Dancing with Armenia - the Turkish view

Turkish reactions to the Zurich agreement with Armenia have been mixed. But they will tolerate it if it yields concrete results – on Turkey’s negotiations for EU membership, above all
Jaroslaw Adamowski
25 November 2009

The Zurich agreement of October 10, normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey after years of diplomatic void, was widely expected, but its reception has been mixed in Armenia and in Armenian diaspora communities all over the world, to say the least. It was mixed in Turkey, too.

Up to now, words of approval and cold-blooded realism on the Turkish side seem to outweigh scepticism. Still, to ignore the latter would be to neglect an important part of Turkish public opinion, which for various reasons remains largely divided over its perception of the Armenian opening. The image is far more complex than a simplified “liberals versus nationalists” cliché. The Turkish public’s perception of the agreement is influenced by its view of Armenia and Armenians, but also by its fears and sympathies, most notably towards neighbouring Azerbaijan.

Western observers have welcomed the Turkish-Armenian détente as a political breakthrough and yet another proof of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s [AKP] eagerness to end Turkey’s long-standing disputes with neighbouring countries, which cast a shadow over Turkey's bid to join the EU.  But there has equally been criticism at home. For its critics, the accord signed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, was both premature and ill-fated. Moreover, its most fervent detractors have accused the government of hampering Turkey’s relations with its “brother state” and Armenia’s regional nemesis, Azerbaijan, as well as boosting Armenian claims.

On the other hand, the jubilation after the diplomatic breakthrough was not only on the part of the government’s staunchest supporters, but also of Turkey’s liberal intellectual elite. The latter, even though it has been increasingly at odds lately with the AKP over its ill will towards media critical of the government, has praised the normalization of relations with its alienated neighbour.

Ceyda Karan, a columnist for Radikal, the newspaper of choice for Istanbul’s liberal intelligentsia, praised Foreign Minister Davutoğlu for his noteworthy rupture with the one-sided approach to the Armenian-Azeri dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. “Security cannot be established with simply more military means”, the Foreign Minister said, referring to the conflict. According to Davutoğlu, “to attempt ending frozen conflicts by means of war is to introduce more pain”, and thus the Turkish government would opt “to solve them step by step”. “If necessary, we will make the same move one hundred times”, he said.

Radikal’s Karan, referring to the minister’s speech, pointed out  “Nobody said it would be an easy process. It won’t be any easier from now on either.” Still, she reminded her readers that not more than ten years ago Turkey was on the brink of war with Syria, and tanks were being deployed on the border. A decade later, bilateral relations blossom as the two countries are about to sign a visa-free agreement, opening wide a border that has been keeping families apart for decades.

However, the liberal columnist’s occasion for rejoicing has seriously disturbed more conservative observers in Turkey. The Turkish-Azeri brotherhood has been a key element of Turkish foreign policy in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, what is far more important, is deeply rooted in the views of Turkish public opinion. Many Turks believe in the accuracy of the well-known slogan Iki Devlet, Bir Millet (Two States, One Nation). In fact, despite Turkey’s attempts at political and economic domination of its “younger brother” in the early 1990s, the Azeri president Heydar Aliyev and later his son and successor Ilham have decisively rebuffed the paternalistic attempts.  They appealed to Turkic “brotherhood” only when in need of Turkey’s support on the international scene, as in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nevertheless, the Turkish-Azeri fraternal rhetoric persists, propped up by Turkey’s politicians. A vast majority of Turkish public opinion, too, is likely to side with the Azeri government on virtually every single issue, ignoring or turning a blind eye to Baku’s undemocratic regime. This to a certain extent explains why repression against the country’s genuine opposition, the few remaining independent journalists or bloggers, hardly ever makes the headlines in the Turkish press.

The strain on Turkish-Azeri relations was perhaps best demonstrated by a series of incidents involving national symbols. First, Azeri flags were banned from the World Cup qualifier match in Bursa, played between the national teams of Armenia and Turkey on October 14. The ban was requested by the football federation FIFA, which probably wanted to avoid political incitement during the match, but Azeri irritation turned against Turkey. A few days later, Azeri officials decided to remove Turkish flags in front of various Turkish-affiliated institutions and buildings in Baku, including a monument commemorating some one thousand Turkish soldiers who died fighting for Azerbaijan's independence in 1918. It was particularly this gesture that gave rise to strong resentment in Turkey.

Eventually, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu was sent on a conciliatory visit to Baku, where he held talks with both his Azeri counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov and President Aliyev, and the tensions were partially eased. Even though the Turkish media has tried not to incite further outrage, a certain feeling of anticlimax vis a vis the Turkic brothers from the other side of the border remains in the air. Azeri statements envisaging a rise in the favourable price paid by Turkey for Azeri gas (currently $120 per thousand cubic metres) added to Turkish anxieties concerning their relations with Baku.

In the light of all these facts, it is clear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist-rooted AKP risk losing the popular support the party has been enjoying since its rise to power in 2002. Should the government fail to spin political capital from its “zero problems with neighbours” policy, which, among others, relies on the Armenian opening, the renewed Turkish foreign policy could face a backlash. Its prime aim is to pave the way for Turkish ambitions of rapidly joining the European Union. If progress in this field is not visible soon, it may not only undermine the AKP’s popularity at home, but also deepen the Turks’ disillusionment with Europe, which is reluctant to setting any binding date for Turkey’s accession.

So those who would most like the Armenian opening to fail are, implicitly, Turkey’s political opposition. The protocols are still to be ratified by the Turkish parliament, and it is certain that the opposition will not miss the opportunity to debate and undermine the efficacy of the government’s foreign policy. What is not clear, however, is whether the opposition parties will succeed in convincing Turkish public opinion of their vision.

Interviewed by the CNN Türk channel, Onur Öymen, Deputy Chairman of Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party [CHP], said that the government’s Armenian initiative was a gesture of surrender to “external pressure”, and that the rapprochement was “worrying for the future of the country.” Similarly, Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] Chairman Devlet Bahçeli expressed his doubts about the accord. In Bahçeli’s opinion, the protocols were not reciprocal and well balanced, and as such they would damage Turkey’s interests.

The opposition’s stance drew criticism from Taha Akyol, a columnist for the centre-right Milliyet daily and author of Joint pain 1915, Turks and Armenians (Ortak Acı 1915, Türkler ve Ermeniler). According to Akyol, constructive opposition from both secular CHP and nationalist MHP could strengthen the Turkish government’s position vis a vis Armenia, as it could help justify its rejection of maximalist demands from Yerevan. However, according to the columnist, opposition actions are not in the best interest of the country, when they cease to object constructively and begin to deny all that could lead to the much-needed normalization of relations.

An editorial in Agos, an Istanbul-based weekly newspaper founded by Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist so tragically assassinated, favours an optimistic view of the rapprochement. The core of the protocols, the newspaper argues, does not hinge on simply opening the actual border, but rather on tearing down the invisible barrier that has been separating both societies. Once the process has begun, all political opposition to the progress will become insignificant. When the two societies will move closer, predicts Agos, they will look at the future and the past together.

The manner in which the Turkish media, pundits and politicians cover the Armenian opening will surely weigh on the public perception of the issue. However, no matter what the diplomatic outcome of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, ordinary, ground-bound Turks will be most interested in any direct benefits and losses it introduces into their lives. For that reason, the most efficient way to solidify Turkish support for the peace process could be to answer the country’s bid to join the EU.

Jaroslaw Adamowski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Warsaw and Istanbul. He has written for The Guardian, The Jerusalem Post, Transitions Online, The Prague Post and Hürriyet Daily News.

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