The break up of the Ottoman Empire left behind a poisoned atmosphere that should no longer influence the relationship between region’s countries
World War I left deep scars on the lives of the people of the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Although it was a worldwide war that influenced the lives of hundreds of millions people, the epicenter of tragedies and conflicts was mostly in these regions that suffered the aftershocks. That is, the fault lines that the war created were felt more frequently and strongly in these regions. Millions of residences of these regions died and tens of millions of them were displaced. The stories of these tragedies spread to different parts of the world as a result of people who fled abroad. They carried these tragedies in their hearts to their new homes, while those who remained reproduced these memories every day in their stories, elegies, arts and prayers. Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks and all the other subjects of the Ottoman Empire experienced similar pains and traumas, and felt the same nostalgia and melancholy in different ways. The scars of World War I have never really healed. They have become part of the collective memories of these people.
The inability of the countries that were formed out of the former territories of the Ottoman Empire to reconcile their national histories led to the constant inflammation of revenge politics in these countries and poisoned their foreign relations with one another. Instead of contributing to the restoration of relations and formations of ties, many politicians preferred to constantly reopen past wounds and incite hostilities toward one another, mostly in order to gain legitimacy and domestic support. International polarization, such as the ideological divisions that the Cold War brought to this part of the world, together with a lack of democratic regimes and open societies, contributed to the consolidation of taboos, opportunistic uses of past traumas and mobilizations of the public in these countries against each other.
Revenge seeking and opportunistic groups made the tragedies and pain of World War I a rallying ground for their self-serving ideologies, and lobbyists made it a source of revenue for their companies. Different historical narratives prepared and taught by different countries educated generations, instilling prejudices and xenophobia. While some gained legitimacy, others gained money and self-satisfaction from these disputes, but meanwhile, ordinary people always lose the opportunities of friendship and neighborly relations. The ambitions of some constrained the freedom of others to abandon misperception, misunderstandings and mischaracterization of one another. The traumas that could bring countries together and should become lessons in order to prevent the emergence of another set of tragedies and conflicts in the region are instead used by some to feed hostilities.
While these historical problems have become undisputed sources of animosity in the region, and while they already shape and control foreign relations, important developments have taken place in Turkey over the last two decades, mostly as a result of the increasing opening up of public space, which opened a window of opportunity for a new era for the politics of the region.
One of the first steps that challenged the role of historical disputes to shape relations took place between Turkey and Greece. It took another major tragedy to bring these two countries together. Greece and Turkey started to improve their ties in the aftermath of the earthquakes that took place in these countries one after another in 1999. The support of Greek rescue teams for Turkish victims and the rapid assistance by Turkish aid workers for Greek victims demolished misperceptions and stereotypes that were established between the two countries during their respective formation process of their modern nation-states. In a very short period of time, people on both sides of the border started to understand that the ghosts of the past should not lead or shape foreign policy. The two countries improved their ties and social and cultural interactions dramatically increased. People realized that they were struggling with enemies that they had created in their imaginations through heavy indoctrination. Both Turks and Greeks won from the new state of relations.
Later, another major break that would challenge one of the most established misperceptions took place during Turkey's opening toward the Middle East. For decades Arabs considered Turkey an imperialist power and Turkey never forgot the "betrayal by the Arabs" of Turks in World War I. The ideological polarization in the world and the constant reproduction and remembrance of the traumas of the past kept these societies, which suffered equally during the war, apart from each other. Turkey's opening up to the Middle East, which has accelerated over the last 13 years, destroyed most of these misconceptions and stereotypes. Again, in a very short period of time, people from both side of the border realized how political borders established artificial boundaries between people. Trade and social relations improved rapidly between the countries. Turkish soap operas, even those based on the Ottoman Empire and the lives of Ottoman sultans, became some of the most watched shows in the Middle East. Tourists, students, businessmen and investors started to travel across these borders. Again, both Turks and Arabs benefitted from this new opening. These openings took place even between Serbia and Turkey, despite the tragedy in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and the more recent instances of tragic events in Bosnia and Kosovo. The opening brought increasing social and economic interactions between the countries, which could not be even contemplated a decade or so ago.
Of course these openings and changes in relations did not cause people to forget the past or stop remembering their tragedies. Instead, they began to remember them together. They became more open to understand and recognize the other's pain. In the most part, they stopped comparing each other's pains and grievances. Instead, the concept of shared pain started to circulate around the region.
All of the improvements in relations of these countries, despite serious historical disputes, generated a win-win situation for all countries involved and the region as a whole. These openings did not take place at the expense of a different country or group of people. For instance, while restoring relations with the Arab world, Turkey did not make this restoration at the expense of Turkey's relations with Israel. Until 2009, Turkey was actually trying to mediate disputes between Israel and Syria and was facilitating indirect talks. Again, while Turkey was improving relations with Serbia it also brought benefits for the resolution of some of the disputes between Bosnia and Serbia. Both people and countries won greatly as a result of the openings. Neither Serbian nationalism nor anti-Turkish Arab nationalism disappeared totally. There are some people in Turkey who still use the discourse of the previous decades in their approach to Turkey's neighbors. However, as these openings brought new groups of people together with constant interactions, people who can challenge misconceptions and decrease misunderstandings, these groups are becoming more marginal and less relevant in determining bilateral relations between countries.
Now, in the 100th-year anniversary of major events for both Turks and Armenians, it is time to follow this process and try something different in the relations between these two countries and people. The pattern of the last century brought no benefits for either one. The status quo of the debates on history only led to fighting by lobbyists and the estrangement of societies. The revenge-seeking groups on both sides ran the show and encouraged the majority of the public to rally around their flags. Now it is time for moderates and for those who want to have a new phase of relations between Turkey and Armenia, and Turks and Armenians, to be at least as courageous, at least as persistent and at least as powerful as the groups that hijacked their histories and relations. Instead of creating barriers and boundaries, and instead of being a foreign policy tool for third parties, history should be a bridge to bring countries in this region closer to each other.
It is important to say one more time that the statement of condolence by the-then prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, needs to be remembered and utilized in the reconciliation of Armenians and Turks. A positive response to this statement will empower and mobilize those who are trying to change the course of events. If Turks and Armenians take these steps together, the two countries can form a strong relationship with their cultural affinity and geographical proximity. And who knows, if things go well with the help of courageous politicians and an active and dedicated civil society, the issue may become a source of inspiration in the future for other countries that suffer from similar historical antagonism. There is nothing bad about being an optimist, especially when there are so many opportunities.
* Assistant Professor of Political Science, Penn State University
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.