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Reducing Historical Baggage Between Turkey and Armenia

Todays Zaman, Editorial, Doğu Ergil Posted: Oct 27, 2009

Finally, the frozen history between Armenia and Turkey has begun to thaw with the signing of the protocols in Zurich on Oct. 10, aiming at initiating diplomatic relations and opening up borders.

This was no easy task. On one side is a nation whose collective identity is shaped by mourning and grieving at a Great Catastrophe that left them bereft of a country, the present Turkish heartland, and a history that both peoples shared until the first quarter of the 20th century. On the other side there is a nation that views its past as a series of betrayals and irredentist uprisings by peoples of the imperial state such as the Armenians, who deserved the outcome of their betrayal. Younger generations of both sides have learned from their elders that their differences are irreconcilable and their interests are diametrically opposed.

Fortunately, the international conjuncture that necessitated peace and stability in the Caucasus and supported by major state actors such as Russia and the US, not to mention the European Union, allowed for a conducive atmosphere. However, the real factor is that through the courage and consciousness of the presidents of both countries, they are making history rather than being its prisoners.

Their courage is obvious as measured by the resistance and protests of each nation's nationalists and chauvinists, who look at the world from the keyhole of their ideological prison. However, protestors on the Armenian side are mainly from the diaspora. The Armenian diaspora is the scion of those who were deported from Anatolia during World War I, not from the east of the Ararat. So they are more radical and do not experience the difficulties that their brethren live through in a landlocked country.

Now the Armenian diaspora seems to have lost most of its leverage on Armenia proper. It is no surprise that statements like cutting off economic aid to Armenia from diaspora Armenians are being voiced in some Western centers. Secondly now, the diaspora will have to talk directly with Turkey to settle its scores, not through Armenia.

Is Turkish-Armenian rapprochement really the making of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government? Not exactly; the Foreign Ministry's bureaucracy spent decades neutralizing the effects of the global campaign of the Armenian diaspora against Turkey to get April 24 (1915) to be acknowledged as the day of genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government of the time (the Ottomans). So far about 20 national parliaments have gone along. The biggest fight is taking place on the floor of the US Congress. Turkish diplomats are sick and tired of the tide every year. They wanted a solution, and they worked toward that end. However, preparations had to be transformed into real policies with determination and courage. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government demonstrated that courage.

The initiation of diplomatic relations also heralds the end of an unsuccessful policy isolating Armenia from the rest of the world and making it hard to reach economic resources. It has proven to be a foul initiative by looking at the reluctance of the Armenian military to return Azerbaijani territory that it had occupied a decade and half ago. It is obvious that Turkey would have more leverage on Armenia to settle the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict that erupted two decades ago over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian territory on Azerbaijani soil.

No one should expect the return of Azerbaijani land occupied by Armenian troops to solve the Karabakh issue. In fact, it will be more pronounced when Azerbaijan directly faces the issue, but then the issue concerns the residents of Karabakh and the Azerbaijanis, not Turkey.

The choice of the site for the soccer game in Turkey following the signing of the protocols is also interesting. Bursa was densely populated by Armenians before World War I. It was also the seat of the Armenian Patriarchy until Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror invited the patriarch to the new imperial capital, İstanbul. So Armenians came back to their former homeland to start a walk in history with a people they lived together with for 1,000 years.

If the majority of the Turks knew that their guests were the children of the very same lands and people who lived next to their grandparents or that their grandmother is one of the Armenian girls left behind by desperate parents before their march into oblivion, a civic initiative may start petitioning for the extension of citizenship to the heirs of the deportees as a gesture of setting the historical score right. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Maybe one day.

Doğu Ergil is a contributing columnist for Zaman, a bilingual English-Turkish weekly. Currently, he is professor of political sociology at Ankara University in Turkey and president and director of the Center for the Research of Societal Problems (TOSAV), an Ankara-based nongovernmental organization created to address the tensions between Turks and Kurds.

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