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The Turkey-Armenia border, mental maps and incoherent policies

| 1/28/2008 12:00:00 AM | Nigar Goksel

Armenians’ pursuit of genocide resolutions from different legislative bodies across the world is contrary to Armenian interests. Only Turkish nationalists and a well-financed handful of individuals within the Armenian diaspora benefit from the resulting negative climate in relations between Turkey and Armenia. The PM's proposal to set up a commission of historians on the question of Turkey's Armenian losses meets an Armenian counterproposal that seeks to include a wider range of bilateral issues, including the matter of the problematically closed border between the two neighbours

Turkey closed the border with Armenia in 1993 during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, primarily as a response to Armenia moving forward to occupy regions where only Azeris resided, such as Kelbajar.

 In doing so, Turkey attempted to create a situation that would make occupation of these districts unsustainable for Armenia, rendering Armenia more likely to compromise. However, the policy has not yielded its intended results and there is little reason to believe it will in the near future. Quite the contrary, Turkey's closing of the border has been used to fuel a sense of insecurity and resentment among Armenians towards Turkey, has led them to be and feel more reliant on Russia economically and strategically, and has left Turkey with no leverage to influence Armenians. Azeris, however, feel strongly that the closed border is an essential element of the equilibrium today and that an opening of the border would legitimize the occupation and provide economic opportunities for Armenia, tipping the balance in their favor. The consequences of the closed border should be debated openly in Turkey and Azerbaijan alike. In any case, consideration of open borders should not be labeled as disloyal, defeatist or unpatriotic. On the other hand though, as Matt Bryza said in a speech in Yerevan last week, the Turkish state, as a sovereign country, can index its foreign policy to the interests of any country it so wishes. Turkey and Armenia lack clarity in their stances towards each other. Their red lines and positions towards important bilateral issues seem to shift regularly. There have been times when high-level Turkish officials have suggested that official recognition of Turkey's borders is the only prerequisite for the opening of borders. At other times, cessation of genocide recognition attempts in third countries and withdrawal from Azerbaijan's territories have been added as preconditions. Why? Does Turkish foreign policy change from government to government? Do different institutions within the Turkish state have different positions? Is policy populist and reactionary? Or is it that the lack of clarity allows decision makers to use different lines when talking to different actors at different times? On the Armenian side, a statement recognizing Turkey's borders is followed with unwillingness to certify it. If a president of Armenia were to disassociate history from foreign policy and lean towards reason, might the Armenian diaspora declare themselves the legitimate party on this issue and impose otherwise? It is not clear who speaks with authority on behalf of Armenians and what this might entail. Convenient ambiguity about history and borders allows politicians space to maneuver, which provides material that can be stretched in any direction by nationalists and liberals alike. “Various Voices on Turkey-Armenia Relations,” a compilation of interviews, offers a range of views on these and other dimensions of the troubled relationship.

