This paper explores diasporic activism through a complex and dual empirical case and looks at its impact on foreign policy and national identity. It focuses on two less researched areas of diasporic activism, that of the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, who compete against each other for influence upon Turkish national identity, as well as to determine the political dynamics of the South Caucasus. More specifically, the paper looks at the linkages and interplay between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Turkish-Armenian dispute, which have deepened as a result of the transnational strategies of diaspora groups for political mobilization transcending the Turkey-Caucasus border.

By blurring the distinction between homeland and hostland, diasporas are actively involved in the re-bordering process of Turkey’s national identity. Indeed, both groups act as stakeholders in Turkish domestic politics and compete in the ongoing process of the redefinition of national identity within Turkey, as well as the revisiting of historical narratives. In addition, this paper has a pragmatic concern, as with many previous scholarly works that have analysed the impact of diasporic activism on violent conflict. In this respect, the paper elaborates on the policy implications of the linkages and interplay between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Turkish-Armenian dispute, which have developed as a result of this dual diasporic activism. Turkey has progressively become an insider in terms of regional dynamics, whilst also discovering her own Caucasian identity.

Interestingly, in this process, Turkey emerges as the real homeland: the objective of the Armenian and Azerbaijan diasporic groups is no longer that of gathering support for the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for either Azerbaijan or Armenia. By blurring the distinction between homeland and hostland, diasporas are actively involved in the re-bordering process of Turkey’s national identity. As Yossi Shain and Aharon Barth highlight, identity itself becomes the subject of interest during what looks like a frontal opposition in terms of the definition of Turkey’s national identity: the main interest is to assert, through the homeland’s foreign policy, a preferred version of kinship and national identity. Both groups act as stakeholders in Turkish domestic politics and compete in the ongoing process of the redefinition of national identity within Turkey, as well as the revisiting of historical narratives.


The notion of territoriality played an essential role in the definition of the Turkish national identity. The borders of the Republic of Turkey established by the peace Treaty of Lausanne signed in July 1923, coinciding to a large extent to the a territority that had been defended and reconquered[1],  were crucial in defining and delimiting the nation. The scrupulous adherence to the boundaries, considered as limiting the nation, was linked to the rejection of any imperial ambition as well as any imperial heterogeneity that proved to be fatal in the context of World War I. In contrast to the former imperial frontiers, that used to integrate different ecumenes and be outwardly oriented, the borders of the Republic became inwardly oriented to the state. They aimed at dividing and separating. The collective memory building was mostly based on the rejection of the Ottoman past considered as ‘backward’ and culturally too heterogonous. According to the founding elites, the Republic of Turkey could only be strong through a homogenous nation and a unitary state.

The Kurdish question emerged in the first two decades of the Republic as a major challenge in the unitary nation building process and remains today one of the most divisive political issue in Turkish politics. Under the Ottoman rule, tribally organized Kurds enjoyed almost complete political and cultural autonomy. The National Pact document, the draft map of modern Turkey, drew together the lands inhabited by Ottoman Muslims both Turks and Kurds. The Treaty of Sevres imposed on the defeated Ottoman Empire raised the eventuality of a Kurdish entity. In the first two decades of the Republic, tribal Kurdish uprisings were harshly suppressed. The local uprisings, by bringing back to minds the infamous Sevres treaty, convinced the founding elites of the Turkish Republic that any recognition of Kurdish identity would endanger the territorial integrity of the Republic. The Kurdish question re-emerged in the 1960s and 1970s; however, this time it was pioneered by young educated elites inspired by anti-colonial movements. The PKK was officially founded in 1978 with the goal of obtaining a unified socialist independent state of Kurdistan, including the Kurdish territories in Iraq, Iran and Syria started its operations in 1984 and was countered by a military reaction from the Turkish government.

The Cold War by ‘sealing off’ Turkey’s borders offered a favourable context of the internal consolidation of the nation-state. Turkey was together with Norway a NATO flank country, bordering on the Soviet Union. The principle of national sovereignty was during the Cold War era acknowledged as the source of geopolitical stability. The end of the bipolar order changed significantly the functions and meanings of Turkey’s borders. Turkey had in other terms to rediscover its geography by reconnecting with history.

In the social sciences litterature diaspora communities are described as the ‘the exemplary communities of the transnational moment’ (Tölölyan, 1996). Theoretically, diasporas constitute a challenge to the notion of territoriality, as they are the “paradigmatic Other of the nation-state“. These “de-territorialized communities” have been placed within the traditional institutions of state citizenship and loyalty, and are an important feature of the relationship between domestic and international spheres. (Ostergaard-Nielsen 2000). Diaspora members identify as part of the homeland’s national community, and, as such, are entitled to participate in homeland-related affairs (Cohen 1997, Safran 1991). as globalization intensifies the tie with their homelands, diasporas are considered to be amongst the most prominent actors that link international and domestic spheres of politics. The conceptual framework developed by Yossi Shain aims at placing the diasporic factor within the constructivist theory of International Relations as actors engaged in the foreign policy field and in competition over identity construction (Shain; Barth, 2003).

Most peoples of the Caucasus, Black Sea and Anatolia have not lived within the same political entity over past centuries; however, it is important to acknowledge the existence of an ethno-cultural continuum between Anatolia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. During the time of empires, borders preserved the porosity of these regions. The building of the Turkish nation state cut Anatolia from the Caucasus. The border became a security fence during the Cold War. Nevertheless, people living on both sides retained the memory of having left something on the other side. In the last two decades, Turkey has progressively become an insider in terms of regional dynamics, whilst also discovering her own Caucasian identity.

