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Between dream and realism : for a new Armenian-Turkish dialogue

  Standpoint of Diaspora

Between Dream and Realism : For a New Armenian-Turkish Dialogue

Tigran Yegavian


Tigran Yegavian

French journalist

On 30th May 2014, an editorial was published simultaneously in Turkey, France, Armenia and Italy under the title “Let’s have a dream together.” Signed jointly by French personalities of Armenian descent and Turkish intellectuals, it revived interest in the Armenian-Turkish dialogue, which had seemed asleep for years. Besides echoing the famous speech of Afro-American pastor Martin Luther King in its plea for reconciliation, it clearly thinks the Armenian question as a dream-like projection, overlooking the fact that, at this juncture, such a dialogue cannot write a new page of our history if it keeps ignoring the Armenian complexities as well as the deep issues at stake.

A message in a bottle

Calling on the Turkish State to end its politics of denial of the 1915 genocide, the signatories expressed support for the breakthroughs achieved in Turkey in the wake of Hrant Dink’s assassination. A powerful token of change, the date of April 24th is now commemorated in the largest cities of Turkey. Since 2007, more and more Armenians from Armenia and from the Diaspora have been travelling to Yerkir (Eastern Armenia, now in Turkey) in search of their roots. There have been innumerable university colloquiums, cultural events and restorations of Armenian churches. Meanwhile the contents of the weekly AGOS has gained in professionalism, and its dynamism is also felt in the publications and the quality programmes of the Hrant Dink Foundation. What a leap forward from the times of the pioneers! Those days are over when tentative steps towards acknowledging the Genocide were taken solely by Kurdish-Turks of the radical left led by a handful of figureheads. Remember the Zarakolu couple, Sait Çetinoğlu, Doğan Özgüden, Yelda Özcan, recap Marasli, Taner Akçam in Turkey, Jean-Claude Kebabdjian of the CRDA (Center for Research and Documentation on the Armenian Diaspora) and the ACCORT and Biz Miasin organization in France. At the time, ambitions were limited to trying to defuse hatred.

Granted, some proposals contained in that editorial against revisionism carry weight. The idea is to initiate some “serious memorial work.” Concerning the blockade of the Armenian State, the suggestion is made of solving the deadlock by allowing Armenia free access to a few ports on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Regarding Mount Ararat, the powerful link between the material and the spiritual realities of Armenia, our petitioning friends agree to make it a large UNESCO World Heritage nature reserve, “open like a sort of free zone that Turks and Armenians will maintain together. This place going back to the origins of humanity will become a beacon of peace.” This rather seems like a quixotic proposal, as naïve as it is inviting. 

Although moved by unquestionable sincerity, the appeal is also launched by the signatories at a time when Ankara has never been more distant from the mirage of signing into the European Union. Therefore, what is the clout or weight of that disappearing handful of democratic and Europhile intellectuals who have become inaudible in the midst of the new rising class of Conservative Islamic Turks from the “Anatolian heartland”?

Hrant Dink’s poisoned legacy

As this paper’s title suggests, seven years after Hrant Dink’s violent death, we are still stuck at the dreaming stage. There is no denying that, with his passion for lyrical metaphors, Hrant Dink had in his lifetime given a jolt to the traditional divides. Through his Turkish-language newspaper outlet, he woke up his community from its half-sleep by making his voice and his issues resound in the Turkish public space that was locked by the military-Kemalist dogma. Thanks to his awesome communication tool, he also contributed to letting the Diaspora and Armenia know about the changes that were happening in the Turkish society. The action he led in the limelight was meaningful and significant at the time when the European Union issue was being considered in Turkey. The exceptional stature of that advocate turned martyr of democratization of the Turkish society and friendship between the peoples is therefore unquestionable. 