The AKP government in Turkey came to power in 2002 with the intention of normalizing relations with Armenia. However they may not have been aware of the challenges and counterarguments to achieving this goal. Having used up a good deal of political capital on issues like Cyprus and facing heightened nationalism in Turkey, it is understandably difficult for the government to expend more on Armenia without reciprocity from the Armenian side. Turks often feel singled out by the global community, noting that no one asks for accountability for the purge of Turks form the Balkans during the Balkan Wars or keeps other tragedies on the agenda in the same way, such as colonial massacres that occurred later in the 20th century. The relentless pursuit by the well-endowed Armenian diaspora of the recognition of the massacres of 1915 as genocide is seen to perpetuate the image of the Turk as a barbarian – thus touching a sensitive nerve in the Turkish psyche and hindering the work of progressive Turks to introduce the current realities of Turkey to Europe. Modern Turkish citizens do not feel as though they deserve a reputation that preceded them and that contradicts what they have learned about Turkish tolerance. Turks feel traumatized in their own way, pointing to memories of rebelling communities and Europeans plotting the disintegration of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. This trauma is an integral part of the Turkish psyche today – surfacing in what is often called the “Sevres Syndrome.” Indeed, the sense of victimhood and conviction of being encircled by hostile alliances are common in both Armenia and Turkey. This brings about similar modalities of thought and a shared logic of retaliation. Turks need to understand Armenians still fear Turkey, that this fear is a part of their upbringing and identity, and that it is exacerbated by being a much smaller country that neighbors Turkey today. It is undeniable that Armenians in Eastern Turkey were an important component of the richness of Anatolia and that the tragic incidents that have left none there today cannot be justified and needs to be explored with an open mind. Ultimately, freedom to debate the Armenian tragedy of the early twentieth century needs to be more widespread in Turkey. The stance that maintains that Turkey is not liable for the decisions made at an unclear level of the crumbling chain of command of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 does not reduce the importance of a critical examination of the history of these lands. Turkey should do this for its own sake, because in the long run, a reactive or defensive policy on these issues will wear society down even more. Armenians' pursuit of genocide resolutions from different legislative bodies across the world is contrary to Armenian interests. Only Turkish nationalists and a well-financed handful of individuals within the Armenian diaspora benefit from the resulting negative climate in relations between Turkey and Armenia. The passage of yet another resolution does not help Armenians who want Turkey to acknowledge their grievances in order to attain closure and to move on. Moreover, it hardens the Turkish nationalist position, weakens liberals calling for a critical approach to state rhetoric about history and hampers Turkey's Europeanization.

The suggestion by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that a commission of historians be set up to study the issue is noteworthy. And the decision to upload Ottoman archives to the Internet is commendable. Such initiatives suggest that the insecurity of the past is being replaced by a newfound openness. But it remains unclear how the commission would be composed and what implications its findings would have. Unclear too, are the parameters of the Armenian counterproposal to form an intergovernmental commission that would take up a wider range of bilateral issues, including the border issue; a priority for Armenia.Elections in Armenia are scheduled for Feb. 19. It is important that these elections be free and fair – the international community should place more priority on this issue than they appear to be doing at present. Only a leader with full legitimacy will be able to make the difficult decisions necessary for the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan and the normalization of relations with Turkey. For borders with Turkey to open, Armenia must recognize the border with Turkey clearly, thus ending the popular (among Armenians) vision of “Greater Armenia.” The notion of nationhood for Armenia is quite different from that of Turkey. This leads the two sides to speak in different languages and suspect each other's intentions. In a sense this leads to an incompatibility in nature that is a challenge to overcome. Throughout the Soviet era, diaspora institutions acted like the legitimate representatives of Armenian nationhood – with political parties and the church. The “homeland” was not entirely accepted to be Armenia proper. And the dissident nationalist movement in Armenia was defined by challenging the borders that the Soviet system imposed (irredentism) and seeking openings to discuss 1915. This worked in the interests of the Soviet leadership because Armenia felt protected from NATO member Turkey by the Soviets and their dissidence did not take the form of desire for independence as was the case among other nations. Diaspora Armenians need to adapt to the realities of the day, letting go of the sense of “ownership” of Armenian nationhood they are accustomed to. By concentrating their energies and resources on strengthening the rule of law and development of the economy and democracy of Armenia they can best contribute to the rich history of the Armenian nation and create an able representative for the Armenian cause. It is common to preach to Turkey not to index its foreign policy to Azerbaijan by putting forth conditions about Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijan's lands, i.e. Nagorno-Karabakh and the regions in its vicinity. However, Armenians should be the first to understand the solidarity Turks feel towards Azeris. Ultimately, taking “back” Nagorno-Karabakh was articulated in the same breath as taking back “western Armenia” (east Turkey) for decades by Armenians and for them the war against Azerbaijan meant war against “Turks.” Even today, villagers in Armenia who take their animals to the occupied regions around Nagorno-Karabakh in the winter months say they are taking them to “Turkish lands.” Deep in the framework of mental maps, changes are necessary on both sides for normalization to take place and be sustained.  

* Nigar Goksel is Editor-in-Chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly and Senior Analyst of the European Stability Initiative (www.esiweb.org). This piece is adapted from her editorial in the recent issue of TPQ.

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