Previous studies of diasporic activism in the Turkish context focused on groups linked with the northern Caucasus. According to some  unofficial  data  –  censuses  in  Turkey  don’t  collect any data on the ethnic descents of the population – the total number of Chechens  and  Abkhazians  in  Turkey  could  outweigh  the  populations  of both Chechnya and Abkhazia proper. The Chechens and circassian diasporas emerged as unsettling ethnic lobbies within Turkey in the 90’s, mobilising as their homeland was engulfed by conflict (Besleney, 2014). studies have also analysed the agency of Circassian and Abkhazian diaspora groups in  channelling Turkish influences to Abkhazia and the Northern Caucasus (Gültekin Punsmann, 2009).

Opening up to South Caucasus in the context of the Karabakh conflict

The end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 90’s opened the Caucasus and the Black Sea regions for Turkey. Turkey rediscovered its neighbours; and, for the first time in several centuries (with the exception of 1918-1920), Turkey and Russia had no land border. A month after having recognised Azerbaijan, Turkey recognised all the other ex-Soviet republics, including Armenia, on 16 December 1991. Turkey’s governmental and bureaucratic elite was willing to open a direct path to Armenia in the early 90’s: there was a clear understanding of the importance, both from a geographical and historical perspective, of establishing good neighbourly relations with the newly independent Republic of Armenia. Negotiations for the establishment of diplomatic relations were launched in August 1992, in the context of the escalation of tensions in Karabakh[2] .

Turkey first regarded the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as an internal ‘post-Soviet’ affair and refrained from getting involved directly, despite the fact that foreign policy topics related to the South Caucasus were very frequently raised in the agenda of the Turkish parliament and that public opinion was being galvanized by statements made by opposition parties (Azer, 2011). With the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the winter of 1991, Turkey agreed to contribute to international efforts to relieve Armenia’s economic plight, which had been aggravated by an economic blockade enforced by Azerbaijan and the coincidental breakdown of transit routes across Georgia. The railroad connecting the Turkish city of Kars to the Armenian city of Gyumri, which had allowed communication between Turkey and the Soviet Union, remained operational.

The Turkish government decided to halt the passage of wheat across its territory to Armenia when Armenian forces launched an offensive to establish a second corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh through the Azerbaijani town of Kelbajar, causing a massive flood of refugees.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey issued a statement bearing the signature of the Minister Hikmet Çetin on April 3, 1993, which stated that Turkey had decided to halt the delivery of aid transiting through its territory into Armenia, to close the Turkish-Armenian border, to interrupt all rail and air connection with Armenia, and, lastly, to cut trade links, including transit trade, between Turkey and Armenia.

The protocols signed by Turkey and Armenia in October 2009 for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the development of bilateral relations opened a window of opportunity, as they disassociated the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border from the dynamics of the Karabakh conflict. the most innovative aspect of these texts was the calendar that was enclosed: the agreement stipulated that the border would opened within two months of its ratification. It was primarily the Azerbaijani factor that obstructed this last effort at normalization between Turkey and Armenia, leaving the process dependent on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since the failure of the first negotiations and the closure of the common border in April 1993, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been hampering the normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations.

Following the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border, the idea that Turkish-Armenian relations should not be normalised before the settlement of the conflict has become the cornerstone of Azerbaijani state policy. Azerbaijan is pressing Turkey to maintain a closed border because the isolation effected thereof can only be effective if Armenia is blockaded from both sides. In Turkey, the concern that, if the border was opened, Azerbaijan would lose its leverage on Armenia became widespread. It was believed that opening the border would jeopardize Turkish-Azerbaijani relations, give economic and moral support to Armenia, and negatively affect the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict[3] (Arslanlı, 2015). At the official level, there is currently clear understanding in Ankara that Azerbaijan is part of the Turkish-Armenian equation. Turkey, therefore, has subscribed to the Azerbaijani approach that the ending of the Armenian blockade should be clearly linked to the political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories, which is consistent with the reasons for the initial closing of the border (in retaliation for Armenia’s occupation of Kelbajar) (Gültekin Punsmann, 2011).

Diaspora activism is an important factor that explains the linkage that is being established between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the issue of the Armenian genocide. The mobilization of the memory of the genocide by the Karabakh national movement and the involvement of the Armenian diaspora into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been followed more by the recent attempts of the Azerbaijani diasporic groups to present the Karabakh conflict as a Turkish-Armenian conflict. This paper elaborates on the policy implications of the linkages and interplay between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Turkish-Armenian dispute, which have developed as a result of this dual diasporic activism.

The Armenian diaspora and its homeland

Tölölyan estimates there to be around 4 million Armenians living in diaspora. Diasporic ethnic Armenians are made up of a mixture of individuals and communities possessed of different histories and hybrid cultural identities, the western Armenian diaspora was in big part formed by those who survived the massacre of 1915 by fleeing the Ottoman Empire. The national homogenization project of the Young Turks created the modem Armenian diaspora, as the surviving Armenians were forced into exile. The perceptions of the homeland and its representation become a central matter of debates among Armenian political parties and factions. After WWI, under the leadership of Boghos Nubar, the Armenian National Delegation saw itself as sort of a government of exiles, the representative of all Armenians now massacred and dispersed from their ancestral lands. (Tölölyan 1991a, 177-78). While following the signature of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 and the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, the hope for regaining the homeland and returning home was fading, the existence of the Soviet republic of Armenia provided new grounds for the reconstruction of the idea of the Armenian homeland. Whereas some groups and organizations promoted Soviet Armenia as the new Armenian homeland, others advocated for the liberation of Western Armenia (in Turkey), while the ordinary Armenian immigrants and refugees developed local perceptions of homeland in host-countries (Sahakyan, 2015).

Diaspora communities are sustained by narratives of violence and trauma. At the same time, ‘narratives of return’ form a central part of the diasporic discourse: the ancestral home, whether in the form of an existing state (Soviet Armenia), in the form of an imaginary state (Western Armenia) or in the form of native towns and villages is seen as a place of eventual return, when the time is right (Tölölyan, 2007).

