April 15, 2022
The Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated by an ultra-nationalist teenager outside his office in İstanbul in 2007, once wrote: “There is no meaning in a state or government recognizing the issue under pressure from the outside. Because those who need to see the truth are not states but peoples… States have no conscience, but societies and peoples do.”
I mention this because soon it will be April 24, when the world remembers the victims of the tragic events of 1915, when up to 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in systematic massacres and forced deportations by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. These events are a divisive matter. Armenians, most historians, and 31 countries around the world describe them as genocide, but Turkey denies that there was any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population and says both Turks and Armenians were killed during the war.
For many years, the G-word has been an obstacle to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Debate over the term has caused the two sides to fail to mend fences, and to miss several opportunities for normalization. Being stuck on the political dimension of the events has harmed the efforts of civil society organizations, while doingnothing for either Turks or Armenians, or for the victims of the past.
However, a new era appears to be dawning. What efforts could both sides make to avoid this matter overshadowing this positive climate? Crucial steps taken by both sides could enable the process to move beyond the genocide debate and promote peace and stability through open dialogue.
In an apparent breakthrough, Ankara and Yerevan appointed special envoys to end decades of bitterness and establish diplomatic ties. This move was spurred by support from regional powerbroker Russia and Armenia’s pro-Turkey neighbor Azerbaijan. Turkey appointed former Washington ambassador Serdar Kılıç as a special representative, and Armenia appointed deputy parliamentary speaker Ruben Rubinyan. Special envoys met in Moscow in January for a first round of meetings, and both countries said there was a “positive and constructive atmosphere.” As a first step toward reconciliation, charter flights between Yerevan and Istanbul resumed this year.
For many years, the G-word — genocide — has been an obstacle to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan met Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at a diplomacy forum near Antalya on a rare visit to Turkey in March. After the meeting, foreign ministers said their countries had agreed to press ahead with efforts to establish diplomatic relations “without conditions,” which could lead to reopening their borders for trade.
However, while pursuing a delicate policy with Yerevan, Ankara may also consider the differing priorities of the Armenian diaspora and Armenia itself. The latter needs to normalize relations with its neighbor for the sake of stability of the Caucasia region and to improve its economic situation. The diaspora, however, is far from the realities of Armenia, which is facing serious economic and social problems caused both by internal issues and the fact that it is surrounded by neighbors who have mostly closed their borders. Do Armenians who live in poverty have the same opinions as those in the diaspora?
“If the diaspora cares not only about the memory of Armenians who perished in 1915 but also about the security and well-being of Armenians living today, it should stop pressuring Armenia to adopt an aggressive posture toward Turkey. Armenia can ill afford such a posture. In fact, normalization of relations with Turkey is a vital interest for landlocked, poor and vulnerable Armenia,” the international relations professor Arman Grigoryan wrote in The Washington Post. Dink also urged the diaspora to forgo hatred of Turkey and focus on efforts toward normalization.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan war of 2020 has created an unexpected opportunity for Ankara and Yerevan to open a new channel of dialogue. The establishment of unconditional relations was the most important step so far toward rapprochement, as both states can avoid linking their re-engagement with issues that have divided them for decades, such as the genocide debate. Focusing on economic and technical matters will enable both sides to keep the thorny topics off the table. While Ankara and Yerevan gradually and reciprocally approach normalization, both leaderships need to pursue successful public diplomacy to consolidate their efforts.
It may be tougher for Yerevan to cope with the opposition of hard-liners against Turkey, but if it wins public support for normalization, then history will not repeat itself — and Turkey and Armenia can consign their record of missed opportunities to the dusty pages of history.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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