Polarization in Turkish politics bars daring steps on Armenian tragedy

Polarization in Turkish politics bars daring steps on Armenian tragedy

Polarization in Turkish politics bars daring steps on Armenian tragedy

Volkan Vural, who served in several capitals as Turkey’s envoy, is one of the first former state officials to argue openly for an apology for the deportation of the Armenians and the loss of human life. HÜRRİYET photos, Emre Yunusoğlu

The Armenian diaspora’s efforts for the recognition of the World War I mass killings as genocide will not have much impact on Turkey’s stance, said a former Turkish diplomat.

Turkish society, however, is ready for bold steps as there is an increasing awareness that something very tragic happened in 1915, said retired Ambassador Volkan Vural, who is currently a member of the executive board of the Turkish Business and Industry Association (TÜSİAD). At the same time, Turkey’s polarized environment is not conducive for a healthy debate on the issue, Vural told the Hürriyet Daily News.

We are again at the time of the year when Armenians commemorate the World War I mass killings of their Ottoman-era ancestors which they see as genocide. What do you expect will happen this year?

Not much. I don’t think it is possible to take up the issue in the polarized environment and the electoral period we are in in Turkey. It would not be healthy anyway. We can’t have a rational discussion in this kind of polarized environment. 

It is for sure that there will be much more Armenian activities next year as Armenians are preparing for the centenary. But I am not sure whether these will have an impact. In fact, they are counterproductive. It helps neither the Armenian nor the Turkish cause. They bring more harm than benefit because it creates a reaction in Turkey. This issue can be solved only among Armenians and Turks alone. The international community cannot contribute to finding reconciliation between the two sides.

We have to find a mutual ground of understanding among ourselves. There are tens of thousands of people that have suffered. They were our citizens. There is a huge suffering and loss and it is not only a loss for Armenians but for us as well. We need to approach the issue from the humanitarian dimension. But neither the Armenian efforts nor the Turkish situation is conducive for an intelligent discussion of this issue.

But what do you expect will happen in 2015? Do you think the concerns about Armenians’ recognition efforts are serious or exaggerated?

There will be definitely headaches. It will probably poison relations with some countries; not all, but with some like France, the United States to a certain extent and Latin American countries as well. But I don’t think this will be a very disturbing thing for Turkey. I don’t think Turkey will be moved by these demonstrations of solidarity with Armenians. Nothing will change. This danger of 2015 is rather exaggerated because they used most of the material in their hands and it did not lead to much.

But don’t you think there has been an important change in the attitude of the society about the issue?

There has been a dramatic evolution in Turkish society, at least on certain segments. The awareness has increased tremendously and recognition that something bad, something tragic happened is generally being accepted. This is a very positive development and shows the maturity of Turkish society in recognizing these things.

Are you suggesting that the change is dramatic in the sense that even in the recent past there was not an awareness that something bad had happened, let alone anything on the dimension of a genocide?

Correct. We have come a long way. The difference is rather semantic between genocide and major tragedy. I myself don’t recognize genocide but I recognize human tragedy. The word genocide in a way means a philosophical preparation for a thing to happen; when I look at the Ottoman society at that time I don’t see a (perception) of an Armenian threat. In contrast to the Nazi period, I don’t see a build-up of hatred toward Armenians in society. There is evidence that there were more harmonious relations between Armenians and Turks. Then how do we explain what happened? The main reason was the Balkan wars; they created a trauma in Turkish society. The Union and Progress Party leaders saw a new danger emerging but this was not a shared belief for everyone.

To what do you attribute the evolution in Turkish society?

Openness. There was some progress in terms of democratic norms, freedom of expression and so and so forth especially after the recognition of Turkey as a candidate [for the European Union] in 1999. Turkey has embarked on a democratic path of reforms. People started to speak freely; that’s why Turkish society evolved. The contribution of the diaspora toward Turkey’s evolution is minimal. This was internal soul-searching. So to a certain extent, the Armenian diaspora’s efforts have prevented this soul-searching. Once they played a role in passing legislation in certain parliaments, Turkish society became resistant to it.

