Sunday, January 14, 2007

Second New Year's Day in Armenia 

Last post (likely) from Yerevan:

They celebrated New Year's Day here again last night. Armenia used to be under the old Julian calendar, and last night would have been the start of the New Year. Apparently that calendar is reason enough for a celebration downtown Yerevan with a sound stage, dancing in the square and (after I had wanted to go to bed) fireworks.

Here's why I don't like working on projects that involve governments. The purpose of the conference I spoke at was to assess the economic and social consequences of opening the border between Armenia and Turkey, closed by Turkey as a response to the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1993. Closing the border is a political decision. Now my job was just to talk about what the effect on foreign investment would be in Armenia if the border was re-opened -- the opening would be, in my view, a representation that the risk of external conflict was reduced in the region. But we were told that we could not talk about politics at all. There was the acting ambassador here to make sure we didn't and when he left the local USAID guy kept watch on the proceedings. The local community is upset that the issue cannot be raised. Worse, the Turkish scholars here -- who either didn't get the memo or weren't obeying it -- tried to say something about how to solve the political issue. For this, they have been hammered by the more nationalistic Armenians here. In one sense I feel bad for them, but frankly there's one that keeps putting his foot in his mouth, so to heck with him. Yet if the US government wasn't so nervous as to place an imperfect gag order, none of that would have happened. They would have debated, and at the end hopefully we all have food and drink.

Armenians have a historical memory for the land just over the border. This scares the Turks, who also claim historical ties. Having watched such battles elsewhere in the world and their own neighborhood, you can scarcely blame the Turks for being a little nervous about border opening. But trade certainly helps both sides; the question is whether it helps enough to get the Turks over their nervousness. The meeting this weekend didn't leave me very hopeful, though my good Turkish Cypriot friend in attendance assures me that it will happen in less than two years.

That's one small vodka for man, one giant leap for international relations!