The Armenian Patriarchate and a small number of Armenians remained in Turkey throughout the Republican period and developed a vibrant community. The Armenian community of Istanbul –  who have been living in their own territory, in the territory of their grandparents and great grandparents – was disconnected from other Armenian communities in the diaspora for decades.

The mobilisation of the memory of the ‘genocide’ during the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the Armenian diaspora

The first attempt to interconnect the two issues came from the Armenians: the Karabakh movement mobilised the memory of the genocide. memory of the 1915 Genocide had been reactivated during the Nagorno-Karabakh war by Armenian nationalist mobilisers and has since helped to connect the Armenian Diaspora with the Nagorno-Karabakh cause. This collective memory was awakened by circumstances. For Armenians, Karabakh meant a way of continuing the struggle against the Turks, and turning it into an armed struggle; it signified that, after centuries, even millennia, of being victims, Armenians were fighting back against their persecutors. in April 1965, during the commemoration of the 50th year of 1915 in Soviet Armenia, the nationalist mood and Armenian territorial claims were already more directed at Azerbaijan than Turkey, which was separated by the iron curtain.

The root causes of today’s dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis and the conflict between Turkey and Armenians over the historical narrative related to the massacres of the Ottoman Armenians are different. The fact that Armenians refer to Azerbaijanis as Turks contributes to the confusion. The stages of both conflicts are different; as underlined by Tom de Waal, it is important to stress ‘the differences between the Armenian-Turkish story and the Armenian-Azerbaijani one (…) the give-and-take of this Armenian-Azerbaijani violence of 1918-1920 suggests that it is better seen not as a continuation of 1915, but as another arena of the bloody nation-building through violence and ethnic cleansing’. Azerbaijanis suffered from the repercussions of the Turkish-Armenian dispute (De Waal, 2015). Armenian and Azerbaijani communities were intermingled across the entire south of the Transcaucasus. Although relations had occasionally been conflictual, violence increased in 1905 and at the end of the tsarist rule. furthermore, the dissemination of nationalism destabilised regions with mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani populations. the two theatres of conflict briefly intersected when, in the spring of 1918, Ottoman armies crossed the Akhourian river and moved east to the borders of the Transcaucasus. Many Azerbaijanis saw the advancing Ottoman troops as potential liberators, however the Ottoman troops stayed less than a month.

A study conducted by Marutyan (2009), based on the posters and banners displayed in the mass rallies during the Karabakh movement, provides interesting insight. The observation of the annual mourning marches of April 24 for 1988-1990 alone show how, year after year, the nature of the poster texts underwent change. The image of the victim pleading for mercy and justice was replaced by that of the warrior who had realised that national objectives could be achieved through struggle only. In the years of the Karabakh movement, the primary objective of the struggle for recognition of the genocide was not to make it an international issue, but to use it as a national mobilizer. Following the massacres in Sumgait in 1988, the theme of the genocide resurfaced once again. Harutyun Marutyan analyses how the mourning procession transformed into a political demonstration aimed at showing the similarities between the massacres of Sumgait and the events witnessed in 1915. The posters reflect the spectre of the Armenian genocide, specifically the massacres and murders at the end of the XIXth and beginning of the XXth century. Sumgait was perceived as one ‘link in the entire chain of the policy of genocide conducted against Armenians from the time of the Ottoman Empire’ (Marutyan, 2009).

The study of how this mobilisation of the collective memory of the years of the ‘genocide’ sustains the war effort in Karabakh, and contributed to the nation-building and strengthening of the linkage with the Armenian diaspora, as well as the transformation of the Armenian diaspora, lies outside the scope of this paper. Interestingly, the involvement of the Armenian diaspora in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict triggered the Azerbaijani diasporic activism; mimesis plays an important role in the strategies of Azeri-Azerbaijani diasporic entrepreneurs.

The Azerbaijani diasporic community

The Azerbaijani diasporic community is not a homogeneous group in Turkey. There are even differences in self-denomination, Azerbaijanis being alternatively ‘Azerbaijani’, ‘Azeri Turks’ or ‘Azeri’. The total number of autochthones Azeris living in the Kars and Iğdır provinces is estimated to some 3 million. The second category is made of Azerbaijanis who migrated at the beginning of the XX. century from the Southern Caucasus to Turkey. The last category includes those who migrated in the 90’s from the Azerbaijani Republic to Turkey for work or to study. The autochthone Azeris of Turkey don’t relate themselves to any other country or social group abroad. They have in common with the other Azeri-Azerbaijani the Azeri dialect and their Shia religious identity. They either affiliated themselves with the Turkish nationalist party (MHP) or are part of the Shia network in Georgia and Azerbaijani, which is under a strong Iranian influence. The autochthone Azeri population is particularly important in the province of Iğdır, which borders on Armenia. Iğdır is home to a few Azeri community organizations and community news outlets. With the exception of the autochthone Azeri group, for which Shia religiosity constitutes the most important identity marker, the Azerbaijani diaspora positions itself within the nationalist discourse. This nationalist discourse can either be structured around the idea of the Azerbaijani nation or around Azerbaijani-Turkish ethno-cultural identity[4] .

