April 13, 2012

Summary: In early 2012, three developments involving Armenia and Azerbaijan revealed the entanglement of Turkish identity divides and strategic calculations.The citizens of Turkey are now engaged in an intense questioning of the past state action against different ethnic, religious, and ideological communities. While Western politicians play into genocide diplomacy with parliamentary resolutions and the like, they also pressure Turkey to open its border with Armenia. The political leadership in Ankara can either frame the challenges posed from East and West as an opportunity for progress or as an attack on Turkish honor and Muslim dignity. But Western democracies need to caution against perpetuating the self-defeating paradigms of vengeance.

The Caucasus Triangle and Taksim Square
by Diba Nigar Göksel

In the first couple of months of 2012, three developments involving Armenia and Azerbaijan played out on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, revealing the entanglement of Turkish identity divides and strategic calculations. Behind the clashes of historical narratives and identity lie power showdowns that also extended into Western Europe and the United States. Though Turkey can take the lead, given the complexity of currents, sustainable paradigm shifts will require all involved parties, be they Turkey’s Eastern neighbors or Western counterparts, to also play their part. This tango takes not only two, but three, four, and occasionally more. Divided for Justice with Three Events On January 19, 2012 a commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the killing of Turkish journalist of Armenian descent, Hrant Dink, was held in Taksim, the traditional center for dissent in Turkey. The court had ruled, at the end of the murder trial, that there was not enough evidence to prove that the defendants were part of an organized criminal organization, thus the convictions were only for individual crimes (with light sentences, at that), and the power structures

within the state were “acquitted” of any responsibility. Given the placards reading “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians,” the protest was perceived by (and accordingly scorned by) the Turkish nationalist “main street,” as well as by observers in Azerbaijan, as an act of solidarity with Armenians per se. Meanwhile, cynical Armenians view such expressions of solidarity from Turkish civil society as showcases aimed at averting further genocide recognition in third countries. On January 23, 2012, the French Senate passed a bill criminalizing the denial of the term “genocide” to label the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Anatolia in and around 1915 under Ottoman Turkish rule. The bill severely dampened the enthusiasm — already limited to a relatively narrow segment of society — to engage in constructive debate about this page of history.1 The French legislation also exacerbated the perception of European discrimination against Turks, reducing the already scarce advocates of EU-related reform
1 The repercussions of this bill, which had passed the lower chamber of the French legislature in the previous month, have been analyzed in depth by articles by Ilter Turan in the On Turkey series. See “Legislating History and its Effects on Foreign Policy,” On Turkey, Ilter Turan, January 5, 2012 and “ Back to the Drawing Board: French Armenians and Turkish-French Relations,” On Turkey, Ilter Turan, March 30, 3012.

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in Turkey. Besides challenging its influence in the Middle East and North Africa region, Ankara questioned the impartiality of France as co-chair of the Minsk group, which mediates negotiations of the Karabakh conflict. Ironically, Azerbaijanis were accused in the Turkish public debate of supposedly not doing enough to counteract the initiatives of the Armenian lobby. Over a month later, the French Constitutional Court ruled that the legislation criminalizing the denial of the term “genocide” to describe the 1915 massacres was unconstitutional, annulling the bill on the basis of protecting freedom of expression. On February 26, 2012, a commemoration of Azerbaijanis who lost their lives as a result of Armenian violence in the Khojali district during the Nagorno-Karabakh war 20 years previous took place in Taksim Square. The protest gathered together Turks from various walks of life frustrated with the lack of attention — not only in the West but also among segments of the Turkish intellectual elite- to the predicament of Azerbaijan. The advocacy of the past few years, also joined by liberal pro-Western segments of Turkish civil society, for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border has inflamed the sense of Western hypocrisy among those sensitive to the plight of Azerbaijanis. The commemoration took the form of a protest of the French vote, as well as a “counter-commemoration” to the Dink commemoration. As the crowd walked towards Taksim Square, a black wreath was placed in front of the French consulate; some subsequently threw eggs and shoes at the building. Eventually provocateur ultra-nationalists in the crowd stole the show by displaying racist phrases about Armenians on banners, which perpetuated Turkish liberals’ existing prejudiceridden association of all Azerbaijani causes with Turkic nationalist radicals. Looking at the Backstage of Divided Justice Though myopic perspectives on all involved sides were depicted in the three events, taken together they reveal the complexities at hand, and may accordingly trigger sobering reality checks. The crowd protesting the verdict of the Dink trial included a wide range of disgruntled Turkish citizens protesting legacies of impunity, shady networks affiliated with authorities, a stale judiciary system, discriminatory national identity conceptions, and other obstacles to seeking truth and fostering democratization in the country. Unlike the narrow views taken from across the border, Turkish

Though myopic perspectives on all involved sides were depicted in the three events, taken together they reveal the complexities at hand, and may accordingly trigger sobering reality checks.
demands for justice regarding the Dink murder is neither solidarity with Armenia nor an effort to deflect genocide resolutions in third countries. It is about Turkish democracy. The citizens of Turkey are now engaged in an intense questioning of the past state action against different ethnic, religious, and ideological communities through oral history publications, public debates, and even court trials. This would otherwise be an opportune time to also take up Armenian history more progressively. However, this prospect has been delivered a blow by the efforts of Armenian lobbies to create an unfavorable opinion of Turks worldwide. As was witnessed in the reactions to the French bill, bitterness is amassing in Turkey, dampening the appetite for outreach to Armenian counterparts among Turkish media and civil society, and in some cases, merging with the frustration over neglect of the plight and rights of Azerbaijan. Despite the controversy it provoked, the Khojali massacre commemoration in Istanbul, and the intense press coverage that surrounded it, was a useful highlight of the need for Turkish activists and analysts to address their Azerbaijani counterparts more consistently. Having suffered from war, occupation and displacement only 20 years ago, Azerbaijan’s troubled people need (and demand) their voices to be heard. To the degree that this country has developed destructive patterns to channel their resentment, and it has increasingly more economic means to do so, responsible Turkish intellectuals should try to engage with their Azerbaijani counterparts more consistently, with a view to guiding them progressively. Scorning and dismissing Azerbaijani nationalist sensitivities while at the same time