However, in hindsight, it should be noted that the outcome of his action was mitigated. Humanizing the figure of the Armenian of Turkey, traditionally seen as an abhorred pariah, was done at a cost – that of making the activism of the Armenian Diaspora look extremist or even anti-Turk. In that respect, political parties and pro-Turkish intellectual relays in Europe have largely contributed to disseminating the message of that “Turkish journalist of Armenian descent,” who brought change in the right sense of history. In the face of this almost binary representation of the Armenian world and without a unified and effective communication channel, how could the Diaspora be heard and avoid being steamrolled by the burning issue of Turkey’s projected candidacy to join the European Union? In a context of democratic euphoria, the Turkish and European pro-joining militants managed to cleverly highlight the dream, while casting a thick veil of appealing promises on the nature of the real stakes of an Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. Snapped up by all the good wills, but also by all sorts of opportunists, Hrank Dink had become a symbol – almost an ideal pretext – that neutralized the now inaudible voice of the Armenian Diaspora. Then, after his assassination, the competition to appropriate the legacy of the martyr turned fierce. For instance, a Turkish intellectual such as Baskin Oran pretended that Dink was Anatolian before being Armenian (on radio programme “Cartes sur table” of AYP FM of January 20 janvier 2007) while, in Armenia, the idolatry and hasty comparisons with heroes of the national Armenian pantheon became habitual.

Turkish democracy and the Armenian cause: two links in the same chain?

Today, the Diaspora is only discovering that fantasized Turkey with a singular mix of feelings – the same people afraid of hearing the crackling of bones under their feet are nevertheless rushing to that Armenian Wild East. Countless artists and intellectuals have made the trip to Yerkir. Surfing the wave of dialogue triggered by the Hrant Dink tsunami effect, Diaspora artists have made the back-to-the-roots theme a trendy subject while, in Paris, thinker Michel Marian has engaged in a risky exercise of genteel dialogue with university colleague Ahmet Insel on the subject of the “Armenian taboo.” Once in Istanbul, it is impossible for those intellectuals not to pay a visit to the lovely publishing offices of Agos and the Hrank Dink Foundation, and sometimes to the Aras publishing house. From these increasingly frequent exchanges between a budding Diaspora civil society and the “Armenian progressives in Istanbul” came a disquieting realization: from now on, the traditional themes of the Armenian cause (ensuring security of existing territories, obtaining recognition of and reparations for the damages caused by the Genocide, lifting of the Armenian blockade, etc.) are no longer seen as priorities. “Make place now for the dream and the fraternal utopia!” seems to be today’s catchword. But although the goal of normalizing relationships between Armenians and Turks requires serious memorial work to be done, no-one has yet opened the debate on where to situate islamized Armenians and their ties to an Armenian identity which now seems to have rather porous boundaries.

The Armenian question has thus been included as just another link in a long chain of oppressed fraternities in Anatolia who are now moved by the same ideal of peace, mutual understanding and tolerance. Although acknowledged as such, the enormity of the genocidal fact has been trivialized, as if sacrificed on the altar of a show of reconciliation. Besides how the Hrant Dink figure was picked up by a now disappearing fringe of white-Turk and Europhile Istanbul intelligentsia, the perverse effects of that slanted dialogue should be underlined – in particular, the relativist view that all nationalisms are alike, which is asymmetrical because it ignores that the raison d’être of Armenian activism in the Diaspora is essentially a reaction to revisionism. To demand a universal condemnation of all nationalisms leads to a sort of balancing out of the victims on both sides – those of the Genocide and those of the Armenian terrorist attacks of the 1970s and 80s. That same asymmetry has led Turkish-Armenian journalist Markar Essayan to writing an editorial in which he apologizes “in the name of the victims of ASALA” (Taraf, 18th December 2008) as if in response to the appeal for forgiveness initiated by liberal Turkish intellectual. In the same frame of mind, the widely publicized declarations of Agos editor Rober Koptas on the massacres in Khodjalu during the Karabakh war have shocked and even outraged many Armenians worldwide.

