Turkey, Armenia, 2015 and beyond

Turkey, Armenia, 2015 and beyond

In April 2015, Armenians will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1915 massacres, which they believe amounted to genocide. It will be a climax in their efforts for the international recognition of this tragedy as genocide.

Both of the main actors are scared of this climax, according to Michel Marian, the co-author of “Dialogue on the Armenian Taboo.” Turkey is obviously anxious about the recognition efforts, while the Armenian side is worried about the possibility of unfulfilled expectations. The French academic Marian was talking at a panel organized by the foreign policy forum of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, which also hosted Asbed Kotchikian from Bentley University and Stepan Grigoryan, the chairman of a Yerevan-based think tank.

According to Kotchikian, 2015 will be no different to 2014.

Still, no matter what happens in April 2015, we need to continue talking about the issue, which has two dimensions: Turkish–Armenian relations on the one hand, and on the other hand the Armenian genocide issue.

In the words of Grigoryan, (and it is very encouraging to know that this has not gone unnoticed in Yerevan), “Turkey’s attitude has undergone some noticeable changes.” Nothing is more demonstrative of this fact than the message of condolence issued by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on April 23 this year.

There has been a transition from total denial to the acknowledgment that something terrible and tragic happened. Yet Turkey, be it at the government or at the society level, is still far from accepting the word genocide. So can agreeing on some other term for what happened open the way for a permanent reconciliation?

No, says Marian. “Armenians are emotionally linked to the word, which saved them from disappearance,” he said, noting that Armenia was behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and the Armenian diaspora was scattered all across the world. The word was able to unite the diaspora.

While there is a worldwide acceptance of the 1915 events as genocide, Armenians are disappointed that this has not triggered legal action. It is this frustration that has led them to concentrate on enacting laws to criminalize deniers.

However, despite this disappointment underlined by Marian, the new generations are prepared for the next step. According to Kotchikian, this involves “reparation and restitution” - two words that will send shivers to Turks if they were to be evoked by an official recognition by Turkey. Still, it was unimaginable 10 years ago to think that a Turkish prime minister would issue a message of condolence in April. Taboos about reparation and restitution can also be broken in Turkey.

Meanwhile, what about Turkey’s relations with Armenia? The genocide issue is less of a priority for Yerevan. It is probably also of secondary importance for Turkey, because while normalization with Armenia might slow down the diaspora’s genocide recognition efforts, it will not stop them altogether.

For Ankara, Nagorno-Karabakh and relations with Azerbaijan remain the keys to normalization. Ankara wants to see progress on the Azerbaijani front in order to open its borders with Armenia. However, this view has been challenged by Ünal Çeviköz, who until a few months ago was Turkey’s ambassador to the U.K. The former diplomat, who played a critical role in the 2009 reconciliation efforts with Armenia, claims that keeping the borders closed has not pushed Yerevan to compromise on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. “An open border would be a more influential leverage compared to a closed one,” he writes in an article published in today’s Hürriyet Daily News.

His views will certainly be challenged, but what is important is to keep up constructive debates on the issue.