Turks and Armenians have lived side by side for hundreds of years in peace and harmony. Today, Turkey and Armenia need to realize that it is in their best interests to revive their relations and form neighborly ties with each other
Almost a year ago, in April 2014, an important breakthrough took place in the case of disputes over historical narratives between Turkey and Armenia. For the first time in the Republic of Turkey's history, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan released a statement of condolence in regards to the events that took place in 1915. The statement was paving the way for a paradigm change in Turkish-Armenian relations. The spirit of this letter is still alive and the potential for reconciliation, despite all the odds, still does exist. However time is of the essence. Before it is too late, the two nations need to rescue their relationship and turn history into an element that unites them instead of one that divides.
In a week that will be occupied by the debates on historical narratives, collective memories and relations between Turkey and Armenia, it is important to remember this statement and its potential to reconcile the differences and disputes between the two countries. The statement that was released by the Prime Minister's office in April 2014, stressed important steps needed for the reparation of ties. It represented a paradigm shift in three ways. First of all, the statement highlighted the shared pain that Turks, Armenians as well as millions of other citizens experienced in the First World War. This was a new perspective from which to approach the incidents that took place at this fateful turning point of history, and provided a common ground for Turks and Armenians to rebuild their relations. In this statement, Erdoğan said, "Any conscientious, fair and humanistic approach to these issues requires an understanding of all the sufferings endured in this period, without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity. Certainly, neither constructing hierarchies of pain nor comparing and contrasting suffering carries any meaning for those who experienced this pain themselves.... It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period, just like every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire."
A second important dimension of the letter was breaking the taboo of the Turkish politicians to avoid talking about these incidents. Instead, Erdoğan encouraged historians and researchers to debate and discuss these issues pertaining to the events of 1915 in a pluralistic and open manner. He mentioned this argument by saying that "In Turkey, expressing different opinions and thoughts freely on the events of 1915 is the requirement of a pluralistic society, as well as of a culture of democracy and modernity. Some may perceive this climate of freedom in Turkey as an opportunity to express accusatory, offensive and even provocative assertions and allegations. Even so, if this will enable us to better understand historical issues with their legal aspects and to transform resentment into friendship again, it is natural to approach different discourses with empathy and tolerance and expect a similar attitude from all sides."
Finally then, Prime Minister Erdoğan took a dramatic step forward regarding the events and extended his condolences to the grandchildren of the Armenians who lost their lives in 1915 events. Erdoğan also warned that both Armenians and Turks need to be careful about those who try to use these historical events to incite hostility and those groups who attempt to turn the issue into a political conflict.
Those who know the history of the contestation of the narratives on the 1915 events considered this statement as a potential facilitator of reconciliation between the two nations. For the last few years, the government has been taking significant steps in order to repair its ties with non-Muslim communities living in Turkey. For example, as part of a major reform process, in 2011 the Turkish government amended the Law on Foundations and expanded the property rights of these foundations around Turkey. The reform included the return of the properties of non-Muslim communities, including Armenian foundations and churches. Among those foundations whose properties were returned included the Yedikule Surp Pirgic Hospital Foundation and the Diyarbakir Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation. Even before this reform took place, the government had already ordered the restoration and renovation of historical structures with religious importance. Akdamar Armenian Church was probably one of the most significant of these structures. In addition, there were significant renovation and restoration projects carried out throughout Turkey: the Armenian Supr Giragos Church in Diyarbakir was restored and opened for religious services, the Surp Vortvots Vorotman Church was restored, and several building in the Armenian Cemetery in Malatya were rebuilt during this process. These developments were also acknowledged by the USCIRF in its reports.
The return of properties and rights were not the only developments. In the last few years, with the increasing democratization and opening up of society, there appeared a larger space for the discussions of the 1915 events in Turkey. The words, concepts and discussions that were considered taboo previously, began to be discussed and debated freely in Turkey. Universities started to organize conferences bringing together researchers, intellectuals and historians from different ideological viewpoints. Various books were published about the 1915 events. Together with these discussions, an optimism about a possible solution to this problem also emerged rapidly in the country. As a result, when the above-mentioned statement was released, people from different walks of life acknowledged that two nations that had lived side by side for hundreds of years needed to mend their ties by remembering each other's tragedies together.
These steps can seem insignificant to some, but for those who understand the nature of the dispute, each and every one of these steps was revolutionary. However, the call of the Turkish government was not responded to positively on the Armenian side. This has the potential to generate a serious problem for finding a resolution to the conflict, since the failure of this process will make it extremely difficult for Turkish policymakers in the future to take such initiatives. Although the letter has not been responded to positively yet, the doors for reconciliation are not totally closed. Both countries that have lived side by side for hundreds of years need to realize that it is in their best interests to revive their relations and to form neighborly ties with each other. The last one hundred years of confrontation, dispute and struggle, especially in Western capitals, did not bring any good to these two nations. In such a volatile region of the world, both nations need the support, friendship, and open doors of their neighbors. Brave policymakers who are able to persuade the hardliners to benefit from reconciliation, and who can challenge those that resist this process by building an active and attentive civil society, can protect and develop a reconciliation. If the international community genuinely cares about the region and the people, they can play a role by contributing to this process of reconciliation and facilitating dialogue and conversation between Turkey and Armenia.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.