2015: a landmark year in Turkish-Armenian relations
The year 2015 approaches and with it a series of commemorations to mark the centenary of the Armenian genocide. On November 22nd and 23rd, 2014, the Hrant Dink Foundation organised various lectures at the University of Ankara where participants discussed the closed border between the young Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey.
But this physical frontier is not the only border that exists between Turks and Armenians; there are also invisible borders; to better understand them is to start to find solutions in a region of the world that is already ablaze. There follows here a dialogue between three contributors at this event; Turkish sociologist Lale Yalçin Heckmann, Ter Vahram Matevosyan, senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Yerevan, and Gerard Libaridian, ex-advisor to the President of Armenia Ter Petrossian (1991/1997), who has taken root in the United States.
Hostage of an uncontrollable future and prisoner of conflicting political interests, the history between Armenia and Turkey is struggling to find the necessary serenity to tackle the truth and stick to the facts. The border between the Republic of Turkey and the young Republic of Armenia, which was established in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, is no exception to this “fate”. The reasons for its closure in 1994 are interpreted differently depending on which side of the border you stand. The debate is further complicated as a third country is involved; Azerbaijan with which Armenia is at war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region (Turkey supports Azerbaijan interests).
In Ankara, during the opening ceremony, Rakel Dink, the widow of Hrant Dink - an Armenian with Turkish citizenship killed in Istanbul in 2007 for his commitment to pro dialogue between the two cultures - recalled that "some words have inevitable negative connotations. The word « border » is one of them". To illustrate what she meant she - added : " The stones used to define the borders of a country in Ancient Rome were acknowledged as divine. When laying down a boundary stone, an animal used to be sacrificed, its bones were buried in a pit, and then the boundary stone was erected over the pit. In modern times, sacrificing an animal is no longer acceptable but every year during the borders conflict, thousands of people are sacrificed."
"The definition of humanity contains the principle of having to overcome borders. Therefore, our history is essentially the history of borders that have been transcended. Borders that have not been transcended form our imprisonment. They render us captive of our fears", Rakel Dink
2015; an expected border
The day after the USSR fall, Armenia and Turkey did not need the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to freeze their relations chained by the weight of the 1915 genocide. Even before it broke out in 1994, the two governments hadn’t felt the need to exchange diplomatic representations. The approach of the centenary is a milestone that invites everyone to take a stand. Lale Yalçin Heckmann explains the spirit with which she accepted the invitation to give a lecture: "As a social scientist, I feel the responsibility first and foremost to the academic community. This means being open, interested and thorough in engaging with questions and also with difficult and complex historical and political issues".
Eliminating prejudices and laying on the table the cards is a starting point. "I see myself in line with many colleagues in Turkey and abroad who have opened up many of the avenues of research into the past and present of the relations between Turks, Armenians, Kurds and other neighbouring societies, who have at times intimate but difficult relations with one another". A work that must continue despite the interweaving of historical, political, social, emotional and moral dimensions. For this Turkish woman, the centenary is a milestone: "I expect the centenary and commemorations will further encourage such steps of engaging with the past for the sake of a humane future".
Gerard Libaridian, retired historian who lives in Massachusetts (USA) is more circumspect: " It is not clear to me that our issues and approaches will be qualitatively in a different place on April 25, 2015 than they would be on April 23, 2015 ". Vahram Ter Matevosyan also, does not have any illusion. However, this professor at the American University in Yerevan says, "My feeling is that 2015 will be as important as 1965, the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The consequences will not be visible immediately, but this year will mark a turning point in the acts and minds of many Armenians.”
The invisible border between civil society and political powers
Listening to the presentations at the University of Ankara, capital of Turkey, it appears that a gap exists between the people and the rulers, especially in the borders’ regions paralyzed like a train stranded in open countryside.
While politics are voicing their opinion in their public statements, initiatives like this conference cycle (initiative far from to be unique) prove that civil societies do not accept this status quo. Gérard Libaridian notes that "there has been great progress - and a qualitative change - in the way the two civil societies - Turkish and Armenian - interact". Lale Yalçin Heckmann adds : "I still find it very important, that small and modest efforts of joint projects between youth groups or professional organizations in the countries are inspiring and surely transforming attitudes, ideas and imaginations about one another. Slowly but surely.”
Both, however, regret, alongside Ter Vahram Matevosyan, specialist, among others things, in the relations between Turkey and Georgia that "the civil societies of the two countries are not so influential that they can push their governments to change the policy”.
The armenian university adds: "Compared with Armenia, Turkey is a large country with ethnic, social and political. The NGOs are not provided interests throughout Turkey. Otherwise, the Turkish government would act more responsibly to meet the demands of eastern Turkey". From the Armenian side the situation is similar. "Civil society in Armenia has developed levers increasingly influential in domestic politics, however, they are not a decisive factor when it comes to foreign policy", he said.
