Friday, July 24, 2009

"Armenian issue is at core of Turkish identity"

Nigar Goksel discusses Armenia and Turkey
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Thursday June 25, 2009

Nigar Goksel in Yerevan

Washington - Diba Nigar Goksel is an Istanbul-based senior analyst for the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin think tank. For the past several years, Ms. Goksel's work has focused on Armenia and has included a report, "Noah's Dove Returns: Armenia, Turkey and the Debate on Genocide," released last April. Last week she was in the United States to begin a research project on the Armenian diaspora's role in Armenia. She was interviewed by the Armenian Reporter's Washington editor Emil Sanamyan on June 17.

Welcomed in Armenia as "normal person"

Armenian Reporter: When you first began working in Armenia, were you apprehensive about it or, perhaps, excited about the opportunity, or both?

Nigar Goksel: I was excited. I was a little bit concerned that as a Turk I wouldn't be spoken to about issues in Armenia openly and that would influence the quality of research I would do.

Like in Georgia and Azerbaijan, our research in Armenia is about trying to understand how Armenia is changing, where Armenia is headed. How the state-building process and economic development, and a debate about the future of Armenia is progressing. A lot of our research in Armenia entailed travel outside of Yerevan, talking to ordinary people, opinion leaders, and business people.

So I was concerned that because I was a Turk, answers would be adjusted accordingly and there would be a perception that I was looking for problems to display [to the outside world] or something like that.

It ended up not being the case and I was positively surprised.

I was received and welcomed wholeheartedly, especially in the villages of Armenia. In Yerevan, it was more complex: some would be more positive, others more negative. And it was in small towns where I received the most challenging questions and borderline accusations.

So it ended up being research / bilateral dialogue effort, because I was also asked a lot of questions by Armenians about Turkey. One amazing thing is how high the level of interest is in Armenia about what is happening in Turkey and how few Turks Armenians actually meet.

AR: The warm reception you describe particularly in the rural areas, did you feel like you were given special treatment because, perhaps, you were breaking existing stereotypes? Or was it more just out of a sense of general neglect and an appreciation of an outsider's attention?

NG: At least in some places, my Turkishness was not important or not initially an important issue. People would talk about their local problems. Say, how budget of this village is sufficient or not for reconstruction of a particular sewage system or whatnot.

And it could be an hour into a conversation when someone would ask where I was from. And upon hearing I was from Turkey, they would say, "Oh, why didn't you tell us?" and start bringing fruits and vodka to the table and start talking about the past.

In part, I think it was a stereotype issue. I was not a classical Turk that people envisioned – a stern man with a mustache. And it was an opportunity for [Armenians] to talk to one of those people that they had heard so much about but never had an opportunity to confront.

Sometimes, when my Turkishness would be first revealed, the conversation would turn more confrontational. [I would be often asked] if from my perspective there was genocide. And after hearing me say yes [there was], and that Turkey is changing profoundly in this sense but that there are still problems- as soon as it seemed that I talked as a normal person, the atmosphere [would relax.]

And in villages, sure, there is a sense of not being paid attention to by other Armenians first of all. So, someone coming from an international organization and caring about what their daily life looked like certainly got a positive reaction.

Rural similarities and differences

AR: You have also done field research in rural parts of Turkey; how similar are problems in Armenia's rural areas to those in Turkey?

NG: There are similarities with Turkey, but frankly problems in Armenia are more similar to Azerbaijan's or Georgia's by virtue of the Soviet heritage and the breakdown of the Soviet system.

In Armenia, in some rural areas, people used to work in industry and had to readjust to working on land, but are still trying to hold on to some degree of their education.

That is different from eastern Turkey where industrialization has not yet reached. And people in Turkish villages were always there and education-wise they are not where the villagers of Armenia are.

And of course in eastern Turkey there is the conflict with the Kurdish insurgency which taps into identity issues and relations with the Turkish state.

Other than that, in terms of underdevelopment, the lack of amenities and limited opportunities, they are similar.

Armenian-Turkish engagement and where it could lead

AR: Having focused on Armenia for several years now, what is your sense of Armenia's main challenges?

NG: When we began working in Armenia, our focus was not on Armenia-Turkey relations. But we soon saw that the debate on the political scene, what politicians are accused of, is usually about concessions they are [ostensibly] ready to make to Turkey. Or the debate on the economy, why Armenia's economy is in a state it is in: Oh, it is because Turkey has closed the border.

