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The Caucasus Triangle and Taksim Square

The Caucasus Triangle and Taksim Square

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This policy brief examines current and possible future relations between Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
This policy brief examines current and possible future relations between Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Apr 13, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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In early 2012,three developments involving Armenia and Azerbaijan revealedthe entanglement of Turkishidentity divides and strategiccalculations.The citizens of Turkey are now engaged in anintense questioning of the paststate action against differentethnic, religious, and ideologicalcommunities. While Westernpoliticians play into genocidediplomacy with parliamentaryresolutions and the like, theyalso pressure Turkey to open itsborder with Armenia. The politicalleadership in Ankara can eitherframe the challenges posed fromEast and West as an opportunityfor progress or as an attack onTurkish honor and Muslim dignity.But Western democracies needto caution against perpetuating the self-defeating paradigms of vengeance.
 The Caucasus Triangle and Taksim Square
by Diba Nigar Göksel
April 13, 2012
, DC
In the rst couple o months o 2012, three developments involvingArmenia and Azerbaijan played outon Istanbul’s aksim Square, revealingthe entanglement o urkish identity divides and strategic calculations.Behind the clashes o historical narra-tives and identity lie power show-downs that also extended into WesternEurope and the United States.Tough urkey can take the lead, giventhe complexity o currents, sustain-able paradigm shis will require allinvolved parties, be they urkey’sEastern neighbors or Western counter-parts, to also play their part. Tis tangotakes not only two, but three, our, andoccasionally more.
Divided for Justice with Three Events
On January 19, 2012 a commemora-tion o the h anniversary o thekilling o urkish journalist o Arme-nian descent, Hrant Dink, was heldin aksim, the traditional center ordissent in urkey. Te court had ruled,at the end o the murder trial, thatthere was not enough evidence toprove that the deendants were part o an organized criminal organization,thus the convictions were only orindividual crimes (with light sentences,at that), and the power structureswithin the state were “acquitted” o any responsibility. Given the placardsreading “We are all Hrant, we are allArmenians,” the protest was perceivedby (and accordingly scorned by) theurkish nationalist “main street,” aswell as by observers in Azerbaijan, asan act o solidarity with Armeniansper se. Meanwhile, cynical Armenians view such expressions o solidarity rom urkish civil society as showcasesaimed at averting urther genociderecognition in third countries.On January 23, 2012, the FrenchSenate passed a bill criminalizing thedenial o the term “genocide” to labelthe ethnic cleansing o Armenians inAnatolia in and around 1915 underOttoman urkish rule. Te bill severely dampened the enthusiasm — already limited to a relatively narrow segmento society — to engage in constructivedebate about this page o history.
TeFrench legislation also exacerbated theperception o European discriminationagainst urks, reducing the already scarce advocates o EU-related reorm
The repercussions of this bill, which had passed thelower chamber of the French legislature in the previousmonth, have been analyzed in depth by articles by IlterTuran in the
On Turkey 
On Turkey 
On Turkey 
, IlterTuran, March 30, 3012.
Though myopic perspectives onall involved sides were depicted inthe three events, taken togetherthey reveal the complexities athand, and may accordingly triggersobering reality checks.
in urkey. Besides challenging its inuence in the MiddleEast and North Arica region, Ankara questioned theimpartiality o France as co-chair o the Minsk group, whichmediates negotiations o the Karabakh conict. Ironically,Azerbaijanis were accused in the urkish public debate o supposedly not doing enough to counteract the initiatives o the Armenian lobby. Over a month later, the French Consti-tutional Court ruled that the legislation criminalizing thedenial o the term “genocide” to describe the 1915 massa-cres was unconstitutional, annulling the bill on the basis o protecting reedom o expression.On February 26, 2012, a commemoration o Azerbaijaniswho lost their lives as a result o Armenian violence in theKhojali district during the Nagorno-Karabakh war 20 yearsprevious took place in aksim Square. Te protest gatheredtogether urks rom various walks o lie rustrated withthe lack o attention — not only in the West but also amongsegments o the urkish intellectual elite- to the predica-ment o Azerbaijan. Te advocacy o the past ew years,also joined by liberal pro-Western segments o urkish civilsociety, or the opening o the urkish-Armenian borderhas inamed the sense o Western hypocrisy among thosesensitive to the plight o Azerbaijanis. Te commemorationtook the orm o a protest o the French vote, as well as a“counter-commemoration” to the Dink commemoration. Asthe crowd walked towards aksim Square, a black wreathwas placed in ront o the French consulate; some subse-quently threw eggs and shoes at the building. Eventuallprovocateur ultra-nationalists in the crowd stole the showby displaying racist phrases about Armenians on banners,which perpetuated urkish liberals’ existing prejudice-ridden association o all Azerbaijani causes with urkicnationalist radicals.
Looking at the Backstage of Divided Justice
