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Turkey Weighs Ending Economic Embargo on Armenia

Turkey's 16-year trade embargo against Armenia is one of the longest such sanctions in the world. Ankara enforced the embargo in solidarity with Azerbaijan, after Armenian forces occupied nearly 20 percent of Azeri territory during a war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. But a growing rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is giving hope the embargo may be lifted.

Ana is one of the estimated 70,000 Armenians working illegally in Turkey. She, like most Armenians employed here, is a nanny. Ana says an open border would transform her life.

"I think if the border opens, many things will change. I am 20-years old and working in another country without official documents is very difficult for me." She said. "I am always afraid of walking on the street and seeing the police. If the border opens, it will be good for everyone, there would be an exchange between the two countries and both will win."

Turkish minister for EU membership Ergemen Bagis acknowledges the hardship caused by his country's embargo on Armenia, but says the recent easing of tensions offers hope for a normalization of relations.

"When you look at the population numbers of Armenia, coming down from four million to currently two million, people are fleeing Armenia because of poverty," said Ergemen Bagis. "We believe Turkey can help Armenia solve some of their economic problems by direct trade. In the last six years the Turkish government has allowed Armenian planes to land in Istanbul. There are up to 70,000 Armenians of Armenia living in Turkey, mostly working illegally. And we are talking about 15 percent of Armenia dependent on the money coming from these workers."

But it is not only Armenia that has been hurt by the embargo. Turkey 's eastern region bordering Armenia is amongst the poorest in the country and has been hit hard by the ban on trade.

Historically, the two countries had strong trading ties, and many observers say an open border would offer the prospect of rejuvenating Turkey's underdeveloped eastern provinces.

Turkish Armenian Trade Council President Kaan Soyak says while there is distrust between political leaders there is no such problem between businessmen.

"When I was in Yerevan last week, I met several business people regularly traveling to Turkey to buy business material and manufacturing in Armenian and selling to U.S. and Russia," said Kaan Soyak. "And the type of trade they started without any contract like it used to be, history, no contract, nothing. It is based on word, based on trust. Everybody knows each other, they trust each other. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of volume are being done without any document. No contact no nothing. It is amazing, I see great demand from both side to start this type of trade again."

U.S. President Barack Obama's new administration in Washington has also thrown its diplomatic weight behind the rapprochement process.

"An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both your nations," said President Obama. "So I want you to know the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia."

President Obama made those comments in an address to the Turkish Parliament last month, joining the European Union in giving added impetus to the ongoing efforts to improve relations.

With pressure continuing to grow from businesses and the international community for normalized ties, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said last month he hopes the embargo will end by October. That is when Armenia is due to play an international football match in Istanbul.

But such hopes may be dashed. Turkey's ally, Azerbaijan, has been cool to the new rapprochement. It wants the end of Turkey's embargo on Armenia linked to the withdrawal of Armenian forces from disputed territory that Azerbaijan wants back. With some of the largest gas reserves in the world, Azerbaijan has powerful economic muscle.

An international relations analyst at Istanbul's Bligi university, Soli Ozel, says plans for the European Union-backed Nabucco gas pipeline that would run through Turkey to Europe, could fall victim to tensions between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

"Azeris reacted rather harshly to these openings; they even went so far to start a flirtation with the Russians, suggesting they want to sell part of their gas, which would have to be used for the Nabucco project, to Russians," said Soli Ozel. "I guess without Azerbaijan you cannot really start it because the Iranian gas is nowhere to be seen for the moment. Iran 's relations with the west is not the best. Therefore if you going to do anything about Nabucco and start the project you have to be able to rely on Azeri gas."

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has indicated his country could raise the price of gas sold to Turkey. The Turkish economy is heavily dependent on that gas and Ankara is now working hard to ease Azeri concerns. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit Baku next week.