A new deal in Turkey

The Armenian democrats in Turkey, just like their liberal Turkish mentors, seem to be relying since 2007 on a cushy position of sympathy. Playing on emotions rather than reflection, Hrant Dink’s spiritual heirs are drawing to excess on a capital of legitimacy compromised by the new political power game in Turkey. After neutralizing any threat from Turkish generals, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has laid the basis for a new Muslim-Kemalist synthesis and mostly, by taking a repressive turn, has broken the tacit pact it had sealed with liberal and Europhile Turkish intellectuals. As the prospect of entering the EU was waning, the authoritarian turn taken in 2009 was later confirmed, ruining all the hopes raised by the new breath of social democratization. The waning of the European dream was a key moment because Turkish proponents of a rapprochement with Diaspora Armenians and Armenians from Armenia were forced to choose their camp. And one can only observe that these Turkish intellectuals are still fighting each other at the doorstep of the narrow passageway allowed by the AKP. Which political position will they take in response to an increasingly impossible situation? How can the Armenian-Turkish dialogue progress? The divorce between Turkish intellectuals and the AKP State is a stumbling block preventing future breakthroughs. Meanwhile, Armenians in Istanbul are struggling to find a new leader capable of pursuing the work of Hrant Dink or Patriarch Mesrob Mutafian, who is gravely ill. Without an agenda besides the demand for democratization of Turkish society and alignment on the policies of pro-Kurds of Turkey (BDP and HDP), progressive Armenians find it hard to convince the Diaspora about their long-term goals as well as their social project.

The modernist illusion

Although Turkish society has changed, behind the modern and progressive façade of AGOS or the Hrank Dink Foundation, the Millet1 system is still very much the palpable daily reality of the Armenian minority in Turkey. How else can the persistence of a second-rate citizenship for non-Muslim minorities in Turkey be explained? Why should there still be conflicts about those religious endowments called waqf in Muslim law, which still poison relationships between the State and the Armenian community, even fracturing that very community? It remains a genuine challenge, since no Armenian figure in Turkey has so far been able to answer those issues crucial to asserting the permanence of an Armenian identity in Turkey within a fully democratic framework. It is as though, in spite of the upheavals of the past decade, being Armenian in Turkey still remained inextricably linked to the concept of a “protected minority.”

Some paths of reflection towards defining a new framework

In the face of that deadlock, it is clearly urgent that a most pragmatic approach be taken by the four players in that dialogue – the Turks and Kurds on the one hand, the Armenians from Armenia and from the Diaspora on the other. The still fledgling Turkish and Armenian civil societies must become aware of the limitations of castle-in-the-air political fables. To this end, the Diaspora descended from Ottoman Armenians must come out of their quarantine and step boldly into the Turkish public space – into the media arena, universities, and cultural life of Turkey. It should master communication skills and offer alternatives to the reductive caricature of the Dashnak extremist or leftist intellectual. However, in order for that project to materialize, two major obstacles will have to be overcome. Firstly, a thorough reflection on and critical assessment of the real stakes of the Armenian-Turkish dialogue should be carried out. So far, political or religious structures such as the Dashnak, Hunchak, and Ramgavar parties, the UGAB (Union Générale de Bienfaisance), the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, etc. have not been able to initiate such a reflection or assessment.

Secondly – and this will undoubtedly be harder – the Diaspora should manage to have their Turkish discussion partners accept that solving the Armenian question cannot be painless for them or their country. It was interesting to observe that, during a trip to Turkey organized in 2011 by the Yerkir Europe NGO, a delegation of young journalists from the Diaspora heard from two Turkish intellectuals then close to the Justice and Development Party that “from Turkey’s point of view, the main problem is not the recognition of the Genocide but the stakes involved by reparations.” In other words, in spite of revisionist propaganda, Turks already tend to tacitly recognize the reality of the extermination of the Ottoman Armenian people.

Besides, although at that meeting, those same journalists were invited to disseminate the views of liberal Turkish intellectuals among the Diaspora, their request to be granted a window of expression such as a regular column in a large Turkish daily newspaper was met with a rebuke. This bitter state of things makes it necessary to break out of small circles of academics and artists in order to bring the dialogue in the open, across the fragmented reality of the larger civil society.

However, as enticing as the sirens of the brotherly ideal may be, the absence of an overall view of the multiple aspects of the Armenian question, the systematic barring of the key-playing Diaspora, and the handling of the new political deal in Turkey remain overwhelming challenges. Let’s hope that to a lopsided dream will be substituted the foundation for a new dialogue aware of the complexities of the real world. 


1 - The Turkish term Millet refers to a legally protected religious community. It also concerned the minorities of the Ottoman Empire. The Millets implemented Ottoman control over the peoples living in them through organized religious institutions whose dignitaries were appointed by Ottoman rulers. Language could play a part, but a Millet was mostly defined by religious denomination.


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