Tough myopic perspectives on all involved sides weredepicted in the three events, taken together they reveal thecomplexities at hand, and may accordingly trigger soberingreality checks. Te crowd protesting the verdict o the Dink trial included a wide range o disgruntled urkish citizensprotesting legacies o impunity, shady networks aliatedwith authorities, a stale judiciary system, discriminatory national identity conceptions, and other obstacles to seekingtruth and ostering democratization in the country. Unlikethe narrow views taken rom across the border, urkishdemands or justice regarding the Dink murder is neithersolidarity with Armenia nor an efort to deect genocideresolutions in third countries. It is about urkish democ-racy.Te citizens o urkey are now engaged in an intensequestioning o the past state action against diferent ethnic,religious, and ideological communities through oral history publications, public debates, and even court trials. Tiswould otherwise be an opportune time to also take upArmenian history more progressively. However, this pros-pect has been delivered a blow by the eforts o Armenianlobbies to create an unavorable opinion o urks world-wide. As was witnessed in the reactions to the French bill,bitterness is amassing in urkey, dampening the appetite oroutreach to Armenian counterparts among urkish mediaand civil society, and in some cases, merging with the rus-tration over neglect o the plight and rights o Azerbaijan.Despite the controversy it provoked, the Khojali massacrecommemoration in Istanbul, and the intense press coveragethat surrounded it, was a useul highlight o the need orurkish activists and analysts to address their Azerbaijanicounterparts more consistently. Having sufered rom war,occupation and displacement only 20 years ago, Azerbai- jans troubled people need (and demand) their voices tobe heard. o the degree that this country has developeddestructive patterns to channel their resentment, and ithas increasingly more economic means to do so, respon-sible urkish intellectuals should try to engage with theirAzerbaijani counterparts more consistently, with a viewto guiding them progressively. Scorning and dismissingAzerbaijani nationalist sensitivities while at the same time
It is unrealistic to expect that thedebate of Armenian history inAnatolia will open up in any way
that is not gradual and tful.
accusing Baku o not standing up or urkey’s nationalistagenda enough is contradictory and pushes Baku decision-makers even urther rom progressive ways to advocatetheir interests.However the commemoration also triggered red ags onthe urkish side. Te media reaction against the hateulslogans, and the initialization in Ankara o legal actionagainst protestors who held racist banners, depicted demo-cratic reexes against hate speech. Tis was an importantprecedent setting limits to reedom o expression. I suchresponses are also replicated in cases o racist writtenexpression and rallies against urks and Azerbaijanis indiferent corners o the world, sustaining such standards inurkey will also be politically more viable.It was not only solidarity but also reciprocity between Bakuand Ankara that was on display on aksim Square that day.As Ankara had called on Azerbaijani political capital tosway Paris, Baku expected political capital rom Ankara orits Karabakh commemoration. Accordingly, the interiorminister o urkey was present at the occasion, delivering aery speech.Te Khojali commemoration was part o a larger eforton Baku’s part to demonstrate that the status quo o theKarabakh stalemate is not sustainable. Tis activism is alsoa backlash to the Armenian lobby wars around the world,which have driven home the message that interests andresources dene whose truth is noticed.While Western politicians play into genocide diplomacy with parliamentary resolutions and the like, they also pres-sure urkey to open its border with Armenia — which hasinamed the urkish public and may risk economic andstrategic realignments, which would work against the inter-ests o urkey’s leaders.
Such pressure rom the West disre-gards some o the variables at hand and backres, puttingurkey and Azerbaijan in the same deensive position.Now, at the expense o its own moral higher ground andto supposedly “deserve” urkey’s keeping its border closedwith Armenia, Azerbaijan has taken on the burden o deending the urkish position on 1915 at internationalplatorms. Like an arms race, each side leverages its respec-
Nigar Goksel, “Turkish Policy Towards Caucasus: A Balance Sheet of the Balancing Act,”EDAM Black Sea Discussion Paper Series 2011/1, November 2011
tive assets — diaspora clout, money, and strategic power —to amass against its adversary.At this time, it is unrealistic to expect that the debate o Armenian history in Anatolia will open up in any way thatis not gradual and tul, particularly given the internationaldimensions o the process — such as the genocide resolu-tions, the ears o reparation demands, and the aggrievedAzerbaijanis. Te approach o 2015, the 100
anniversary o the tragedy, is likely to only aggravate the restrictive climateo debate, on all sides.Looking beyond 2015, with a longer-term approach, it iscrucial that urkey proceed to internalize the spirit o itsreormed laws, rerain rom eeding into the cycle o nation-alist rhetoric, reconceive notions o citizenship withoutethnic ocus, and teach responsible narratives o its ownhistory to the next generation. Tis is vital to open the spaceor critical thinking in Armenia and Azerbaijan as well.
The Weight of Strategic Depth
Tese three events, as well as the debates surroundingthem, portrayed how urkey’s quest or strategic depthis entrenched in complex links with its neighbors and itsdemocratization.Due to its relatively advanced civil society, democraticreedoms, EU candidacy, and strategic weight, urkey isexpected to take the lead in setting new and positive para-digms with its neighbors. Tis responsibility is sometimesperceived as an inequity to urks but is part and parcel o itsown ambitious claims, and can also be viewed as recogni-tion o urkey’s “central country” credentials.But is urkey living up to these claims, in terms o intel-lectual and political leadership? As long as Ankara caters topopulism, the Azerbaijani reex will be geared to appealingto these same social dynamics, and the Armenian reex

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