So, we realized we could not avoid the Turkey issue if we were to discuss Armenia's challenges. Frankly, I think more and more people realize in Armenia that the source of Armenia's problems today is not necessarily Turkey. Yes, Turkey's border being closed does create some challenges, but were it to open tomorrow it would create other obstacles to recovery of the economy as well.

But Armenia's challenges certainly go beyond the border issue.

AR: On the issue of the border opening: Today, with the border closed, certainly that keeps people apart but not just from cooperating; it also limits conflict. In your sense, would a potential border opening be necessarily a step toward normalization, or just toward a different form of confrontation?

NG: I have thought about this question. Results of the Armenian-Turkish dialogue so far have been positive. Many more Turks come to Armenia, and many more Armenians go to Turkey. That is all very positive and contributes to a positive change in how people perceive each other.

Strong feelings in Armenia

On the other hand, there are issues that we are sweeping under the rug that might come to the surface more should there be [more direct contact via] an open border.

For example, in Turkey there is this perception that diaspora Armenians are the ones who insist on recognition of genocide internationally, and talk about lands and compensation. And that Armenian-Armenians are brotherly neighbors who don't share those views necessarily.

Ironically, this view has been promoted by Turkish liberals, including some liberal columnists, in an attempt [to make the Turkish public] more comfortable about relations with Armenia and so that negative feelings about genocide recognition are not transferred to Armenia in Turkish minds.

But I think there would be a rude awakening when the border does open, and more Turkish nationalists get a chance to meet with Armenians from Armenia, who actually feel quite strongly about genocide recognition.

The Turkish public needs to be ready for that and prepare to hear that.

[Having said all that,] there is really no other way forward, and many Armenians and Turks would have to agree to disagree on certain issues, and that might be the case for some time. And I think if we have some tolerance toward different opinions on both sides, there will be many opportunities to find common ground and similarities.

Many Turks who come to Armenia are astounded at how similar the cuisines, the dances are, the way people look and carry themselves.

Why Turks should care about Armenians

AR: What do you think should or could happen between Armenians and Turks, for them to become nations with historical, but not necessarily present-day problems?

NG: I could speak from the Turkish perspective on this.

Strong political leadership in Turkey is important. A sincere attitude in terms of remorse – I don't know if it is the right word – for the past needs to be emanating from Ankara. And that can be in the form of words, but beyond that having a memorial that is dedicated to the Armenians that were in Anatolia – right now, as you know, we have a memorial to Turks who died in that period.

Definitely, [another thing to do is] owning up to the cultural heritage of Armenians. Having one Holy Cross Church on Aghtamar restored should not be the end. There are other Armenian churches and monasteries that need to be approached with respect and acknowledgement of their Armenianness.

There can be a multitude of steps that could demonstrate a new attitude of Ankara and the past treated with more openness and more regret.

The current government has been inconsistent about its rhetoric on Armenia. There are positive developments, such as more open debate. But on the other hand, while suggesting a historical commission, [Turkish leaders] claim with certainty that there was no genocide. If you are proposing a free and independent study, you can't be making a judgment like that before the study is realized.

AR: Regarding the historical commission, do you see it as purely an element of the public-relations effort – to deflect genocide recognition – or could there be an opportunity there as well?

NG: I don't think [a commission], a state-driven initiative, would change the hearts and minds of Turks and Armenians, nor that it should.

It depends on how it is designed, what its mandate is. I think a commission to facilitate research on this issue can only help, if it is going to involve opening of archives, a meeting of minds, independent scholars from around the world, a platform for discussion that is open and constructive, then fine.

But we have to adjust our expectations. I don't think anybody really expects that [a commission] would work and solve the differences. I think we should be used to different opinions that can come closer together over time, but not necessarily be resolved all together.

I think when there is a critical mass in [Turkish] society leaning in a particular way, the government will follow that lead.

AR: Why should a critical mass of Turks care about Armenia or the Armenian issue?

NG: Because the Armenian issue is a core issue when it comes to Turkish identity, and the state's relationship [with the public]. When you see liberal intellectuals confronting the state in Turkey, the Armenian issue is one of the issues at hand.

It symbolizes the Turkish state's monopoly over history learning for many years. The Armenian issue is not the only issue that the Turkish education system has selectively opposed; there are many others.