If I were a member of the Armenian diaspora, I would rather argue that it is those efforts that triggered the soul-searching since the issue was kept under the carpet for years.

I recognize this argument to a certain extent, but I argue this was not their push; this was our own domestic soul-searching. Turkish society is evolving; in this process, [we found out] many issues that we learned from textbooks were not correct. This was not due to Armenians but to the democratization process in Turkey. This was rather a domestic engineering. But in talking about the evolution, it would be wrong to generalize it. It is rather the evolution of the Turkish intelligentsia.

So the evolution is limited to a certain segment of society?

No I don’t think so. I recognize it is not the right time but after the elections and so forth if a Turkish leader comes out and says deportation was something wrong…

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu actually said that.

That means he finds the courage to say that because of the evolution of the Turkish intelligentsia as well.

Don’t you think there has been an evolution in the Turkish stance as well?

Yes, the Turkish official stance has evolved dramatically as well. These were taboo subjects. Once we broke those taboos, people spoke more openly.

So your initial pessimism does not come from the government’s lack of courage on this issue but rather from the polarized environment that we are in?

That’s correct. Everybody has to look at the waters; we have two more elections to come and no one wants to lose the nationalists’ votes. It is difficult to raise it at this time. If they raise this issue and allow a free debate or include it in their agenda, I don’t think the reactions will be negative. The government knows this.

So you think both society and the government has come to the point of taking some bold steps but that the polarized environment is preventing it from happening.

That’s right.

So society is ready for an apology for instance?

Perhaps…When the government signed protocols [to normalize relations] with Armenia, I did not see any opposition at all. The criticism was, “Why did you forget about Azerbaijan?” and it should have somehow addressed the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; this was the reason we closed the border. Unless there is some progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, it will be impossible for any government to go forward.

You stated in the past that Turkey should apologize.

No apology for genocide, but an apology for the deportation that caused human suffering. On the other hand, it should also give some hope to the Armenians: “This is your homeland. You have established lives in other countries, but if you want to come back, this is your home; we recognize your nationality.”

You are perhaps the first former Turkish civil official to argue for an apology and offer citizenship to Armenians.

Probably, I don’t know. Some criticized me, some welcomed me. In general I received a broader support than negativity.

In the past, any effort of the Armenians would cause a big uproar and would make headlines; this is no longer the case. Why is that?

They have depleted most of their material; people have seen that such statements coming from countries do not have an impact on society. We have got used to it. Anything which will happen in 2015 won’t have a dramatic impact on Turkey.
Even official recognition by the U.S.?

No, I don’t think so. Of course, there will be official protests, but I don’t think it would move the world. On the contrary, if the diaspora had opted for a more open dialogue with Turkey, this would have helped. They can find counterparts in Turkish society to work with them so that we can find a mutually acceptable ground for future cooperation.

Who is Volkan Vural


Born is 1941 in Istanbul, Volkan Vural graduated from the University of Ankara’s Political Science Faculty.

He entered the Turkish foreign service in 1964 and served in various departments in the ministry, as well as in Turkish missions in Seoul and Munich.

He worked in NATO’s international secretariat between 1976 and 1982. In 1987 he was appointed as ambassador to Tehran. He also served as Turkish ambassador to the Soviet Union and later Russia (1988-93). Between 1993 and 1995, he worked as the prime minister’s advisor. After working as Turkey’s ambassador to Germany (1995-1998), he then went to New York as Turkey’s permanent representative to the United Nations (1998-2000). Upon his return, he started working as secretary-general for European Union affairs, until 2003, when he was appointed as ambassador to Spain, where he served until 2006, when he retired.

He is currently the adviser to the president of the Doğan group of companies and member of the executive board of the Turkish Business and Industry Association (TÜSİAD). He is also the chairman of TÜSİAD’s foreign relations commission.