The "Azeri factor" between Turkey and Armenia

Interview with Cengiz Aktar

The “Armenian Question” is still an open issue in Turkey, even if the reforms made between 2002 and 2005 to comply with EU standards helped to expand the democracy. The perspective of the EU membership encouraged an open discussion on the past history and sensitive topics like the identity of minorities, including the Armenian one. The term  "genocide" is no longer a taboo in Turkey, at least in the debate within the civil society especially among young people. But the government still refuses to recognize it, despite the explicit condolences offered for the first time last April, on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the 1915 events, by the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan (who was then elected President) to the grandchildren of Armenians killed in World War One by Ottoman soldiers. The Turkey-Armenia Protocols, signed in 2009 in Zurich to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries and create a vehicle for discussing their painful shared history, have missed their targets for a combinations of reasons, among which the “Azeri factor” is a major determinant, as explained in the following interview by Cengiz Aktar, Turkish political analyst, Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center, writer and columnist at Al-Jazeera network, Today’s Zaman and Taraf dailies, Hrant Dink Foundation's Board member. In 2008, he developed the idea of the online "I Apologize Campaign" addressed to Armenians and supported by a number of Turkish intellectuals.

This article is part of the debate launched by Gariwo on the "Armenian genocide question" and the outcome of the Manifesto "Together we have a dream" released in summer by Turkish and Armenian intellectuals.

You were one of the Turkish scholars that signed the Armenian-Turkish Manifesto “Together we have a dream”. Has the appeal helped to raise public awareness of the Armenian genocide in Turkey?

Not necessarily. We are not there anymore. Of course anything which relates to the Armenians in Turkey has a bearing on the reality of the genocide for sure. But this Common Dream call is bolder than the genocide. You may ask what is bolder than genocide. But we would like to see these borders reopened between Armenia and Turkey, which were closed in 1993, we would like to see more communication between people of Armenia and Turkey, we would like to see a decent and positive commemoration during the centenary of the genocide next year. It goes further than the genocide, if I may say so.

Do you think the Turkish society is mature to recognize the crimes committed in 1915 against the Armenians?

Yes and no. I can’t talk for 77 million people, and it’s not true that the majority of Turks are ready to recognize the genocide, but the memory works are proceeding very well and during the last 15 years Turkish society has openly challenged the governmental, official narrative on the non-existence of the genocide. Especially the youngsters are researching, asking questions, working hard to understand what really happened. Because it’s not only about the Armenians, it’s also about the Greeks, about the Syriacs, about the Kurds, about the Alevis. It’s an overall memory recall that the country is going through, it’s a long journey, this journey has started and there will never be a going back to the classical denialism that characterized Turkey during the last 90 years.

The current AKP government and the President Erdogan are more open to these issues that the previous secular governments?

As for the secular Kemalist governments of the past, of course there was no chance to recognize anything regarding the Armenians, as they were directly or indirectly involved in the genocide. You know some of the founding fathers, not all, were openly involved in the genocide, so there was no chance for the Kemalists to recognize it. But as for the ruling party coming from the Turkish political Islam, they have of course indirectly helped these taboos to be questioned. Because they themselves, while coming to the power have challenged one of the strongest taboos of Kemailist elites, i.e. the place of Islam in the public sphere. When they empowered themselves, they have created the conditions for other suppressed identities to make their point as well. This is how it works, Muslims have indirectly opened the Pandora’s box.

You mentioned other minorities, like the Greeks and the Kurds, that had to support discriminations in Turkey in the past. At the end of October you chaired two panels during the Conference “1964 Expulsions and the Istanbul Rum: A Turning Point in the Homogenization of Turkish Society” in Istanbul. Was the meeting attended by students, young people?

The conference was about 1964, when the remaining Greeks of the town of Istanbul were expelled. Of course the youngsters are really the driving forces, they are extemely important in these memory works, and they are more and more interested, as I said before, to learn about what really happened in this country, in this Land. And there are more and more researchers and young scholars here in Turkey, but also outside the country, who are working on these issues. This is a very healthy and encouraging development.

Is the “Azeri factor”, i.e. the strong relation with oil-rich Azerbaijan, a heavy obstacle to the normalisation of the Armenia-Turkey relations?

The Azeri factor has become a major determinant of Turkey’s Armenian and Armenia policies. Since Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country, Turkey and Azerbaijan have very important oil deals. Azerbaijan has heavily invested in Turkey and these invested interests have a bearing on the overall Armenian policy of Turkey. And when it comes to the relation with Armenia, Turkey is completely following what Azerbaijan says or asks Turkey to do. To take the example of Karabakh, which was already a very difficult issue and an unsolvable problem, Turkey has become part of it. Despite the fact that Turks have no idea of where is Karabakh, that they don’t realize what is really going on, they have completely following or adopting the Azerbaijani thesis. In this kind of stalemates no one is 100% right and the other one is 100% wrong. So Turkey must make his own idea on Karabakh. Today the Azeri factor is and will remain probably in the coming decades a major factor which will block Turkey to realize a lasting peace with its neighbour Armenia.

You were one of the supporters of the integration of Turkey in the EU. Can this issue come back again in the Turkish government agenda and push Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide?

First of all officially there is no such requirement by the EU for Turkey to become a EU member, but I mean, we all know that in the back-offices, people have this in mind: Turkey, which will become an EU member, one day will have to recognize the genocide. But it is not an official request.  As for the EU candidacy, it has become less and less relevant. And therefore no one should expects Turkey to make positive moves towards Europe, and to normalize and recognize in the meantime the Armenian genocide. Unfortunately the EU perspective is completely stuck and we can consider this issue again in the limbo and Turkey and Turkish government are far from being eager to continue the EU talks. The EU perspective is becoming more and more blurred, and I don’t see Turkey becoming a EU member in the 20 years to come. Maybe afterwards.

The last steps made by Turkey’s foreign policy to become a strong power in the region were not successful, also because of the wars which have destabilized the Middle East. Maybe Turkey will review its choice and reconsider the EU option?

The foreign policy fiasco and failures of the present Turkish government are considered a failure only abroad and among the Turkish intelligencia and the opposition. But for the government they are no failures, they are successes. So the reading of the government is completely different from the reality. They think they are right and they think they will continue in the same way. So they don’t make any link between the EU protests and being alone in the world and defending thesis which are contrary to every thesis that is defended by others. They don’t care less, they are very happy as they are.

Do you believe the memory of the righteous people, who helped others survive, can positively impact on Turkish citizens?

Of course memory works are not only about bad memory, as we call it, but also about the good memories. Researchers are working not only on these massacres and bloodshed, but also on how Turks and Kurds and Armenians and Syriacs and Greeks were used to coexist and live together. This good memory part is extremely important as well and will have a very positive bearing on the democratization and normalization of this country.

Today in Turkey is it still dangerous to speak about what happened in 1915, or the rights of the Kurds? I’m hinting at the murder, in 2007, of the activist Hrant Dink, who fought for the reconciliation of the too communities and the respect of human rights.

No, there is less and less news actually to talk about these things. But we don’t know how the negative steps that the Turkish democracy has taken recently will influence the memory works that is underway. And we might see some counter-reforms , in particular when we recall that in 2015 the Turkish government and the Turkish Republic will be under heavy pressure from abroad and so we don’t know how the government will react to all this, whether it will be ready to put a brake to all social endeavour to recover the lost memory, but so far they were not blocking anything and the Turkish society is continuing its way.

Viviana Vestrucci, journalist

16 December 2014

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