More than 50 000 Azerbaijanis migrated to Turkey upon the collapse of the Azerbaijan Popular Republic on 27th April 1920. This population included an important number of intellectuals and political activists, who established themselves as the Azerbaijani political mission in exile. under the organized leadership of Mehmet Emin Resulzade, their primary objective was that of gathering support within Turkey for the struggle for the liberation of Azerbaijan from Soviet occupation. The Azerbaijani National Centre was established on 27th April 1924, with the mission to inform Turkish public opinion of Azerbaijan. Most of the Azerbaijanis who first migrated to European cities resettled in Turkey. the Azerbaijani Cultural Association was established in 1949 in Ankara, which aimed to organize the Azerbaijani diaspora worldwide. This population integrated progressively into Turkish society. Some had important positions in the bureaucracy. The political elite of the Elcibey government migrated to Turkey after 1993 and integrated into the Azerbaijani Cultural Association. The activities of these groups, as affiliated with the Musavat party and the Popular Front, were, however, restricted after Aliyev came to power[5].

More recently, Haydar Aliyev started showing an interest in the Azerbaijani diaspora even before seizing power.  Attempts at reorganizing the diasporic groups  gathered pace during the Karabakh conflict. In the 1990s, ethnic Azerbaijanis living in France, England, Germany, or any other EU country, started to organize themselves into a united ethno-national community with political, ideological and also financial support from the Azerbaijani government. A major component of the process of diaspora construction was the creation of a large number of diaspora organizations by ethnic Azerbaijani activists in the CIS, the EU and the USA (Rumyantsev, 2015). The diaspora was considered as a tool for the promotion of the Azerbaijani narrative of the Karabakh conflict.

The roots of the formation of the ‘Azerbaijani diaspora’ can be traced to the law on the ‘State policy on the Azeri Turks living abroad’ adopted in December 2002, which followed the First World Azerbaijanis Congress (November, 2001, in Baku). The Aliyev government payed a special attention to the organization of the Azerbaijani diaspora within Turkey, and acts to neutralize and absorb opposition groups. The Federation of associations of Azerbaijan in Turkey (TADEF), established in the western city of Kocaeli, is an umbrella structure that aims to gather local diaspora associations and link them to the Azerbaijani government. Not all of NGOs welcome the leadership of the chairman of the TADEF, who was recently nominated honorary consul of Azerbaijan in Iğdır. His legitimacy is locally challenged. Tensions exist between local Azeri organizations, who call themselves associations of Azerbaijani Turks and are mainly based in Iğdır province, and those who pretend to represent the Azerbaijani diaspora. Local associations question the effectiveness of their action within Turkey and criticise the misuse of funds transferred by the Azerbaijani government, which have been employed for self-promotion[6]. The consulate of Azerbaijan, based in Kars, is a central role in the mobilization of such associations; its interference has indeed created competition over access to resources at the local level[7].

Azerbaijani diaspora strategies in Turkey: ‘Turkishness’, Armenia and Karabakh

These associations, co-opted by the Azerbaijani consulate, pursue a broadly defined anti-Armenian agenda. They are focused mainly in Kars and Iğdır, the border provinces with Armenia and Van (the province that became a centre of attraction after the renovation of the Church of Akhtamar island). The Association for the Struggle, ASIMDER, against the unfounded Armenians claims, founded in 2002 in Iğdır, became active after 2008 and is the group with the highest visibility. The association is chaired by Göksel Gülbey and pretends to have a global outreach. Göksel Gülbey has attained a high visibility status in the local East Anatolia pages of national dailies through his virulent anti-Armenian statements. The logo of ASIMDER includes the national flag of Azerbaijan. Göksel Gülbey, in his pictures published in media, poses in front of pictures of Haydar Aliyev. ASIMDER aimed at countering Armenian narratives on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as efforts for the recognition of 1915 massacres as genocide. ASIMDER targets whomsoever its considers as the representatives of the Armenian diaspora in Turkey and is eager to acknowledge the important support it receives from the Azerbaijani diaspora[8]. The Turkish association against racism and discrimination, DUR-DE, has filled a complaint against ASIMDER in reaction to the harsh media statements against Armenian community institutions in Turkey: ASIMDER has indeed taken a step further in terms of their hate speech, publishing the contact details of the Armenian associations in Turkey[9]. The climax was the 26th February 2012 rally in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Khodjali massacres in Karabakh. Everything was duly orchestrated. Hate speeches against Armenians and non-Muslims marked the gathering.

The Turkish-Armenian normalisation process, launched in 2007, marks a turning point for the Azerbaijani diasporic groups in Turkey. The efforts to achieve the mobilisation of the Azerbaijani diaspora, as well as the promotion of a common agenda fostering close cooperation with Turkish diaspora organizations in third-party countries, gained pace in the context of the Turkish-Armenian efforts aimed at normalising the bilateral relations of the two states. The Azerbaijani groups organized themselves, with the support of the Azerbaijani government, in order to pursue its objective, which was to avoid a situation in which Turkey considers normalising its relations with Armenia and, more specifically, opening its border. The diaspora structures channelled their energy into preventing Turks from once more attempting to normalise relations with Armenians, acting in order to favourably inform Turkish public opinion and decision makers about Azerbaijani sensitivities or ‘red lines’[10]. They aim to eliminate any risk factor that could jeopardize Azerbaijani-Turkish bilateral ties, perceiving themselves as a factor of stability in the bilateral relations thereof. The possibility of opening the border between Turkey and Armenia had caused deep concern within Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan considers that, as the border was closed in April 1993 in the context of the escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (as a reaction to the Armenian offensive against Kelbajar), its re-opening should be conditioned by the settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its opening as a result of bilateral Turkish-Armenian talks would be considered a betrayal. Azerbaijan mobilised all its resources in Turkey to block the normalisation process between Turkey and Armenia and conducts a very aggressive public information campaign (directly engaging representatives of opposition parties in 2008-2010). The member of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, Ganira Pashayeva, is another key figure in terms of PR/PI activities in Turkey and elsewhere.

