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Armenia can become Switzerland of region, business association deputy head says

The Turkish–Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) Deputy Chair Noyan Soyak told Gazete Duvar in an interview that Armenia had a potential to become Switzerland of the region due to its geographical location.

Noyan Soyak – Vice Chairman TABDC

Vercihan Ziflioğlu / Gazete Duvar

One of the figures that try to improve the relations between Turkey and Armenia is the Turkish–Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) Deputy Chair Noyan Soyak. 

In an interview, Soyak told Gazete Duvar that Armenia has the potential to become the “Switzerland of the region” if it seizes the opportunities, and said, “30 years were wasted with wrong policies. I hope they will make better use of their geographical advantages from now on.”

The general understanding in Turkey is that the period of Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan was a missed opportunity for the relations between two countries. In the current period, all eyes are on the policies that will be implemented by the country’s young Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power with the “Velvet Revolution” in 2018. Ankara follows the developments closely.

The ‘football diplomacy’, for which great hope was placed in 2008, could not achieve any results. The bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia have not been improving. 

On the other hand, contacts have been made in social, cultural and economic contexts. Non-governmental organizations and businesspeople continue their contacts without slowing down.

Below are the questions asked by Gazete Duvar and Soyak’s answers:

What do you think is the course of Turkey-Armenia relations? Have you ever felt like you were trying to navigate a difficult path?

Turkish-Armenian relations are an interactive relationship. Standard solutions do not work. Various obstacles may arise along the path. For example, just when you say everything is going well, a country brings the genocide bill to its agenda. Or suddenly a heated statement regarding Turkey comes to the fore in the Armenian public. As a result, the process is disrupted.

Is it possible to briefly explain how you got involved in this process?

I can say that we got involved by chance. As a company, we were doing maritime transportation. I lived in Moscow for about four years. Then I settled in the USA. We continued our business there as a company. Again, we won tenders to transport humanitarian aid to Central Asia and the Caucasus by sea. We were also carrying aid to Armenia.

One of our partners was an Armenia national. I was invited to Armenia during the term of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. At first I seriously hesitated whether to go or not. Armenia was a closed box for me. Our partner Arsen Ghazaryan convinced me. I went for the first time in 1996.

In fact, the idea of establishing relations with Turkey belonged to Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s brother, the late Telman Ter-Petrosyan. He very much wanted bilateral relations to improve. At that time, the President of Turkey was Süleyman Demirel, and (Telman) said that they also met with him. Then we started thinking about what we could do with my partner Ghazaryan.

How did Demirel approach the process in those years? What path did you follow?

We met with Demirel and he gave us the green light. Likewise, discussions were held with the Turkish Armed Forces. We saw that there was no obstacle and we started. First of all, the issue of establishing a common platform between the two countries came to the agenda. The platform in question was the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. We had difficulty finding a name for ourselves within the union. It had to be a soft and innocent title. That’s why we chose the business development concept. 

In the first stage, we brought together Turkish and Armenian businesspeople who do business through Georgian merchants. Then they started doing business without intermediaries. Cultural activities followed. On the 1700th anniversary of Armenians accepting Christianity as the official religion, we took a quartet from the Turkish Presidential Symphony Orchestra to Yerevan, where they played Khachaturian.

The general judgment in Turkey is that an opportunity was missed during the Levon Ter-Petrosyan period to re-establish bilateral relations. Do you agree with this? Is it really possible to establish such sensitive relations between two countries through cultural activities? Does public diplomacy really produce results when we look at all these contexts?

Of course. The Levon Ter-Petrosyan era was a missed opportunity. If progress had been made at that time, the process would have been different from today. But Petrosyan had to resign from his post. Therefore, the process froze. Of course, things won’t work with cultural activities. These are only for infrastructure, that is, ‘public diplomacy.’

What would you like to say when you look back? Since we cannot change the location of countries geographically, what should we do?

Today, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan is trying to implement what I tried to say 20 years ago. He announced a ‘peace initiative’ project.

You are right, we can neither take Armenia geographically and move it to another point, nor Turkey. We will live together as two neighboring countries, so we need to establish bilateral relations and also ensure economic integration.

While energy lines and transportation routes can be connected to Turkey via Armenia with an extremely easy route, it is drawn a curve through third countries. What would you like to say about this?

The lines coming out of Caspian draw a huge curve and increase the cost. It bypasses Armenia and connects via Georgia. So why do we have to draw an upward curve instead of passing a straight line through Armenia and extending it to the west?

Armenia has the potential to become the Switzerland of the region if it seizes the opportunities. 30 years were wasted with wrong policies. I hope they will make better use of their geographical advantages from now on.

As a businessperson who knows Armenia closely, where do you think mistakes were made?

Thousands of people died on both sides in the Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020. Since Armenia is a Christian country, it called for help from the West. This is a deeply flawed argument. Why would the West send aid just because it is a Christian country? What will they benefit from this? They need to think. If the gas pipes burning in the furnace of a man in France or Germany pass through Armenia, or if the internet of a man in Kazakhstan is connected through Armenia, then of course there will be concern on the other side.

How do you evaluate the Armenia policies during the AKP government in Turkey? After all, we are talking about a 21-year period.

We have been in this process for 26 years. The AKP has been in power for 21 years. Therefore, it is possible to say that a relaxed and conciliatory policy was followed until 2013. But at this point, the problems are still not solved.

Do you have contacts with Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan during this process?

We are on hold for now, we have no contact. In principle, we follow and support his statements.

When we look at it from a professional perspective, there is a concern for Turkey in the Armenian market. It is thought that if the borders are opened, the economy will be taken over. What do you think about this? Is there really such a ‘danger’?

I strongly disagree. I often encounter similar questions during my contacts in Armenia. I would like to give an example. During the years when Turkey joined the Customs Union, we were worried about European goods dominating the market. Maybe production slowed down at first, but Turkish businesspeople developed different models. For example, the export item changed from textile to automotive. The same things will probably happen in Armenia. If they start production and develop different policies, they will see that their fears are unfounded.

What do you think will happen when the borders open?

If you leave Iğdır when everything is fine, you can reach Yerevan in an hour. You start doing business together. The closest shoe factory to Kars is in Gaziantep, and once the borders open, it will be Gyumri. On the Armenian side, wheat grows in a small area. It has to be bought from Russia. Therefore, it can buy wheat from Turkey.

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