Turks & Armenians: challenged to build joint future

Old friends challenged to build joint future but as old Turkish proverb says 'old friends can never be enemies'.

Old friends challenged to build joint future but as old Turkish proverb says 'old friends can never be enemies'.

By Emre Solak

ANKARA - Just imagine restaurants and cafes where the sound of Turkish music wafts in the air throughout the day. Imagine homes where Turkish movies capture the attention of the elderly, adults and children alike. Imagine markets full of Turkish food, from biscuits to jams, olive oil, and stuffed vine leaves...You may think these locations are in Istanbul or Ankara. But, you would be wrong!

Having lived in Los Angeles for over a decade, I have heard Turkish music, such as Tarkan, Ibrahim Tatlises, and Ajda Pekkan's coming from the homes of Armenians in Southern California.

When you enter ethnic Armenian markets in L.A, you can find Turkish cuisine locally made, such as sucuk (sausage) and lahmacun (Turkish pizza with a spicy meat filling). You can see how close Armenian culture is to that of Turkish, from the music and arts to cinema and to the cuisine itself.

On a personal level, some of my best friends in L.A. are Armenians. Whenever I visited the renowned Farmers Market close to Hollywood, I always visit Moishe's Restaurant which is operated by Mrs. Diroug and Movses Aroyan to enjoy grilled kebaps, stuffed grape leaves, spinach pie and, of course, baklava. Both Diroug and Movses always give a heartfelt and sincere welcome to me and my family. We are welcomed by them not just as customers buying lunch or dinner but as close friends.

Uncle Simon Karian, an Armenian who speaks Turkish fluently and an expert on auto repairs in southeast L.A., is another one of those close friends of mine. Uncle Simon always welcomes us to his store with a smiling face and a warm hand shake. He is as close to us as our actual uncle living in Eskisehir, Turkey. He is a good listener and a good advisor on life in general.

Turks and Armenians get along very well on a personal level. Yet, when it comes to politics, relations are quite tense. Before touching on the reasons for the tense political relations, it would be a good idea to briefly remember how close the Turks and Armenians were during the Ottoman Empire era.

For over five centuries, Turks and Armenians lived side by side in different parts of the Ottoman Empire. There were inter-cultural marriages between them and thousands of children whose father or mother were either Turkish or Armenian and vice versa. Many Armenians served as either high level bureaucrats or senior diplomats, including ambassadors and foreign ministers within the Ottoman Empire. There was a significant number of Armenian musicians, painters and artists and hundreds of Armenian families were successful tradesmen and business owners within the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians operated various foundations and associations, published newspapers in their native language and could perform their religious services in their own churches under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire. There was no problem in co-existence in the Ottoman era up until World War I when Russian troops invaded parts of eastern Anatolia and a certain number of nationalist Armenians joined Russian ranks against the Ottoman government. Many Armenian gangs burned villages and killed a large number of Muslim Turks. Due to the uprising by a considerable number of its citizens of Armenian origin, the Ottoman administration decided to relocate a part of the Armenian population to the southern regions. During the relocation and the ongoing civil war in Anatolia, a certain number of Armenians died due to famine, bad weather conditions, poverty and inter-communal strife. Once a very loyal part of the Ottoman Empire, a portion of the Armenians of eastern Anatolia rose up against their own government by taking the side of the invading Russian forces. According to Ottoman history, hundreds of Armenians allegedly died during the civil war in Anatolia but there was never an Ottoman order made to systematically exterminate the whole Armenian population of the empire. Since World War I, the Armenian diaspora claims that the events of the era constituted a “genocide”. This is a charge completely rejected by the Turkish government.

The Turkish government has called on all historians to study the Ottoman archives pertaining to the era in order to scientifically study what really happened then between the Ottoman government and its Armenian citizens. The Turks agree that there were certainly Armenian casualties during World War I. The debate on “genocide” and the differing opinions between the present day Turkish government and the Armenian diaspora along with the current administration in Yerevan still generates political tension between the Turks and Armenians. Turkey's official position against the “genocide” allegations is that they acknowledge that the past experiences were a great tragedy and that both parties suffered heavy casualties, but that it is impossible to define these incidents as “genocide”. Turkey also recognizes that during World War I, hundreds of Muslim Turks lost their lives also.

The other important issue that causes tension between Turkey and Armenia is with Armenia's lack of recognition of the border between the two countries. In 1991, the Armenian Parliament adopted a resolution refuting the validity of the Treaties of Kars and Gyumri (the Treaty of Alexandropol) which defined the border between the two countries in 1921.

According to the Center for Strategic Research, “on August 10, 1920, the Armenians joined in signing the long-hoped-for Treaty of Sevres, which stipulated that the Ottoman government recognize the establishment of an independent Armenian state, with boundaries to be determined by U.S. President Wilson. This treaty was, however, signed only by the Ottoman government in Istanbul, while most Turks, and most of the country accepted the leadership of the Ankara government, led by Mustafa Kemal, who actively opposed the treaty and its provisions.”

