While Turkey’s major cities and the Anatolian heartland have reaped the fruits of more than a decade of major government investment, the predominantly Kurdish-populated eastern borderlands have largely been left to stagnate.
Once an important trade artery on the ancient Silk Road, eastern Turkey sits on the edge of a swathe of latent and active conflicts. The Azeri Nakhchivan autonomous republic exclave that borders Turkey suffered shelling by neighbouring Armenian forces as recently as May as part of ongoing clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Georgia, which shares a 250km border with Turkey, struggles on under Russia’s shadow while further south, Turkey’s border abuts Iran, and Iraq and Syria, where wars rage. For millennia this corner of the world has held strategic significance for competing empires from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and the ongoing struggle for territory today makes life difficult.
Local commerce around Kars has been stifled since its closure, something which locals say has contributed to the waves of migration of young people to Istanbul and Ankara for which it blames authorities in the Turkish capital.
According to government figures, net migration from the northeastern Anatolia region has reached 46,000 people, or 21 per cent of the population, in the past two years alone – the highest anywhere in Turkey.
“People say that their lives end at the border and that they want to change that end point and to feel free. There are those [interviewed] who say that Turkey, by keeping the border closed, is penalising the residents of Kars and not Armenia,” said Zumut Imamoglu, an author of a report on the socio-economic status of communities close to the Armenian border published in 2014.
Some among the residents of Kars, Igdir, Agri and Van provinces say their reward for voting for political parties other than the AK Party has included being ignored by Ankara when it comes to creating jobs and slowing outward migration.
South of Kars in Agri province, the hardscrabble town of Dogubayazit, 30km from the Iranian border, has experienced a resurgence of violence between the state and Kurdish separatists that has plagued this part of the country since last summer.
Nearby, one of the most impressive remnants of Ottoman architecture, the Ishak Pasha palace, lies empty of tourists because of security fears wrought by the resurgent Kurdish conflict. At traffic lights around Dogubayazit, young women begging approach vehicles asking for money – a sight uncommon elsewhere in Turkey.
Mount Ararat, Turkey’s highest peak, on which Noah’s Ark is said to have come to a rest, has seen mountaineering and skiing tours – cornerstones of the local economy – suspended by authorities since last summer because of renewed localised clashes with separatist Kurds.
Up the massive mountain – at more than 5,000m, it is taller than any peak in the Alps – militants affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK camp out in relative safety, descending only to carry out attacks on police and security targets that leave the local population at the mercy of the Turkish army.
Tractor bombs, attacks on gendarmerie checkpoints and assassination attempts on police have been commonplace since the collapse of the Kurdish peace process last July.
In August, leaders of a host of pro-Kurdish parties and civil society groups in Dogubayazit declared self-rule. Several were arrested.
In open defiance of nationwide laws, alcohol advertisements can be seen on the streets. At a checkpoint 15km north of the town a gendarme checks motorists’ ID details against information stored on his mobile phone. Agri province feels very much like a region on edge.
“In 2014, we were at 75-80 per cent occupancy; this year, we are at between 10-20 per cent,” said Yunus Ilhan, who works at the Tehran boutique hotel in the centre of Dogubayazit. “Local tourism is at zero.”
Several mountaineering guides have left the area in search of work in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere; they may not return.
“The state is the problem; the state is the reason for all this,” Ilhan said. “It’s the security forces who decided to close the mountain.”
Surrounded by these struggles, and the Turkish government’s apparent unwillingness to intervene positively in the Kurdish, Nagorno-Karabakh or Syrian conflicts, the likelihood of peace returning to eastern Turkey seems remote.
“Turkey faces a critical choice,” a December 2015 report by the International Crisis Group said. “To advance its military strategy against the PKK in a fight that is bound to be protracted and inconclusive, or to resume peace talks.”
For people in the borderlands, all signs point to the former route colouring their futures.