accusing Baku of not standing up for Turkey’s nationalist agenda enough is contradictory and pushes Baku decisionmakers even further from progressive ways to advocate their interests. However the commemoration also triggered red flags on the Turkish side. The media reaction against the hateful slogans, and the initialization in Ankara of legal action against protestors who held racist banners, depicted democratic reflexes against hate speech. This was an important precedent setting limits to freedom of expression. If such responses are also replicated in cases of racist written expression and rallies against Turks and Azerbaijanis in different corners of the world, sustaining such standards in Turkey will also be politically more viable. It was not only solidarity but also reciprocity between Baku and Ankara that was on display on Taksim Square that day. As Ankara had called on Azerbaijani political capital to sway Paris, Baku expected political capital from Ankara for its Karabakh commemoration. Accordingly, the interior minister of Turkey was present at the occasion, delivering a fiery speech. The Khojali commemoration was part of a larger effort on Baku’s part to demonstrate that the status quo of the Karabakh stalemate is not sustainable. This activism is also a backlash to the Armenian lobby wars around the world, which have driven home the message that interests and resources define whose truth is noticed. While Western politicians play into genocide diplomacy with parliamentary resolutions and the like, they also pressure Turkey to open its border with Armenia — which has inflamed the Turkish public and may risk economic and strategic realignments, which would work against the interests of Turkey’s leaders.2 Such pressure from the West disregards some of the variables at hand and backfires, putting Turkey and Azerbaijan in the same defensive position. Now, at the expense of its own moral higher ground and to supposedly “deserve” Turkey’s keeping its border closed with Armenia, Azerbaijan has taken on the burden of defending the Turkish position on 1915 at international platforms. Like an arms race, each side leverages its respec2 Nigar Goksel, “Turkish Policy Towards Caucasus: A Balance Sheet of the Balancing Act,” EDAM Black Sea Discussion Paper Series 2011/1, November 2011

It is unrealistic to expect that the debate of Armenian history in Anatolia will open up in any way that is not gradual and fitful.
tive assets — diaspora clout, money, and strategic power — to amass against its adversary. At this time, it is unrealistic to expect that the debate of Armenian history in Anatolia will open up in any way that is not gradual and fitful, particularly given the international dimensions of the process — such as the genocide resolutions, the fears of reparation demands, and the aggrieved Azerbaijanis. The approach of 2015, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, is likely to only aggravate the restrictive climate of debate, on all sides. Looking beyond 2015, with a longer-term approach, it is crucial that Turkey proceed to internalize the spirit of its reformed laws, refrain from feeding into the cycle of nationalist rhetoric, reconceive notions of citizenship without ethnic focus, and teach responsible narratives of its own history to the next generation. This is vital to open the space for critical thinking in Armenia and Azerbaijan as well. The Weight of Strategic Depth These three events, as well as the debates surrounding them, portrayed how Turkey’s quest for strategic depth is entrenched in complex links with its neighbors and its democratization. Due to its relatively advanced civil society, democratic freedoms, EU candidacy, and strategic weight, Turkey is expected to take the lead in setting new and positive paradigms with its neighbors. This responsibility is sometimes perceived as an inequity to Turks but is part and parcel of its own ambitious claims, and can also be viewed as recognition of Turkey’s “central country” credentials. But is Turkey living up to these claims, in terms of intellectual and political leadership? As long as Ankara caters to populism, the Azerbaijani reflex will be geared to appealing to these same social dynamics, and the Armenian reflex


will be to distrust Ankara and keep a distance from the “gestures” born out of Turkey. This is all the more so if the Turkish opinion leaders don’t effectively address the sensitivities of the wider segments of society in their advocacy. The political leadership in Ankara can either frame the challenges posed from East and West as an opportunity for progress or as an attack on Turkish honor and Muslim dignity. The latter, which delivers short-term political gains, will turn the country inward, and negatively affect the EU and the neighborhoods Turkey is at the doorstep of. That being said, addressing only one page of history without the others, opening one border without another, or freeing speech in one jurisdiction and not another, renders progress slow and barely sustainable. Western democracies need to also caution against perpetuating the self-defeating paradigms of vengeance, also for the sake of their own strategic interests. Turkey has been increasingly appealing to the Muslim world to “balance” what it perceives as Western prejudice. Azerbaijan is slowly following suit. A holistic transformation of the complex web of relations needs to be invested in — be it in dealing with historical injustices or devising conflict resolution roadmaps. Pressuring Ankara to open the land border with Armenia under the current conditions is widely viewed in the United States and across the EU as the single most effective play to break the stalemate on this chessboard. However, given the intertwined fragile balances within and between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, as well as between Russia and the transatlantic, this could trigger a set of other more steep challenges. In fact, the one dimension that can set off a virtuous cycle is for Turkey’s Europeanization to be jumpstarted through the EU offering interim attractive “carrots” for Turkish citizens such as visa liberalization and for concerned EU countries to invest political capital into unblocking the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership. Accordingly, rather than obstacles to accession that evoke discrimination — such as “civilizational differences” — principles such as freedom of dissent should be the criteria Turkey is judged against by EU counterparts. This is the leverage that can enable Turkey to mend its internal divides and positively influence its Eastern neighbors, contributing, de facto, to European soft power.
About the Author
Diba Nigar Göksel is editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
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