The Armenian propagandists claim that the Sevres Agreement, which allowed for the establishment of an Armenian state in eastern Anatolia, is still legally in force, and use it to base their claims for the 'return' of 'Armenian lands'. Turkish and many other historians stress that this agreement was never put into force. It was superseded and replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which renders the previous Sevres agreement outlawed.

The third issue that strains relations between Turkey and Armenia as well as the Armenian diaspora is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh is a region in the west of Azerbaijan, where Armenians constitute the majority. In the 1980s, according to political scientist Yoko Hirose, the efforts of Armenians living in this region to unite with Armenia intensified, and consequently armed conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although this skirmish ended with a ceasefire in 1994, Armenia still occupies twenty percent of Azerbaijan's territories in spite of decisions made by international law and the United Nations General Assembly. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan badly influenced Turkey-Armenia relations and eventually led to the closure of the common border between the two countries. Turkey's expectations regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is that Armenia should obey international law and stop occupying Azerbaijani territories.

However, history cannot be changed and casualties on the Turkish and Armenian sides during World War I cannot be reversed. Painful memories from both sides from that era onwards still linger. However, hope remains that the border recognition and the Nagorno-Karabakh issue may be resolved through tools of diplomacy; dialogue, mutual trust and sincerity.

If Turks and Armenians can be good friends in different parts of the world ranging from L.A. to Sydney or from Paris to Istanbul, at a personal level, is it therefore possible that the Ankara and Yerevan governments could also? Anadolu Agency (AA) asked various experts about how the Turks and Armenians and their respective governments can jointly shape the future and reactivate the strong bonds that were once part of their relations both in Anatolia and elsewhere within Ottoman society.

With regards to the relocation of Armenians during World War I, Chairman of the Center for Eurasian Studies (AVIM) based in Ankara, retired ambassador Alev Kilic stressed that “war-time conditions, exacerbated by internal strife; local groups seeking revenge; banditry; famine; epidemics and the general lawlessness of a collapsing (Ottoman) state all combined to produce a painful tragedy that was beyond any contingency expectation.”

“Officials/civilians who disobeyed the instructions of the Ottoman government to carry out the relocation in an orderly and secure way were court-martialed and those found guilty were sentenced to capital punishment by the government in 1916, long before the end of the First World War,” Kilic noted.

“Insisting on 'genocide' as the only way to describe the Armenian experience, while ignoring Turkish losses, is not a proper way to honor the memory of those who lost their lives, nor does it correctly reflect the historical record,” Kilic underlined.

If the Armenian government and the Armenian diaspora give up the allegations of “genocide”, this can pave the way for better relations between the Turks and Armenians, Kilic stated.

“Turks and Armenians should work to rebuild their historical friendship without forgetting the difficult periods in their past. It needs to be remembered that, despite the events of World War I, until the Armenian assassination (of Turkish diplomats and their family members) and the PR campaigns that began in the early 1970s, Armenians and Turks were very close to each other on a social level, and they still are today in some expatriate communities,” Kilic indicated.

“Individual Turks and Armenians share a common Anatolian and Ottoman heritage and most aspects of its culture, even language. This may be the reason why today's Armenian radical opponents of Turkey insist on not having contacts of any sort with Turks or Turkey: they are trying to sever this heritage of mutual acceptance and shared heritage,” Kilic pointed out.

“In the endeavor to overcome historical and political bitterness, all sides must be honest and open-minded,” Kilic emphasized.

“A process of true dialogue, learning to respect the other side's truths, gradually building up respect through familiarity and empathy may well be possible. Could that not help Turkish and Armenian narratives come closer together around a “just memory”? Believing that this is possible, Turkey proposed the establishment of a joint commission composed of Turkish and Armenian historians, and other international experts, to study the events of 1915 in the archives of Turkey, Armenia and in third countries (such as Great Britain and Russia). The findings of the commission might bring about a fuller and fairer understanding of this tragic period on both sides and hopefully contribute to normalization between Turks and Armenians,” Kilic said.

Ambassador Kilic stressed that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in a 82-page ruling made on December 17, 2013 overturned a decision of a Lausanne court criminalizing the denial of the “Armenian genocide” underlying the fact that it is incorrect to describe the events of 1915 as an “Armenian genocide” and while only the parliaments of 20 countries out of a total of more than 200 countries, have adopted resolutions on the “genocide”, such resolutions were not adopted by the respective governments and could not be binding. According to Kilic, the ECHR also reminded that, while the Holocaust (of Jews) has been proven with documents and clear evidence, the allegations of an “Armenian genocide” cannot be evaluated in the same context as the Holocaust.

The ECHR stated that the Holocaust had no ties to the events of 1915 whatsoever, Kilic noted.

Kilic believes that the Turks and Armenians can re-establish strong, warm and friendly bonds in the near future as communities who have lived side by side for centuries.

“I have had Armenian friends in various countries where I served. We just do not consider the Armenians as our 'enemy',” Kilic also said.

Kamer Kasim, Vice-President of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) based in Ankara, said that Turkey recognized the Armenian republic after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union but that normal relations could not be established with this state.

“One of the reasons for the lack of normal relations between Turkey and Armenia has to do with the independent Armenian republic's foreign policy of trying to get the 'genocide' recognized internationally,” Kasim said.