Furthermore, the elaboration of a joint ‘anti-Armenian’ agenda with the Turkish diaspora organizations abroad increases the legitimacy of the Azerbaijani diaspora within Turkey. The joint action plan aims at countering the Armenian effort for the international recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide, to raise international awareness ‘on the occupation by Armenians of the Azerbaijani lands and of Karabakh’ and at organizing events and campaigns to denounce ‘Armenian lies’ and inform the international communities of the reality.  Azerbaijan tries to mobilise the Eurasian/Central Asian regional groupings, such as the Cooperation Council of the Turkish Speaking Countries, to counter both Armenia and the Armenian diaspora worldwide[11]. The cooperation council organized its first diaspora meeting in 2013 in Baku. The chairman of the Azerbaijani State Committee in charge of the Diaspora, Nazim Ibrahimov, called (in July, 2016) on the ‘diasporas of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan to unite their efforts against the Armenian diaspora’.

In 2015, as Armenians worldwide mobilised for the commemoration of the centenary of 1915, and increased their efforts to attain international recognition of the Armenian genocide, the Azerbaijani and Turkish diaspora strengthened their collaboration to develop a counterstrategy and international public relations battle. The commemoration ceremony of the battle of Dardanelles, organized by the Turkish government in Gallipoli on April 24–25, 2015, with a high level international participation, competed successfully for international media coverage with the commemoration of the centenary of the Armenian genocide that took place in Yerevan. The Azerbaijani government actively supported Turkish public relations efforts during the preparations for the commemoration of Gallipoli. It seems that President Aliyev personally convinced Prince Charles to take part in the commemorations. Interestingly, during 2015, the perception of Armenia as a hostile country and of Azerbaijan as a trustworthy ally increased significantly amongst the Turkish population. A survey conducted by the Kadir Has University on public perception of foreign policy issues[12] shows that the perception of Armenia as a major issue for Turkish foreign policy increased from 0,2% to 11,9% between 2013 and 2015, and that the perception of Armenia as a threat increased from 7,2% in 2013 to 20,3% in 2015. Conversely, the perception of Azerbaijan as a friendly country increased from 28,5% in 2013 to 37,5% in 2015.

The Turkish branch of the Azerbaijani oil company, SOCAR, which has actively supported Azerbaijani diaspora organizations in Turkey, has become a liability for the pro-Azerbaijani lobby after the attempted coup of 15th July 2016. SOCAR Turkey had helped the Azerbaijani diaspora strengthen its networks and develop its channel of influence by investing in the Star Media group and establishing the Caspian Strategic Research Centre in Istanbul.  Furthermore, SOCAR has been a major actor in Turkish-Azerbaijani relations and is expected to become the largest international direct investor in Turkey’s economy. By late 2017, SOCAR’s investments in the Turkish economy are expected to reach 17 USD billion, including the oil refinery unit (PETKİM) acquisition and the Trans Anatolian pipeline project (TANAP). The Azerbaijani-Turkish inter-governmental agreement on the implementation of TANAP was signed on 26th June 2012. Earlier in 2009, as the normalisation process for Turkish-Armenian relations was on track, a commercial dispute over energy issues with Turkey, in which SOCAR was at the forefront, added to the argument that Baku might reorient its energy flows through Russia if it did not receive appropriate assurances from Turkish officials that they will not betray Azerbaijani interests as they strive to normalise Turkish relations with Armenia.

The investigations that followed the coup attempt have revealed that the management of SOCAR Turkey was affiliated with the Gulenist movement, which was allegedly behind the coup. The movement had extensively infiltrated the PETKIM. Many amongst the senior management of both structures have been removed from their positions. The former executive director of the PETKIM was arrested[13]. Furthermore, SOCAR as a whole, has been accused in the press of being one of the main funders of the Gulenist movement[14].

The Azerbaijani diasporic activism a, as influential as it may seem, with  leverage and good access to economic and political power circles, has nevertheless been challenged by the societal transformation that is making more room for Armenian identity within Turkey. The genocide issue, rather than that of Nagorno-Karabakh, is the main focus of the agenda of these groups. They want to revisit historical narratives, and re-examine Turkish national identity, so as to include its Armenian component. The normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia and the opening of the border has become instrumental to the reconciliation of Turks and Armenians. The Azerbaijani diaspora engage in competition with the Armenians over identity construction, and feel the need to re-emphasise the kinship of their identity with that of Turkey, and by embracing its Armenianness, Turkey could exclude them.

Turkey: rediscovery of the homeland by the Armenian diaspora

The murder of Hrant Dink reinvigorated the debate around the issue of the Armenian genocide within Turkey. In reaction to Hrant Dink’s assassination, approximately 275 Turkish academics personally apologised for the “great disaster” suffered by the Armenians in 1915. For the last several years, a group of local NGOs working on issues related to human rights and antidiscrimination have organized a ceremony annually on April 24 at Taksim Square in Istanbul in commemoration of the tragedy of 1915. Turkish-Armenian reconciliation is seen by these groups as an important factor in the democratization of both Turkish society and the Turkish political system. The issue is clearly defined as an internal Turkish question, which can only be addressed via a societal awakening. Emboldened by Turkish human rights activists, the Armenian General Benevolents’ Union-Europe (AGBUEurope) and the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) led a delegation to Istanbul, composed mainly of young people from around Europe. The commemoration events culminated in a gathering at Taksim Square in Istanbul, where people of the Armenian diaspora made speeches in Armenian, Turkish, and English[15].

Recent civil society initiatives have focused on overcoming collective amnesia, on reviving the memory of centuries-old Turkish-Armenian coexistence, and on nourishing Armenian heritage in Anatolia. The main objective is usually to raise awareness and historical knowledge of the daily lives of Ottoman Armenians. Anadolu Kültür, a Turkish foundation established by a Turkish philanthropist, has sponsored many such cultural projects. Anadolu Kültür has established collaborations with the Armenian diaspora, as in the case of the REPAIR – an Armenian-Turkish platform project conducted with the French-Armenian NGO Yerkir Europe. The “Repair” project is dedicated to supporting the efforts of the Turkish, Armenian and Armenian Diaspora civil societies in their various mutations by trying to synchronise the positive dynamics, which are currently plagued by mutual misconceptions.

