Armenia-Turkey Dialogue: Against Many Odds?

Teaser Image Caption
Map showing spots of massacre and deportation of Armenians in Ottoman Empire 1915-1923

Despite all ups and downs at the official level, changing governments in the offices of Armenia and Turkey and usually mutually hostile rhetoric, especially on the eve of Centenary of the Armenian Genocide, certain ties between multiple segments of societies of two countries have always been in place. The societies at large, including business communities, mass media, NGOs, intellectuals and people at the grassroots have long maintained contacts across social strata and time periods. Two simultaneous (but not necessarily intertwined) processes are unfolding slowly but surely. Firstly, business-driven communication and cooperation, most evidently in the trade, travel, and tourism industries is trending upward, with twice-per-week direct flights from Yerevan to Istanbul to prove it. Secondly, there is the success of civil society initiatives, often supported by the international community, which embrace structured civil society actors such as NGOs, think-tanks, media organizations, and universities.

Of course, such cross-border contacts and initiatives are very far from transitional justice or other institutional reforms aimed at reconciliation but, in comparison with scarce achievements in Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue, there is indeed a great diversity of ideas, projects, and opportunities for change. The mere fact that people from both countries can visit each other (despite closed borders) by air or by traveling through Georgia makes a tremendous difference in developing bilateral relations.

Over the years, there were a number of large- and small-scale Armenia-Turkey civil society initiatives, including Support to Armenia Turkey Rapprochement, Armenia-Turkey Cinema Platform, Speaking to One Another (an oral history project), the Ani Dialogue project, Armenia-Turkey Media Dialogue, Yavas-Gamats summer schools, Repair Future Initiative, the TANGO network and many more. The most prominent ongoing project is called the Armenia Turkey Normalisation Process, implemented by eight partners from two countries and funded by the European Union. The efforts will continue beyond 2015. There are also some reconciliation efforts between Armenian and Turkish communities in third countries such as France and Canada. Some studies and books reflecting the cooperation between civil societies and media regarding the Armenia-Turkey normalisation process are publicly available.

In this paper, I would like to focus on one aspect of relations only. I argue that although on project level the programming is usually well balanced, at large civil societies are taking different paths due to societal and historical root causes. Modern political, geographic and cultural realities, perpetrator-victim paradigms, the phenomenon of denial, and other important factors are at the core of those distinctions, which are neither absolute nor mutually exclusive. However a central tendency can be observed.

Unveiling oneself

In my view, the process unfolding in Turkey in recent decades is a self-unveiling one. It first and foremost targets the country’s own national bias, historical narratives, and its interpretation, addressing the notion of the “other” within the boundaries of Turkish territory. This often comes in the form of opposition to the state-built, kemalist concept of “turkishness.” In that difficult process, the Armenian issue inevitably comes together with other points of significance including history, human and minority rights, Kurdish question, gender equality, and many other issues. Individuals and organizations, which are at the avant-garde of Armenia-Turkey initiatives, are often questioning other pillars of Turkish history and identity as well.

Building relationships with “others”– including Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Alawi, etc. - within and outside of Turkey by dismantling official discourses and myths is the methodology Turkish civil society applies to a very high extent. This approach also explains why, quite often, reconciliation initiatives taking place in Turkey are unilateral or involve only the Armenian community of Istanbul. Armenians living the Republic of Armenia constitute just one slice of a much larger pie.

Prominent Armenian journalist and editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based newspaper Agos, Hrant Dink, was a Turkish citizen murdered by a Turkish ultra-nationalist in Istanbul in 2007. A huge protest movement evolved after his killing to condemn the crime; and although slogans stated “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians,” the primary recipients of the message, in my view, were Turkish society and government. Even the famous – “I apologize” campaign targets the bias and ignorance of Turkish citizens equally, if not more, than it applies to Armenians in Turkey, the Diaspora, and the Republic of Armenia. The short text, which was signed by prominent Turkish intellectuals and ordinary citizens, is self-explanatory:

“My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”

Discovering Armenian roots is another tendency very vivid in Turkey. Here is a great report of France24 “Turkey’s hidden Armenians search for stolen identity” which tells about that phenomenon.

Of course, there are initiatives of bringing people of two countries together. Journalists and bloggers are visiting Armenia and projects promoting people-to-people contacts are taking place, but a general culture of inwardness still prevails.

Discovering the “other”

At the same time, the inner tendency within Armenian civil society is to discover “the other,” in this case someone who lives in Turkey, speaks Turkish and is very different from ‘everyone else we know.’ It goes far beyond the lines of one’s own society and in its turn challenges the Armenia-tailored notion of “turkishness.” From the Armenian perspective, visiting previously tabooed and barely reachable historic locations such as Kars, Van, and Mush as well as meeting a “real Turk,” are essential. Many sensitive but important issues for discussion such as denial of the Genocide, destiny of Armenian cultural heritage, matters of property, and many more issues lie at the core of the reconciliation process.

At the same time, Armenia is a land-locked country with limited opportunities for economic development. Its people are looking for mutually-beneficial business and trade ties with its neighbors, including Turkey. I believe this to be a strong trigger spurring Armenians to learn about Turkey, establish people-to-people contacts, and erode old biases. Exchanges frequently happen at the level of individual businessmen, farmers, tour operators, and civil society. In recent years the Armenian Union of Manufacturers and Businessmen along with their Turkish colleagues achieved good business partnerships. The Center for Agribusiness and Rural Development implements a project helping Armenian farmers establish business ties in Turkey, and the Hrant Dink Foundation, together with the Civilitas Foundation, maintains the highly-successful People beyond borders mobility initiative.

On the other hand, due to understandable circumstances but also political constraints, Armenia is home to very few efforts at introspection, breaking down taboos, or reexamining the country’s 20th century history (including assessing the roles of traditional Armenian political parties in the Ottoman Empire).      

To conclude, I would like to stress the role of influential individuals, politicians, diplomats, writers, and intellectuals in both countries who shape important messages in their respective societies. For instance, in a recent publication the First President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian stated:

    “The 100th anniversary of the Genocide is the best opportunity to transmit to the international community positive rather than negative signals[1].

One can argue that those are minority voices (which is to true an extent) but it doesn’t make them less important. People who express ideas of reconciliation and peaceful cohabitation, including the first President Ter-Petrossian, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Vardan Oskanian, US based historian Gerard Libaritian, Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk, novelist Elif Shafak, philanthropist Osman Kavala, literature specialist Murad Belge, and many others have a truly strong impact. Moreover, those messages of mutual respect that transcends national borders are, in my opinion, among the ones that make a real difference.


[1] Draft for an Address by Armenia to the International Community on the Occasion Of The 100th Anniversary of the Genocide. First published: 24.03.2015. Translated by Gerard Libaridian.