As Taner Akcam noted, the issue is not Armenia; the issue is the Turkish state and its relationship with its citizens. And as Turkish society evolves and becomes more democratic, there will be more questions about what else we have been misled about or not allowed to speak of freely.

In the end, what it means to be a Turk is very intertwined with the Armenian issue.

Going from words to deeds

AR: Do you think Turkey will ever come to a point when it would be ready to offer some sort of compensation – financial or even physical – for the Armenian Genocide?

NG: There has been very positive progress in recent years in terms of allowing for a more open debate in Turkey about Ottoman Armenians, giving more space to challenging views. And considerable progress on minority issues in Turkey. On culture, too, there have been important strides forward: restoration of a church in Diyarbakir is now underway, for example, due partly to changes in foundations law recently.

In terms of compensation [pauses]. I don't think there is a way to hold Turkey legally liable in the foreseeable future. Turkey might be interested in making some gestures toward the Armenians who are descendants of Anatolia families. There is a discussion among intellectuals in Turkey as to what kind of gestures these could be. From benefits in acquiring lands to inviting members of the diaspora to help them find their roots, it is a wide range of possibilities.

Would Turkey actually be sitting down to try to determine financial compensation? We have not found legal ground for that. In foreseeable future, I think gestures will be of different nature.

There is, I think, genuine desire in Ankara to right some wrongs of the past, but there is also a risk of moving too fast and generating a political backlash.

Considering the defensive tone that has dominated in Turkey – you just can't go from that [to paying compensation]. More time is needed.

AR: From an Armenian perspective, of course, plenty of time has elapsed – more than 90 years.

NG: Definitely. But if you look at how much Turkey changed on this issue in the last nine years – it is much more than any change that had occurred from 1915 to 2000. Since 2000 there has been dramatic change. So don't look at the last 90 years, look at the last nine years.

Karabakh linkage and purpose of the "road map"

AR: What about the conflict in Karabakh? Do you see Turkey continuing to side with Azerbaijan on that to the degree it has until now, or do you see a debate and possible evolution there?

NG: The Karabakh issue is difficult. Most people in Turkey see a grave injustice committed to detriment of Azeris and that also no one in the world acknowledges that.

For Turks that is seen as "classical" example of Turkish people being wronged by the international community. Believe it or not, there is a complex of victimization psychology in Turkey as well and in that sense [Azerbaijan] is seen as an extension of Turkey.

But the perception of Turkey and Azerbaijan being "ethnic" brethren is stronger than the reality of it.

Secondly, there is also a feeling for many in Ankara that a Karabakh resolution is not that difficult and can even be done this year, and that is where there is a lack of realism.

But if you ask, who in this region has taken land and given it back, it is hard to find example of that. So, there is not a simplified view of Karabakh [in Turkey]; there is not a very good understanding of it.

There is also a fear of "losing" Azerbaijan to Russia, grounded or not. And the sentiment is that there is more vested economic interest of Turkey in Azerbaijan than there could be in Armenia.

Those in the Turkish press who argued that Turkey should take the Azerbaijani side – who are a minority right now – [tend to] engage in very simple economic calculations, comparing populations and energy resources.

AR: So where do you see Turkey going on this issue?

NG: The Turkish prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] has said over and over again in April and in May that there would be no normalization with Armenia until there is resolution in Karabakh. He said that so many times in so many different environments that it is difficult to conceive that he could do something that would be totally detached.

What he could do is spin some kind of development on Karabakh – that may not necessarily be a major development – as one more important than it really is and say, OK, this justifies a step toward Armenia. And there could be more steps like that, starting with establishment of diplomatic relations.

But it would be politically very difficult to disconnect [Armenia-Turkey relations] from Karabakh.

AR: What was then the purpose of the April 22 declaration by Armenia, Switzerland, and Turkey? Was it just a kind of "cease-fire" agreement to try to preempt "bad" resolutions in foreign parliaments?

NG: Turkey might hope that the "road map" would serve as a disincentive for some countries to pass genocide resolutions. Some people in Turkey might think that that might serve that purpose.

But whoever signs that paper on behalf of Armenia, be it president or foreign minister, does not have the authority to prevent the diaspora in the rest of the world from acting.

So, if that is the intention, then it is not realistic. But I don't think that is the only intention either. I would like to think that there is more to it than that.

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