Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Turkish Vignettes from Yerevan or: Where Do We Go From Here?

After what must have been an interesting weekend on the streets of Yerevan with numerous interactions between Armenians and Turks, officials and regular citizens, it is now time to sit back and see where things go from here. I felt we'd be hearing at least some token changes and agreements between Armenia and Turkey early on though the speed of the negotiations towards major decisions is a total unknown. The reaction in the press regarding the visit has surprisingly been almost universally positive. Even the Dashnaks welcomed the rapprochement, underscoring the important of recognition of the genocide first though. The only rain on the parade has been the Turkish opposition parties who have maintained a populist hard-line position against any sort of negotiation with Armenia until it jumps through numerous impossible hoops. Relations between AKP and the opposition are downright icy with AKP delivering various government-related documents to them via regular mail of all things while defending the trip to Armenia. It is almost funny for Armenians, especially in the diaspora, to imagine this Turkish government supporting Armenia while opposing fellow Turks but that's politics for you.

Armenialiberty just released an interview with Turkish Economist writer Amberin Zaman about what will come next which I think is a very good guide of what to expect with these very unprecendented turn of events. While some people hope for an immediate opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, Zaman rightfully points out that the border was closed in the first place due to the Karabakh conflict and therefore will not be open until some substantive progress can be pointed to on the issue. Though the border will not be opened yet, she does point out the possibility of the Kars-Gyumri rail link being restarted, and it bears noting that there have been reports of repairs having recently begun on the Armenian side to that long-closed line in case Turkey allows for it. This would be for humanitarian reasons regarding the conflict in Georgia which would do good there while allowed for an ease in Armenian-Turkish restrictions. Regarding the match itself, Zaman said: "I believe that the visit went extremely smoothly. I had the opportunity to actually see both presidents during halftime. They seemed incredibly relaxed, very happy, they sounded extremely cordial and the messages that we heard after the match from both sides were extremely positive". So as Zaman points out, Azerbaijan is the major key in Turkey starting relations with Armenia. This is likely why Gul's next visit after Armenia was to Azerbaijan where he and other Turkish figures have been trying to reassure them that this is not a betrayal and to let them know Armenia is ready for serious negotiations. Not long ago Turkey as a serious moderator in the Karabakh conflict seemed like a ridiculous pipe dream but now it seems Sargsyan has given the go-ahead to just that. A fair resolution to Karabakh is in Turkey's interests because it will free them to have more open relations with Armenia, and Azerbaijan's strong reaction against the Yerevan visit should give hope that Turkey can be a fair negotiator, but let's just hope this isn't Armenia being backed into a corner on Karabakh due to its vulnerable position. Turkey is organizing a meeting between themselves, Azerbaijan, and Armenia at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month so if we can expect a new major development it'll likely be after that meeting.

From what I read in the press, except for the booing of the Turkish national anthem the Turkish visitors were pleasantly surprised by the warm reception they received in Yerevan and how they had no safety concerns. They were greeted nicely and all are reporting back positively of Yerevan and relations with Armenia. If Hrant Dink was the first crack against Turkish taboos this visit seems to have broken down an entire portion of the wall, not just because it was the biggest visit of Turks to Armenia since... well probably since the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 but because of the numerous intriguing vignettes which have come out of it. One example is the report that a total of 300 visiting Turkish citizen visited the Genocide Museum (not sure if that number includes Turkish-Armenians, which would be far less momentous, but I doubt they'd be counted). As Armenpress reports: "Many of the Turkish visitors at the museum were students, sports fans, and NGO representatives. He said many of them visited the museum out of curiosity, with varying reactions to the exhibits, including sympathy, remorse, regret and denial." They were especially by a new exhibit on Armenian contributions to Ottoman Sports. The most talked about visitor to the museum was Hasan Jemal, grandson of Jemal Pasha of the Young Turk triumvirate, who laid flowers at the memorial and proposed a moment of silence before the game in memory of the victims (which I assume didn't happen as President Gul said there was no mention of 1915 his whole trip). We have to be careful how Jemal's behavior is interpreted because I don't think it can be portrayed as being a unilateral "recognize the Armenian Genocide" sort of thing. He had written a book "Let's Respect Each Other's Pains" which seems to imply he has equivocation view on 1915 with all things being equal, not a totally uncommon view among Turks so it's hard to know how he feels. Either way though such a gesture should be highlighted and taken to heart because it certainly seems to be a great leap forward.

Another interesting story to come out of this weekend is an interview in Taraf newspaper with retired Turkish diplomat Volkan Vural. Vural recounted his relations with Armenia early in its independence and how he sees that early period as a missed opportunity for Turkey to start relations with Armenia. He believes many of the problems between the nations today such as Karabakh could have been mitigated through relations from the beginning, as Ter-Petrosian was willing, however concludes that the genocide taboo and Azeri pressure got the better of the Turkish government. In an arena like this where single words can have huge meaning we have to be careful with translations, but hopefully the one I am referencing is accurate. When asked about what Turkey can do to make amends for the genocide, Vural speculates that if he was in charge he'd allow all Armenians who wanted Turkish citizenship to be able to attain it and a right of return. While he rightfully notes that very few if any will actually take up this offer it's a start. He advocates starting a fund to deal with the incredibly complicated issue of property and asset lost by the deportees. He also states that Turkey should apologize for the events. "These events are unbecoming for Turkey. We do not approve them. The people who were forced to leave this country have our sympathy. We see them as our brothers. If they wish, we are prepared to admit them to Turkish citizenship."

These are the types of sentiments which were never uttered even a few years ago and only a few brave Turks started standing up in the past few years. I hope vignettes like these indicate a larger flood of such sentiment coming from Turkish society and gives hope that more Jemals and Vurals will stand up for what is right, helping to bring a century of pain to a close.

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