The Hrant Dink Foundation pursues a domestic agenda, promoting further democratization and the respect of human rights. The foundation developed a history program that supports efforts to record history devoid of nationalism and racism. It is also active in the bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia. The normalisation of relations with Turkey is perceived as being interlinked with democratisation. The Hrant Dink Foundation has furthermore contributed to create a positive interest in Turkey amongst the Armenian diaspora[16]. Diaspora Armenians feel more entitled to interfere in the Turkish domestic processes, and the idea that diaspora Armenians should try to impact Turkish society is slowly taking track. The Civilitas Foundation opened an office in Istanbul in November 2013 in a move that was explained as an effort to share information about Armenian organizations and the diaspora.

In parallel, the Turkish government has recently started to reach out towards the diaspora, investing in this area of heritage protection, as well as encouraging the revival of Armenian identity for public diplomacy purposes. Soon after having conveyed a condolence message to Armenians on 24th April 2014, Prime Minister Erdoğan, at the inauguration of the historical mosque of Ortaköy, which had undergone renovation work, emphasised that it was built by an Armenian architect, a member of the famous Balian family. At the same time, the Armenian community of Istanbul inaugurated in its district the first ever Armenian school, which had been built under the legal framework of republican Turkey. The school was built on the land of a church foundation, which was re-zoned with the support of the municipality. The Turkish national news agency, the Anatolian News Agency, published a long article on this story. In 2015, Prime Minister Davutoğlu issued a message on the occasion of the anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink, in which he stressed that Turkey has started to overcome the generalisations and stereotypical assertions of the past and issued an invitation to Armenians to come and visit Turkey. A second message followed on April 23rd 2015, in which Prime Minister Davutoğlu offered his condolences to the grandchildren of the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives during the relocation of 1915. He stated that it was a “a historical and humane duty for Turkey to uphold the memory of Ottoman Armenians and Armenian cultural heritage,” and announced that a religious ceremony would be held at the Armenian Patriarchate church in Istanbul on April 24th to remember the “Ottoman Armenians in Turkey, just as they will be across the world.” The ceremony, led by the Deputy Patriarch Aram Ateşyan, was also attended by EU minister Volkan Bozkır. President Erdoğan’s message was also read at the ceremony, at which white doves symbolising peace were released and bells were rung 100 times. This was the first mass organized on April 24th since 1916[17].

Interestingly, Istanbul is progressively re-emerging as an important centre of Armenian cultural identity. The landscape of Armenianness in Turkey has extended over recent decades. The Christian Armenian minority of Turkey find themselves next to two other groups of Armenians. The latter are, first, the Muslim Armenian citizens of Turkey, and second, labour migrants from the Republic of Armenia, who started arriving in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul, for economic reasons (Papazian, 2014). The existence of islamised Armenians was a taboo subject in Turkey until recently. Most of their stories go back to the 1915 massacres, when some Armenian children were adopted by Muslim families, women married Muslim men and some families converted to Islam to save their lives. These were the Armenians, who, for a century, had been forced to conceal their identities. Their children have started playing a major role in overcoming the taboo. The book that the lawyer and human rights activist Fethiye Çetin published in 2004 (Çetin, 2004) tells of how she discovered her grandmother’s Armenian roots, and how this had a major impact upon her. the story touched many and pushed many others to dig into their family stories. Fethiye Çetin reconnected with her relatives, who were amongst those living in the diaspora within Anatolia, by unearthing her grandmother’s past. The journalist Ahmet Akabay published a book in 2013 on his Armenian mother, who had revealed her secret to him just before passing away[18]. The Hrant Dink Foundation has contributed to the easing of such taboos – also among Armenians – by organizing symposiums.

The Armenian community in Turkey has become more politically empowered. Three ethnic Armenian members were elected to the Parliament in the 1st November 2015 elections[19], attorney Selina Ozuzun Dogan, of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the journalist Markar Esayan, of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the activist Garo (Garabed) Paylan, of the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Nor Zartonk, which means New Awakening[20], started in 2004 as an e-mail group, transforming into a movement through which Armenian youth could engage in intellectual conversations and talk about problems in Turkey, the world and in Armenian society. Nor Zartonk scaled up its activities after Hrant Dink’s assassination. Nor Zartonk played a leading role in the resistance movement for the restitution of ‘Kamp Armen’, an Armenian orphanage – the orphanage where Hrant Dink was educated – in Tuzla near Istanbul, which was seized in the 1980’s by the Turkish state, and was scheduled to be destroyed in 2015. The resistance movement reached its aim after 175 days, as Kamp Armen was restituted to the Armenian community. In the meantime, Kamp Armen was transformed into a memory place and a ‘space in which everything concerning the Armenians could be talked about’. Nor Zartonk is striving to spread ‘the culture of resistance amongst the Armenian Community’.[21]

Interestingly, in this process, Turkey emerges as the real homeland: the objective of the Armenian diaspora woldwide and of Azerbaijani diasporic groups is no longer that of gathering support for the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for either Azerbaijan or Armenia. Turkey has become the ancestral homeland for the Armenian diaspora and a real kin-state rather than a merely a host country for the Azerbaijani diasporic groups. By blurring the distinction between homeland and hostland, diasporas are actively involved in the re-bordering process of Turkey’s national identity.

