Feature

Turkey’s Guilty Conscience

One of the world's thorniest historical conflicts is on the verge of being solved. But long-term peace between Turkey and Armenia might be as hard to achieve as a lasting Middle East truce.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Pop quiz: Can you name one part of the world where the United States and the Russian Federation have been making common cause? Correct answer: in Turkey and Armenia, where the two powers have been collaborating of late.

And that’s only one of the many remarkable twists to emerge from a diplomatic quest that, for sheer complexity and emotional explosiveness, is likely rivaled only by the search for peace in the Middle East. It has been a wild ride, and it’s not over yet. Ankara and Yerevan are signing two historic agreements that could pave the way toward a major diplomatic rapprochement and an opening of the two countries’ common 325-kilometer border, which has been closed for the past 16 years.

"I think we’re seeing a series of high-water marks in a long process," says the International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope. "Considering where we’ve come from 10 years ago to where we are today, it’s nothing short of amazing."

But there’s still a long way to go. Like the Israelis and Palestinians, the Turks and Armenians share a lot of history, and that’s not always a good thing. As in the Middle East, the Turks and the Armenians are separated by religion, harshly felt territorial disputes, and the poisonous legacy of killing on a scale so vast that it boggles the mind. Small wonder that the two peoples have spent most of the past 100 years locked in mutual antipathy.

The issue that looms over all else is 1915’s "Great Calamity," when more than 1 million overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian Armenians met their deaths at the hands of mostly Muslim Ottoman Turks during the turmoil of World War I. Armenians, and most non-Turkish historians, say it was genocide. The Turks, for their part, have long denied that it ever happened — perhaps because admitting the massacres would cast a stain on the birth of the present-day Republic of Turkey, which was established in the aftermath of the war. A controversial Turkish law that prohibits insults to "Turkishness" has sometimes been used as a basis for prosecuting those who would dare refer to the events of 1915 as genocide.

Understandably, many Armenians have insisted that a clear Turkish acknowledgment of the 1915 massacres precede any diplomatic opening between the two countries — and that’s precisely what hasn’t happened. Instead the two governments have agreed to sidestep the issue by appointing an independent historical commission to discuss it. Armen Ayvazyan, director of the Ararat Center for Strategic Research in Yerevan, speaks for many Armenian nationalists when he denounces this move as "outrageous." Imagine, he says, that an unrepentant Nazi Germany had called for a "historical commission" to debate the Holocaust. Politically, the move has also enabled the Turks to argue that countries that have been considering parliamentary resolutions officially condemning Ottoman actions in 1915 as genocide — read "the United States" — should postpone doing so, at risk of derailing the current rapprochement.

And yet, as Pope insists, merely denouncing the current normalization process as a sellout to an unrepentant Turkey misses a key point. He notes that, since 2000, a growing number of Turkish intellectuals have been steadily challenging the traditional taboos, openly challenging the official version that downplays the 1915 massacres as a few random atrocities rather than a systematic state-orchestrated campaign of killing. (Among the dissenters: Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.) They’ve been organizing academic conferences and pushing for the publication of long-suppressed documents, such as the diaries of senior Ottoman official Talat Pasha, which clearly show his intimate involvement in the killings. Last December, a group of 200 Turks even organized a petition expressing a Turkish apology for 1915, and it’s since been signed by some 30,000 people.

Given the history on both sides, one of the most surprising things about the normalization process is how much support it has managed to find. When Turkish President Abdullah Gül launched the present initiative by heading to a September 2008 soccer match in Yerevan, a poll in Turkey found that 69.6 percent approved, while some 62.8 percent thought Turkey should develop economic and political ties with Armenia. "The more they [Turks and Armenians] meet, the more they realize how similar they are," notes Diba Nigar Göksel of the European Stability Initiative, pointing out that there are already some 70,000 Armenian guest workers in Turkey. (At the same time she bemoans the lack of the myriad exchanges and contacts of the kind that have considerably enlivened relations between Turkey and Greece over the past two decades). Still, she notes, public opinion in Armenia itself predictably remains more complicated: Ask Armenians if they support opening the border, and they overwhelmingly approve; ask them if the border should be opened if Turkey doesn’t acknowledge the 1915 genocide, and they overwhelmingly don’t.

There’s another complicating factor waiting in the wings: the status of the "frozen conflict" between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azeris are ethnic Turks and have been viewed with corresponding suspicion by the Armenians, even when both groups were living in their own titular republics back in the old Soviet Union. In 1988, fighting broke out when the majority Armenian inhabitants of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan insisted on joining their brethren in Armenia proper.

The war ended in 1994 with Armenian forces in tight control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the two republics — which became independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union — locked in a state of mutual hostility that remains to this day. At first the Turkish push for normal relations with Armenia didn’t make resolving the Azeri-Armenian logjam a precondition. But an outcry in Baku, as well as harsh criticism from the powerful nationalist opposition in the parliament in Ankara, forced the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to put Nagorno-Karabakh back on the agenda — despite apparent promises he’d made to the Armenians on that score. Lately Erdogan’s government has reaffirmed that the rapprochement with Yerevan will go ahead regardless of progress on the Azeri-Armenian peace talks.

The stakes are enormous for both sides. The Turks closed their border with Armenia in 1993 as a rebuke for Armenia’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh, and since then Armenia’s only land link with the rest of the Caucasus has been through Georgia. Opening the border would give a huge boost to the Armenian economy. The Turks would benefit from vastly expanded geopolitical influence in the strategically sensitive Caucasus. Over the long term, say analysts, the Erdogan government would also be able to demonstrate much greater diplomatic credibility in its dealings with Greek Cypriots, and, beyond that, with the European Union (which maintains reservations about Turkey’s human rights record and democratic bona fides). Ankara would also, potentially, be able to counter the chronic bad publicity it has received around the world for its persistent denial of the genocide — no small thing given the enormous political traction of the Armenian diaspora in Europe and the United States.

Moscow and Washington apparently think they have something to gain, too — even if they hold that belief "for very different reasons," Pope notes. Washington wants to see a reduction of conflict in the Caucasus that would enable energy from the region (and the neighboring countries of Central Asia) to find alternate routes to the West (a desire shared, if less assertively, by many in Brussels). Moscow, meanwhile, thinks that bringing its old ally Armenia and its new friend Turkey closer together will diminish the pull of "extraregional actors" (i.e., the Americans and the Europeans) in the Caucasus. And the fact that lifting the iron curtain between Turkey and Armenia will substantially reduce the geopolitical weight of Georgia, Moscow’s declared enemy, probably contributes as well.

Yet the deal is still a long way from done. The protocols that will be presented by the two governments this month still have to be approved by the Turkish and Armenian parliaments. "The crucial point is ratification," says Sinan Ülgen of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. "This is going to be ratified if, and only if, Azerbaijan and Armenia can come to agreement on Karabakh." And that is far from a sure thing, given the long legacy of mistrust. Laurence Broers of the London-based nonprofit Conciliation Resources points out that there are precedents from Turkish and Armenian leaders who tried to build rapprochement without sufficient backing from their own peoples — they failed. "So I am not very optimistic."

Let’s see what happens next.

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