quick opening of the frontier, something which the Turkish government makes conditional on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“We have long been lobbying for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border,” said Diadin Gezer, deputy chairman of the Diarbekir Chamber of Commerce. “Countries around the world do at least 60 percent of their trade with their neighbors.”
Gezer and other entrepreneurs agreed that Turkish-Armenian commercial ties can grow even in the absence of diplomatic relations and an open border between the two estranged nations. Firat Aslan, a chocolate manufacturer from Diarberkir, said this would only facilitate the eventual normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
“If Turkish-Armenian economic relations develop, then pressure on the two states will grow and they will open the border,” Aslan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
A memorandum of understanding signed by Gezer and Arsen Ghazarian, chairman of the Armenian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, envisages that the two business groups will promote direct links between their members and greater commerce between the two neighboring states.
“By developing our relationship we are trying to show the Turkish government that we can cooperate even with closed borders, and that it is time for the Turkish authorities to understand their benefits and approach Armenia without prejudice and without taking into account the interests of third countries”, he said when talking to journalists.”If the borders are open, we will be able to participate in major regional projects and initiate joint projects. Today, Armenian goods can compete with Turkish products in the local and Turkish markets. But today, unfortunately, we have virtually no exports to Turkey,” he stressed.
With Ankara keeping the border closed since 1993, the bulk of Turkish-Armenian trade is carried out via Georgia. According to official Armenian statistics, it grew by almost 19 percent to $168.8 million in the first nine months of this year.
Turkish exports to Armenia accounted for over 99 percent of this figure because of Ankara’s unofficial ban on imports of goods from Armenia. Businesspeople say Armenian products are usually re-exported to the Turkish market through Georgia and other third countries.
Speaking at the Yerevan conference, Noyan Soyak, an Istanbul-based businessman affiliated with the Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC), estimated the annual volume of bilateral commerce at around $300 million. He said this figure can quickly be tripled.
Founded in the early 1990s, the TABC is the only organization uniting Turkish and Armenian businesspeople. Its Turkish members also favor an unconditional normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties.
Participants spent the first day of the conference introducing their firms and promoting their products. “We have come here to invite Armenian entrepreneurs to Turkey and foster exchange of Armenian and Turkish goods,” said Gafur Turkay, an ethnic Armenian executive of a Diarbekir-based insurance firm.
Some Armenian manufacturers are already involved in such exchange. Samvel Gasparian said his Artsocks textile company has imported Turkish raw materials for the past three years. “Since this sector is very developed in Turkey … we should look into their experience and find partners there,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Another businessman, Gagik Bostanjian, said his Lux shoe company mainly imports shoe components from Russia and would like to find cheaper suppliers in Turkey.
As part of the USAID project implemented by several Armenian non-governmental organizations, the business forum will be followed by a Turkish-Armenian trade exhibition in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri. About 80 Armenian and Turkish firms will display their products there on Thursday.