The effects of competing diasporic activism over the definition of Turkey’s national identity and the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The linkage between the Turkey-Armenia relations and the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is strengthened by the strategies of Azerbaijani diaspora organizations, which opposed civil society actors connected with the Armenian diaspora within Turkey. Azerbaijani and Armenian diaspora groups have become a factor in Turkey’s approach to the South Caucasus and the implications thereof in terms of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, Turkey has become, to a certain extent, another ‘homeland’ for both Armenian and Azerbaijani diaspora groups. interestingly, both groups are act as stakeholders in Turkish domestic politics and compete for influence in the ongoing process of the redefinition of Turkish national identity and the revisiting of historical narratives.

The Armenian diaspora’s engagement in Turkish public space supports the democratisation process and the design of a more inclusive identity. The Armenian diaspora’s engagement is as much the result of Turkish societal transformation as it is activism, as such a process pushes for the re-evaluation of historical narratives. Azerbaijani diaspora groups act as spoilers, intervening in the debate around the qualification of the 1915 massacres of Ottoman Armenians. However, a genuine reconciliation between Turks and Armenians would be beneficial for Azerbaijanis as well. An increase in the interaction between Turkish and Azerbaijani civil society is positive by itself. The actions of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Turkey, however, exacerbate ethno-nationalism in domestic politics and set a very restrictive agenda for societal relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which factors contribute to misperceptions about Azerbaijanis within Turkey.

Such advocacy activities for Turkish-Azeri solidarity are fueling nationalist feeling and strengthening a monolithic vision of Turkish national identity. Turkish society has been badly affected by the Kurdish conflict, and cannot afford further polarization along ethnic lines because of the Karabakh conflict. Ethnic nationalism would be highly destructive for Turkey, especially in overcoming the challenge of the Kurdish conflict. Both Azerbaijani and Armenian diaspora groups are positioning themselves on issues linked to the Kurdish conflict. The Kurdish issue is the most powerful dynamic supporting the process of the questioning and progressive redefinition of national identity. The AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Development and Justice Party) that acceded to power in 2002, managed to win an electorate in the Kurdish populated provinces of south east Anatolia. The democratic openings supported by the launch of the EU accession negotiations opened a window of opportunity for the settlement of the Kurdish issue.  Confidential peace talks were initiated between the PKK and the Turkish government in 2009.  Despite a re-eruption of violence in 2011, a sustainable ceasefire could be ensured in the following years and talks could to the formulation of the Dolmabahçe Agreement in February 2015. The widespread optimism on the chances for settling the Kurdish conflict ended a view weeks after the June 2015 parliamentary elections, where the pro-Kurdish entered the Parliament.

Armenians, as a minority group (as conferred by the Lausanne Treaty) perceived as outside the definition of the Turkish nation could not have had any traction thereof. The Kurds, as the largest Muslim and non-Turkish group, have been instrumental in this respect. The Kurdish movement has also allowed Armenians in Turkey ‘to breath more comfortably’[22] over the last decade.  The Kurdish question in Turkey is a much more current and sensitive issue than the Armenian question. there is currently no violence in Turkish-Armenian relations, although past relations are indeed marked by violence. Dealing with the past and its legacy is a heavy burden. However, preventing or ending violence is not an issue.

The search for a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish issue has opened the political space necessary for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts. On the contrary, the upsurge of the violent conflict between the PKK and the State, which fuels nationalist feelings and creates polarisation within Turkish society, has created an additional burden for Turkish-Armenian efforts. Kurdish parties, such as the BDP, and later the HDP, have been the only advocates for reconciliation with Armenians on the political stage. The municipalities of Kurdish populated cities, such as Van and Diyarbakır, have been very eager to restore the Armenian heritage sites located and establish good connections with Armenians, both from Armenia and the Diaspora. The Kurds, who consider themselves to be the victims of Turkish nationalism, have demonstrated a readiness to enter into a historical reconciliation process with the Armenians. Some Kurdish Alevi tribes are mixed up with Armenians. They acknowledge that Armenians were the victims of massacres perpetrated by Sunni-Kurdish Hamidiye cavalry units in the 1890’s.

The Surp Giragos church provides a good illustration of how the Kurdish question can both be an enabler and an obstacle. while the peace process was on track, the conducive environment in Diyarbakir enabled the restoration of the largest Armenian church in the Middle East; however, the old Armenian district where the church is located was destroyed during the armed struggle launched by the PKK against the state. The upsurge of violence between security forces and the PKK, which erupted in July, shattering a two-and-a-half-year truce, badly affected the historical neighbourhood of Dıyarbakır, where the Surp Giragos church is located. Furthermore, in the context of the upsurge of violence, the Armenian community of Turkey has been targeted by nationalist and populist media outlets and accused of collusion with PKK terrorism. The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople felt obliged to issue a statement denying and condemning the allegations[23].

On the other hand, the debate related to Turkish national identity, and efforts to accommodate Kurdish cultural identity thereof, are perceived as a threat to the bond between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Moreover, a general upsurge in nationalist sentiment countrywide provides pro-Azeri groups with favourable ground. Advocacy activities for Turkish-Azeri solidarity are fuelling nationalist feeling and strengthening a monolithic vision of Turkish national identity.

Prospects for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The Turkey-Azerbaijani alliance decreases the likelihood of a settlement being negotiated, as both sides are less likely to compromise (Azerbaijan because of its feeling of superiority and Armenia because of its sense of being engaged in a struggle for survival). A border open to trade and human interaction could have sustained the process of historical reconciliation, which would have been of considerable geopolitical gain to neighbouring countries and regional powers.

The prospects of settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and normalising relations between Turkey and Armenia decreased with the collapse of the protocols process. The logic that links the two settlement processes has prevailed for almost a decade and resulted in a stalemate: the context is highly unstable and unpredictable, with the military option prevailing more than diplomacy. It is debatable whether the normalisation of relations with Turkey would provide economic and moral support to Armenia. Keeping the Turkish-Armenian border closed doesn’t provide Azerbaijan with leverage on Armenia. The Armenian political elite consider any compromise on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue an unacceptable price to pay in order to secure the opening of the border with Turkey.

