Can 2015 trigger positive mobilization?*


Going from bad to worse?

Geostrategic regional developments and domestic political dynamics in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, are consolidating the division between Turkey and Azerbaijan on one side, and Armenia and its diaspora on the other. The year 2015, the centenary of the cleansing of Anatolia of its Armenian communities during World War I, could very well exacerbate the dynamics of showdown between the camps, increasing mutual antagonisms, and strangling reconciliation initiatives.

On the Armenian side, in the run-up to 2015, hardliners are ever more adamantly opposing reconciliation and dialogue initiatives, accusing their pro-rapprochement fellow nationals of detracting from the cause of recognition and compensation. Beyond commemoration, 2015 is expected to mobilize political pressure on Turkey. As is the case with every April 24th, third country politicians are expected to exploit the occasion to bargain for their own interests.

Pressure to recognize 1915 as a genocide and pressure on Ankara to open Turkey’s borders with Armenia will ignite nationalistic reactions in Turkey. This will exacerbate the already existing nationalistic sensitivities and disillusionment with the West in Turkish society, which has been heightened by rising PKK terror and the perceived double standards underlying the stall of Turkey’s EU accession. With the extensive consolidation of power by the ruling party, Turkish liberals and critical thinkers who would normally try to moderate these tensions are distracted, their drive and confidence dampened.  On top of this, the 2014 presidential election in Turkey will most probably increase nationalistic discourse.  There is a risk that Turkey leaves its counterparts in limbo and then scrambles in the year between 2014 and 2015 to avert being stamped with the word genocide with makeshift, sloppy initiatives.

The interlinked nature of the problems between Turks and Armenians on the one hand and Azerbaijanis and Armenians on the other is also getting deeper and more convoluted. Ankara’s decision not to open the country’s border with Armenia, in 1993, was meant to ensure Armenia has an incentive to reach a solution in its conflict over Karabakh with Azerbaijan. Keeping the border closed has been a result of related geostrategic calculus, and not directly related to 1915. In recent years, Turkish mainstream journalists and opinion leaders have increasingly been expressing the expectation that Azerbaijanis advocate the Turkish position on 1915 in the international arena, in return for the ‘sacrifice’ of keeping the Turkey-Armenia border sealed. This expectation is also driven by the need for both Ankara and Baku to pool their international lobby resources to compete with Armenia’s relatively well-organized diaspora.

Meanwhile, Ankara has been under the impression that by opening its borders with Armenia, it can avoid being pinned with the word genocide. Ankara has also fed into the knot by making the establishment of a joint history commission a necessary element of a prospective border opening. This approach has created the impression that Turks need to choose between 1915 being recognized as a genocide by Washington or opening the border with Armenia. This mixing of apples and oranges not only puts all the burden on the only side that has not won from war, i.e. Baku, but also does not yield results, and is ultimately bad for all sides. As 2015 nears, instruments of pressure should be geared at coming to terms with 1915, and bringing about a principled stance against all rhetoric and acts that demonize people for belonging to a particular ethnic group, the acts of ethnic cleansing and hate crimes.

A better way forward?

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has put forth a concept he has coined just memory[1], representing a new lexicon which reaches out to address Armenian collective memories of suffering but also calls for consideration of the context of 1915 – the dire situation of international war, civil strife, and displacement of Muslims from the North Caucasus and Balkans. The just memory approach intends to empathize with the tragedy of Armenians but not to attribute it to Turks being a murderous race, as is a common depiction communicated by Armenian campaigns.

Thus far, Davutoglu’s suggestion to unite around this terminology has gotten a rather cold reception, particularly by Armenians writing about this issue, but also by some Turkish liberals. The effort to include the victimhood of non-Armenians into the narratives of 1915 has been largely received as an attempt to ‘equalize’ victimhoods or justify atrocities. Moreover, the fact that the Turkish officialdom waited until 2015 is around the corner to come up with this more empathetic formulation of history is interpreted as an opportunistic effort to reduce the fallout from 2015, or in other words, to feign progress towards a frank historical debate and reckoning with the past.

Clearly there is a realization that a process leading the wider public of Turkey to question the denialist and self-righteous narratives about 1915 is needed. Ultimately though, the just memory opening will only be as effective as its users render it. If mainstream intellectuals do not try to substantiate the initiative and politicians do not use it to extract principles from the lessons history delivers, just memory will be left for chauvinists to seize and shape. The fact that the term was coined by the Turkish foreign minister offers an opportunity to legitimize, in Turkey, efforts to articulate concrete expectations, instruments, and discourse accordingly. So, rather than leaving the management of this potentially polarizing course solely to Ankara, constructive intellectuals and practitioners should get involved in molding this concept, to save just memory from remaining a hollow phrase.

As 2015 nears, state-driven commemoration including an official apology, the founding of a memorial site, and conducive terms for Armenians with heritage in Anatolia to return are possible steps mentioned in the debate. Including Armenian input in reviewing the terminology in historical accounts attached to sites of Armenian origin could be useful. It would be good for the uploading of all related archives online to be finalized sooner rather than later.  It also goes without saying that a systematic demonstration that the state stands against all demonizing rhetoric is needed. But how Turkish politicians introduce just memory to their own constituencies will be a crucial litmus test.