Gérard Libaridian thinks "Turkish civil society is more visible and nuanced than the one in Armenia on this issue; after all, the Turkish government is the one that has a long way to go. Successive Armenian governments have been more accommodating than their Turkish counterparts”. The author of The construction of the state in Armenia, a Caucasian issue states: “While promoting extreme positions in their educational policies and media impact, governments justify their extreme policies blaming the “people” for not being able to accept this or that moderate policy".
« Every border that separates us from the others restricts our field of life even more. They are the barbed wire of the "Divide and Rule System", Rakel Dink
The simmering conflict in Nagorno Karabakh seems the easiest to solve among all that are present in the region between the Caucasus and the Middle East. Proactive involvement of the three actors (Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan) and political will would suffice to find an solution. For Lale Yalçin Heckmann, it is particularly unfortunate that civil society as a promoter of peace and harmony is not more influential. The belligerent political authorities selfishly protect their own interest, however: "I sometimes think that the civil society organizations expect too much intervention, mediation and support from international actors, instead of being creative and inventive in pursuing their causes within their own societies".
Armenians of Turkey, Armenia and the Diaspora
The gap between the Armenian Diaspora, the Armenian citizens and the Armenians of Turkey is an another invisible border that is a third source of tension and misunderstanding. "Until recently, the diaspora simply ignored the Armenians of Turkey. She even considered them suspects", says Gérard Libaridian. An understandable situation according to Lale Yalçin Heckmann: “The complicated history of Armenian people, the histories of diasporic lives and in anchored societies render a structural tension between diasporas and settled communities. I see these tensions as normal and explain it partly with being based on embeddedness in different political, historical and cultural experiences, which the communities have accumulated".
Bridging the gaps is not an insurmountable problem in the eyes of this partisan of dialogue: "Different views are useful when seeking strategies for reconciliation between states and societies. The problems begin when these views exclude others or attempts to impose without understanding the other. Or understanding of other opinions is the first step to accept different historical experiences of diaspora and sedentary communities”.
Vahram Ter Matevosyan refuses to generalize and does not perceive these differences as a border. "On both sides, there are big differences. The government is somehow the will of the Armenians living in the Republic, while there is no such entity to represent the diaspora". There is at least one consensus he added : "Turkey should bear full political responsibility for the genocide of 1915. Armenia does not ask only that but also requires Turkey to cease political blockade, economic and communicational Armenia in effect since 1993".
For Gérard Libaridian, if the dialogue is now easier, it is largely thanks to the commitment of the author of Two close peoples, two distant neighbours : "Hrant Dink broke that mold and compelled the Diaspora to have a second look. It seems that the Armenian community of Turkey—not just the organized one in Istanbul but also the Islamized Armenians many of whom have developed a sense of Armenian identity—will have the impact of humanizing the Armenian/Turkish issue and bringing it to the level of realism”.
Hrant Dink, the will to overcome the border
If there is a common ground between all stakeholders at the Ankara conference, it is the recognition of the work of the murdered journalist on the 19th of January 2007 noted by Lale Yalçin Heckmann : "Even if some of the members of the audience may have come with strong political reservations, I surely hope that they have, like me, observed and felt the sense of sincere and genuine interest in exploring and learning from one another. It was especially very refreshing and encouraging for me to see so many good and valuable research and researchers. I truly wish they continue and have increasing effect on improving our mutual understanding".
Gérard Libaridian fell under Hrant Dink’s charm at their first meeting : "He built bridges while breaking taboos. He challenged the self-limiting definition of the Church centered Armenian in Turkey and elsewhere; he brought forth the Armenian citizen of Turkey as a citizen; he connected the Armenian to Turkey’s past and to Turkey’s oppressed ethnic and religious units; he contributed to the contacts of Turkey’s Armenians to the people of Armenia and to the new Armenian state”.
« When an individual appeares on the stage of history and pushes all the borders imposed upon humanity, it inspires us all. With this inspiration, we keep open the door of this difficult issue. I hope, with your contribution, we will be able to shed light on this issue»,
Vahram also recognizes the value of his work: "It was and remains a source of inspiration for many Armenians. Being a journalist in Turkey is already a difficult task, even when someone wants to discuss problems of the minority to the general public and the government".
Lale Yalçin Heckmann also admits having followed the writings and debates published in AGOS, the newspaper founded by Hrant Dink in Istanbul. If his death is a tragedy in his eyes, it was also a shock : "Yet the widespread protests after his being murdered was like the precursor of public frustration about much of the injustice and ignorance in Turkish politics ; one could say like a precursor of the protests we have seen later on with Gezi events”.
For all, Hrant Dink remains a source of inspiration. “He defined the universality of Armenians’ issues by reaching out to the depths of his own soul and thus becoming an apostle for the humanity in each human being, while acknowledging the particular in each group. If one is not inspired by that, I do not know what inspiration is”, conclude Gérard Libaridian.
Photos are from Beyond waiting Hrant Dink Foundation.
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