“The second reason for lack of normal relations between Turkey and Armenia has to do with Armenia's non-acceptance of Turkey's territorial integrity,” Kasim expressed.

“And, the third reason is the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Kasim noted.

“Despite the first two reasons, the Turkish-Armenian border was open. However, after the continuation of Armenian occupation in Karabakh, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993,” Kasim stated.

“There were some attempts in the past to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia such as the establishment of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission,” Kasim said.

Nevertheless, some Armenian members of this Commission were threatened by the Armenian diaspora and the Commission was not able to reach concrete results, Kasim stressed.

Past meetings between Turkish and Armenian journalists and academics with the goal to normalize relations failed as they could not make progress with the Yerevan government vis-a-vis the three reasons for tension in bilateral relations, Kasim pointed out.

The protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia in late 2009 were designed to restore diplomatic relations and create an opportunity to discuss their shared history. "Turkey's proposal to establish a history commission in 2009 (to study the events of 1915) was not realized," Kasim noted.

“While the Armenian Constitutional Court said that the signed protocols with Turkey were in conformity with the Armenian Constitution, the Court underlined that no Armenian administration could question the reality of the 'Armenian genocide',” Kasim said.

Such a Court decision handicapped the Yerevan government from joining a history commission proposed by Turkey to study the incidents of 1915, Kasim emphasized.

Kasim underlined that “in order for Turkey-Armenia relations to normalize, Armenian troops must withdraw from Karabakh.”

"Armenia must end occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. It would not be realistic to expect Turkey to open its border with Armenia unless the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh ends. Furthermore, allegations of a genocide should no longer be Armenia's official state policy if normalized relations with Turkey are desired," Kasim remarked.

He stressed that with Armenian diaspora's stance on the issue and with the democratization of Armenia, a positive impact could be made on Armenian-Turkish relations by allowing the presentation of Turkey's arguments regarding the 1915 events to be brought to the fore for discussion.

Onur Gokce, retired ambassador and a current lecturer at Bilkent University's International Relations Department, said that “As regards to what can be done to co-exist and build a common and promising future between Turkey and Armenia, my opinion would be to try to find effective ways to strengthen dialogue between the two countries and their respective peoples to start with.” “The Orthodox Church can and should play a role, since in essence, it mainly concerns the Armenian community,” Gokce noted.

“Also, a way must be found to curb the ambitions of the Armenian Diaspora and their influence on Armenia and their lobbying activities in the USA and other important international spheres. This is the most difficult part because the issue has folded into becoming in time a matter of absolute survival for certain Armenian circles,” Gokce underlined.

“To create common interests and benefits between the two countries would be helpful, particularly in the security and economic fields. Is history and religion a barrier to progress? It should not be, as evidenced by the Ottoman experience. However, the features and the realities of our contemporary times must be taken into consideration to be able to manage the new conditions that have emerged,” Gokce emphasized.

“In any case, the red lines of each side would have to be crossed before a meaningful and lasting relationship can be established. But the issue has become multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. There are multiple players on stage,” Gokce stated.

“Progress and normalization in bilateral relations does not depend only on the efforts of the two countries. The best way to deal with such a situation, in the meantime, would be to find ways to build confidence between the two countries and show, if possible, resistance in coordination against regional and outside interventions and above all be prepared to give concessions for the common interest of the two countries in the region. All said is a tall order. But, so is the issue,” Gokce also said.

It is clear that both Turkey and Armenia need to take confidence building measures (CBMs) to build a joint future and overcome challenges to the relations.

Turkey has already taken significant CBMs to improve relations with Armenia such as granting 200 transit permit licenses for 2011 within the scope of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). These permits allow Armenian trucks to transport goods back and forth through Turkey between Armenia and third countries.

Turkey has enabled the children of the Armenian citizens who reside illegally in Turkey to attend the minority schools in Turkey as guest students.

Turkey has given permission to a private telecommunication company to establish direct fiber optic connection with Armenia.

Turkey invited Armenian diplomats to attend the Turkish Foreign Ministry's diplomatic academy program for 2012. However, the Armenian side chose not to respond.

Turkey has taken the necessary steps to list the city of Ani (a ruined Armenian medieval city located in Turkey), as Turkey's candidate to the World Heritage List. In this regard, the works to restore the Cathedral of Ani has been accelerated in recent years.

Turkey has intensified its program toward restoration/renovation of Armenian churches in the country.

Turkey continues to promote the cooperation among NGOs and labor unions and support the participation of its institutions in events organized in Armenia. The Civilitas Foundation, an Armenian NGO based in Yerevan, has announced last November the launch of its presence in Istanbul.

Turkey has facilitated the return of or compensation for properties previously owned by religious community foundations.

Finally, Turkey has kept its borders open to the Syrian Armenians who had to flee Syria due to conflicts, without any discrimination.

It is highly important that Armenia responds to Turkey's CBMs with its own CBMs to repair and carry forward relations. If Turks and Armenians can be good friends in different corners of the globe, so can the governments of Turkey and Armenia as two neighbors.

As a Turkish proverb goes, old friends can never be enemies...

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