Such moves would not be out of the blue – they would build on a decade-long progression of efforts to address past wrongs and create a climate conducive for reconciliation – including relatively pluralistic debates, commemorative events on April 24th by groups of Turkish nationals, the apology to Armenians by Turkish intellectuals, bilateral civil society projects, and the like. Politicians and official state bodies have lagged behind but have also taken useful steps such as the return and restoration of Armenian churches and review of related language in schoolbooks. The government would need to avoid rhetoric that contradicts this spirit, and tie the positive steps it takes together with a well-communicated vision. Otherwise even the most positive steps appear ad-hoc, partial, and sometimes even patronizing.

But while introducing the mode of commemoration in Turkey, re-conceptualizing narratives with oral history, and telling Turks that repressing and forgetting is not an option when it comes to dealing with Armenian collective memories of loss, losses incurred by ancestors of todays Turkish nationals are also inevitably recalled and brought to the fore. It is a simple reality that when the early 20th century is discussed in Turkey, a descendant will bring up his or her great grandmother who was orphaned in Erzurum or Van as a result of violence during an Armenian uprising, while another individual will point out that there was never any accountability for the Muslim families uprooted from the Balkans that found refuge in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

The frame of “just memory” intends to also address these collective memories, which are interwoven into the history of the same era. However, whether the commemoration of losses incurred by all ethnic and religious groups can be carried out tactfully, in a way that enables the complexity of collective memories to be understood, without the reflex to equalize or neutralize losses, is yet to be seen.

Drawing the region together, rather than ripping it apart

The vicious cycles between Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis demonstrates that justifying the ethnic cleansing of territories for ‘security purposes’ or killing innocent people to “draw attention to a national injustice”, simply boomerangs violence back to the perpetrator.

While it has been widespread among Armenians to see Turks and Azerbaijanis as the same people, perpetrators and never victims by nature, Azerbaijanis -due to their own victimhood- know the Armenians as perpetrators, extending this perception to their interpretation of 1915 as well. There is a shared blindness to the atrocity and displacement the other was subject to.

Circles of the Turkish society who were wronged by the hard-handed Turkish state in the past – liberals, minorities, left-leaning intellectuals – expect 1915 to be taken up as part of the package of accountability for past state crimes. This process is a part of the transformation of identity paradigms and democratization of Turkey, and may actually be in Azerbaijan’s interests as well, insofar as it also triggers self-reflection within Armenia.

It is important that critical thinkers on all sides demonstrate a will and a way to live together, which would necessarily involve embarking on efforts to break stereotypes among their own compatriots, and shedding the defensive rhetoric about their co-nationals that commit crimes, be it about Armenians involved in killing Turkish diplomats in the 1980s, or the Azerbaijani military officer who axed his Armenian colleague at a NATO seminar in 2004.

Examining how the environments that emboldened such acts came to be, and recognizing the root problem as being the drive to create ethnically homogeneous nation states is a sine quo non of imagining ever to live together again. The simple fact that there are no Armenians in Van, Kars or Nahchivan and no Azerbaijanis in Khojali, Shusha, or Yerevan is enough of a starting point for self-reflection about the course of the history of these lands where they were all intermingled once.  It is empathy and not the equation of tragedies that can be born out of recognizing the context of historical suffering, the stage of war, real security concerns, distorted identity quests, and paranoia craze that played a role in bringing about tragedies across the region.

Reconciliation is necessarily going to be a dialectic. Without Turks acknowledging that security needs or nation-building did not justify massacre and forced deportation of civilian Armenians, Armenians feel vindicated by their “victory” over Azerbaijan. And as long as Turkish nationals hear Armenians argue that Azerbaijanis needed to be uprooted and displaced because “they started it and it was a necessary security measure,” they will lose their appetite for reconciliation.  Though Turkey needs to take the lead, positive change will be able to spread widely only if the sides can unite around principles, standing categorically against crimes and atrocities targeting civilians – regardless of nationality- in the name of national causes.

Admittedly, reconciliation between Armenia–Azerbaijan is burdened by the challenge that the perpetrators and victims are of living generations, and there is a protracted conflict with the risk of militarization, with no trials of war crimes are on the agenda.  However, for a portion of Armenians, the conflict with Turkey is not over either, and 2015 is a means to fortify the frontline, not to reconcile.

Given the EU’s interest in a Europeanized eastern neighbourhood, it is reasonable to expect more effort from Europe to contribute to reconciliation in this Caucasus triangle. Ultimately nationalist paradigms developed in this region as a result of streams of thought from Europe, European powers were a part of the war that 1915 was born out of, and European players have vast experience in coming to terms with history and conflict. In light of the fact that the USAID funding for Armenia-Turkey rapprochement has come to an end as of October 2012, the EU could step in to sustain bilateral projects that sustain regular interaction between Turkish and Armenian civil society groups, ideally also bringing the Azerbaijani experiences and angles into the fold. European players are in any case better placed than Washington to take on such a role. A long-term process that takes into account the many complexities of the issues at hand should be foreseen. While 2015 can serve as a trigger for European solutions to ethnocentrism in this region, putting to use Europe’s strongest asset, it can also illuminate pages of the history of today’s EU member states, and address mutual stereotypes rooted in this history.

*  This article builds on the background information and views of this author as expressed in her recent report published by TESEV on 18 October 2012, “Turkey and Armenia Post Protocols: Back to Square One?” available at:

[1] “Adil Hafiza” in Turkish, has also been translated as “fair memory.”

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