In a context where diplomatic negotiations are in deadlock, through its alliance with Azerbaijan, Turkey runs the risks of being drawn into a military confrontation, which was viewed as a major risk in the early 90’s. The four days war in April 2016 has shown how explosive the situation is and points at the risk of a new fully-fledged war in the South Caucasus. Despite on-going military cooperation between the two countries, it seems very unlikely that Turkey would be able to provide any serious military support to Azerbaijan. Turkey cannot help Azerbaijan win a war against Armenians: such an illusion is highly dangerous, as it can open the door to the regionalisation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey has a huge stake in having a stable Armenia at her border. If Armenia was destabilised by, what would be perceived as, a war between Turks against Armenians in Karabakh, it would become a considerable border security risk for Turkey.

The maps of the Turkish/Armenian-Armenian/Azerbaijani and Turkish-Kurdish conflicts are becoming interlinked, especially when PKK attacks reach the Turkish-Armenian borderland – as in case of the attack against the Baku-Erzurum gas pipeline[24] – and more specifically the Iğdır province[25], which is home to a large Azeri population. The Azerbaijan-supported associations based in Iğdır were prone to pointing at Armenia and pretending that Armenia and Karabakh were becoming a safe haven for the PKK[26]. There is a risk of confusing the maps of the Turkish/Armenian-Armenian/Azerbaijani and Turkish-Kurdish conflicts as they are becoming interlinked and, ultimately, can all destabilise the Turkish-Caucasus borderland.


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[1] Misak-i Milli (National Pact): a document adopted by the provisional parliament in Istanbul on 28 Jan 1920. It affirmed the inviolability of the borders of the remaining lands inhabited by Ottoman Muslim (mainly Turkish and Kurdish) majorities –the front lines in place at the time of the ceasefire agreement of 30 October 1918/ Treaty of Sevres: national trauma Aug 1920 ; 1939 with the province of Hatay, Mosul: disputed territory between Turkey and the UK until 1926

[2] The visit of the Turkish diplomatic delegation (chaired by Deputy Under Secretary Bilgin Ünal) to Yerevan in August 1992 launched the negotiations for the establishment of diplomatic relations. Gerard Libaridian and David Shahnazarian were in charge of the negotiations on the Armenian side.

[3] Interview with Aslanlı in Baku, November 2015.

[4] Hülya Demirdirek and Orhan Gafarlı, ‘How Non-Governmental Are Civil Societal Relations Between Turkey and Azerbaijan?’ in Caucasus Analytical Digest, no 86, 25 July 2016, data collected by Ankara Policy Center within the ISSICEU project by Seval Kök.

[5] For an overview of the Azerbaijani diaspora’s activities:


[7] Data collected during Focus Group Discussions organized at the Ankara Policy Center (within the ISSICEU project) with Azeri/Azerbaijani experts and opinion makers, including Orhan Gafarlı and Arif Keskin, October – November 2015, in Ankara



[10] Interviews conducted with Efgan Niftiyev and amb. Halil Akıncı, representatives of the Hazar Enstitüsü (HASEN) in Istanbul on 14 October 2015

[11] Türk Dili Konuşan Ülkeler İşbirliği Teşkilatı 1. Diaspora Forumu, Interview conducted with Amb. Ramil Hasanov, head of the Türk Konseyi, TURKKON, in Istanbul on 15 October 2015

[12] Foreign Policy Survey of the Kadir Has University (TDPKAA), 24 May 2015



[15] Interviews with the leaders of DUR DE and EGAM in Istanbul on 24 April 2015. The author took part in the commemoration event in Istanbul on the occasion of 24 April 2015.

[16] Interviews with Delal Dink and Burcu Bercermen from Hrant Dink Foundation in Ankara and Istanbul, conducted in the first half of 2016

[17] ‘100 Bells Ring at Kumkapı Patriarchal Church’ Agos, April 24, 2015,


[19] Satenik Tovmasyan, ‘Turkey votes: 3 Ethnic Armenians retain seats in Parliament’

[20] New Awakening is at the same time the name of the Armenian Renaissance, which was centred in Istanbul between 1850-1915. It is also called the Zartonk period. In this context, Zartonk also means “new awakening”, “new Renaissance”. That was a period in which Armenians were at the forefront of arts, political and in social circles. Nor Zartonk is a reference to that period. This period was brought to a sudden end in 1915.

[21] ‘A New Awakening: An Interview with Nor Zartonk’s Sayat Tekir’, 27 August 2015,

[22] Interview with Yetvart Tomasyan, founder of Aras Editions, on ‘Being an Armenian today in Turkey’. Tovmasyan states: ‘If there was no Kurdish reality in Turkey over the last 30 years, we, as Armenians, could not express ourselves in such a comfortable manner. We have also had the ease and comfort of expressing our ideas, the ability to publish, and breath more comfortably as Armenians, besides Kurdish people. If this reality didn’t exist, we would have been still living as if we were “crushed” or “out of breath”.

The statement reads “From time to time, the expressions of some writers targeting our community and identifying it with that terrorist group deeply insult the Armenian citizens who have always been committed to this country and possess civic consciousness. Using unjust expressions referring to Armenian citizens, who consider themselves a part of Turkey, is an attitude not fitting the frames of goodness. We are convinced that the majority of our nation does not agree with these alienating expressions.”




*This paper is a product of the EU funded FP7 project “Intra-and Inter-Societal Sources of Instability in the Caucasus and EU Opportunities to respond- ISSICEU” (

**The feature photo of this publication is taken from