Three years ago, 17-year-old Ogün Samast entered the upscale Sisli district of Istanbul, Turkey, wearing a white beret and carrying a gun. He turned onto the street of Sebat Sokak, reached the publishing house of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, and waited. Moments later, when the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Hrant Dink stepped out, Samast shot him dead in broad daylight.
Dink’s assassination on January 19, 2007, was but one tragic manifestation of the century-long enmity between Turks and Armenians. Dink, a prominent member of Turkey’s Armenian community, was killed because of his outspoken views on the massacre of over a million Armenians by Ottoman Turkish troops in 1915. Dink, like all Armenians, called these killings a state-organized genocide. The Turkish government denies these accusations, claiming that the Armenians were killed as they revolted against the Ottoman government or died while being deported away from warzones as a security measure. For decades, these divergent interpretations of the events of 1915 have poisoned Armenian and Turkish relations.
Last October, it seemed that this hostility might finally end. Under American, Russian and Swiss mediation, the governments of Turkey and Armenia signed peace protocols in Zurich to establish diplomatic relations for the first time, to recognize and open their common border, and to establish a subcommission to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension.” These protocols were hailed as historic agreements that would effect a long overdue peace. However, after a year, neither parliament had ratified the protocols, and conciliation has proven elusive.
The Turkish-Armenian protocols failed because instead of preparing their populations for reconciliation, Armenian President Serzh Sargsian and Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan sought to normalize relations as a quick-fix to other pressing domestic political and economic concerns. Little public diplomacy was conducted in either Turkey or Armenia to eliminate the long-standing prejudices each population had about its neighbor. This enmity made it impossible for the leaders to simply establish ties first and settle contentious issues—of claims of genocide, Armenian territorial claims in eastern Turkey, and the Armenian-Azeri conflict—afterwards, in the context of normal bilateral relations. Instead, both delegations had to extract concessions regarding these issues during negotiations to be able to sell the agreement to their hostile populations. These concessions made the controversial prospect of peace seem even more difficult to Turkish and Armenian populations. They ultimately doomed the protocols.
The protocols arose out of the narrow economic and political incentives of Turkish and Armenian leaders. Their willingness to negotiate was based on self-interest rather than the mutual aims of conciliation.
Sargsian pursued peace with Turkey to solve his government’s crisis of legitimacy. International observers and political opposition had declared his February 2008 election fraudulent. During post-election protests, Sargsian jailed political opponents and ordered the military to attack protesters, resulting in eight civilian deaths. Moreover, Armenia’s already hard hit economy contracted in 2009, the first slump after seven years of double-digit growth. On March 3th of that year its currency, the dram, devaluated 18 percent in a matter of hours. Faced with democratic and economic underperformance, Sargsian pursued a watershed foreign policy—that is, improved relations with Turkey—to distract from these problems. “Sargsian saw an opening. His decision to invite [Turkish President] Gül to Yerevan opened a new credit line of international support,” Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace explained.
The Turkish government was equally Machiavellian in pursuing peace. It hoped to develop the eastern parts of Anatolia, along the Armenian border, which are the poorest regions in the country and hotbeds for Kurdish terrorist groups and separatists. Turkey’s border closure with Armenia in 1993 isolated these regions from a key potential Armenian market. The number of exporters in the Turkish city of Kars, a historical gateway to the Caucasus and Soviet Union, has dwindled to five since the border closure. Turkish official discourse has always attributed the rise of terrorism in these regions to their poverty, rather than to Kurds’ lack of rights. Kemal Kılıçdaroglu, leader of the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), explained on state television on May 24th 2010 that the “southeastern question… is [one of] poverty and unemployment. If a young man doesn’t have a job and a hope for future, he will join either the terrorist organization or the mafia.” Given the statements by Turkish officials, it can be argued that Turkish leaders also hoped that economic development alone would quell separatist tendencies and relieve pressure to grant Kurdish linguistic and cultural rights, which the state has been reluctant to do since its founding in 1923.
The problem with leadership on both sides pursuing a peace deal out of purely political calculation is that it produced little domestic public diplomacy, meaning peace based on more lasting values such as empathy and mutual respect. In this case, the leaders’ interests may not match those of the people. Few Armenians would ratify a deal with the devil in order to bolster the reputation of an arguably illegitimate president, and even fewer Turks would do so for the sake of Kurds in remote parts of the country.
Popular prejudices persist in Armenia and Turkey today; the majority of both populations still view each other as they did in 1915. In Dink’s words, “the Armenians with their trauma and the Turks with their paranoia are like two clinical cases.” He is referring to Armenians’ eternal victim complex, and Turks’ fears that Armenians harbor territorial claims in eastern Turkey as compensation for the alleged genocide.
Little is known about present-day Turkey in Armenia, and perceptions of the Turk of 1915 fill this vacuum. A 2005 Center for Global Peace opinion survey revealed that 68.5 percent of Armenians believe there is an official religion in Turkey. Turkey is actually governed by one of the world’s strictest secular constitutions. In the same opinion poll, only 0.9 percent of respondents felt that Turks generally get along well with Armenian people. Many Armenians have had no contact with Turks, and thanks to the border closure, their main image remains the one depicted in the Genocide Museum outside of Yerevan, in which the Ottoman Empire is depicted in snapshot fashion as a homogenously murderous entity. Turkish flag-burning remains the centerpiece of some Armenians’ annual commemoration of 1915.
In Turkey, the problem is not so much ignorance as state indoctrination. The official history—that Armenians during WWI stabbed the benevolent Ottoman Empire in the back, massacring thousands of Turks—is rigidly institutionalized in Turkish politics, education and law. Last year, for example, the DVD “Sari Gelin,” or “Blonde Bride,” was distributed by the Turkish Education Ministry to all elementary schools. The very graphic film shows elderly men describing how Armenians allegedly cooked babies alive and used people as firewood. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it a crime to “denigrate Turkishness”; many intellectuals, most notably Columbia’s Orhan Pamuk, as well as Hrant Dink, have been prosecuted under this law for mentioning massacred Armenians. While parts of Turkish civil society question official history and have recently grown more tolerant toward Armenians, officially ingrained prejudice remains pervasive: In 2008, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) successfully initiated a court case to prevent the erection of a monument in Kars that would symbolize a hand of friendship to Armenians. Local party leader Oktay Aktas explained that “[this monument] breaks Turkey’s pride and honour. [Armenians] have to drop their genocide claims and stop demanding land and compensation.”
Both Turkish and Armenian delegations knew that peace would be a hard sell back home. They approached the table looking to secure vital concessions from the other side in order to make peace seem less unpopular domestically. Professor Jirair Libaridian of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor summarizes the concessions: “Turkey secured the recognition of the current borders, thus ending any hope that the state of Armenia would champion territorial demands from Turkey. It also secured the establishment of a subcommission that would look into the events of the past to find ‘the truth,’ thus raising the possibility that what [Armenians] know as the truth [that 1915 constituted genocide] may not be the truth. Armenia secured the elimination of any direct reference to Azerbaijan in the written text.”
The day after the signing, 60-thousand people staged a rally in Charles Aznavour square in Yerevan. A grassroots campaign to Stop the Protocols began in Armenia and across the Armenian Diaspora. It claimed that the protocols “forfeit legal claims to Armenian lands” and “deny the Armenian Genocide.” The political party Armenian Revolutionary Foundation (ARF) quit the governing coalition in protest and is now the largest opposition party; last month it staged a hunger strike outside the government building in Yerevan. Professor David Cuthell of School of International and Public Affairs and the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, D.C., explains that as a result of such opposition, “Today Armenia lacks the political courage to make this deal.”
The reaction was similar in Turkey. By opening the border without forcing Armenia to withdraw from its occupied lands in Azerbaijan, many Turks felt the government removed a lever of pressure on Armenia. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party was attacked by the opposition for supposedly betraying Turkey’s ethnic brothers. Since normalization talks with Armenia began in April 2009, Prime Minister Erdogan’s approval rating dropped from 47 percent to 32 percent. The day after the signing, Yalcin Dogan summarized the broad consensus in the daily Hurriyet, “Azerbaijan is indispensable to us. This is why this protocol will wait. The protocol will come into force when the Armenians end the occupation of Azerbaijan.”
This domestic opposition made ratifying the 2009 protocols in both parliaments a very politically risky move. In a situation analogous to the prisoner’s dilemma, each side demanded that the other side act first. Neither wanted to ratify the agreement and suffer the political costs if they knew that the deal would fall through in the end. On April 22th, 2010, Armenia finally suspended its ratification process.
LESSONS FROM THE FAILURE: A WAY FORWARD
The Turkish-Armenian case shows that leaders spurred by ulterior motives cannot impose peace on suspicious populations. Had the Turkish and Armenian populations not been so conditioned to suspicion and hate, their governments could have established ties in good faith and resolved contentious issues afterward, in the context of normal bilateral relations. Instead, in an ill-fated attempt to appease their hostile populations, the leaders included controversial clauses regarding genocide, border recognition, and the absence of Azerbaijan in the protocols themselves. These clauses were rejected by both populations, and the two countries as a result remain cut off from each other.
To eradicate this distrust and fear, Turks and Armenians need to interact with each other as much as possible. This can be achieved by building on the existing initiatives between progressive elements of civil society in both countries. Just a few weeks ago, over two dozen Turkish activists visited Armenia for an academic conference. Governments of both countries should encourage such outreach and conduct the public diplomacy they neglected to do before the 2009 protocols. The Armenian government should encourage the Armenian minority in Turkey to act as a bridge for its own citizens to visit Turkey. The Turkish government must stop its anti-Armenian indoctrination in education, politics and law. Restoration of some of the 2,000 abandoned Armenian churches in Turkey would also be a positive step.
Only after such public diplomacy is conducted can hard-line attitudes begin to soften in Turkey and Armenia. This softening would make it easier for both governments to establish relations and open their border without preconditions. The lingering issue of genocide can be better resolved in the context of open bilateral relations. Only after such a dialogue is established can a tragic history be jointly confronted as both peoples look to move past 1915.