“It was a major shift in the understanding here of the importance of freedom of expression,” Ferai Tinc, a leading columnist with the Turkish daily Hurriyet, told Aljazeera.net. “It showed a transformation in mentality.”
Others see it as a major step too on Turkey’s rocky road to European Union membership, with talks on this due to start in just one week’s time.
The conference – held on 24 September amid cries of treachery from hardline Turkish nationalists and resounding applause from academics, politicians and pundits – was the first ever in Turkey to see an open discussion on the events of 1915.
At the turn of the 20th century, Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, was allied with Germany and Austria (part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) against Britain, France and Russia.
The Ottoman government, many historians say, then organised what amounted to genocide of its ethnic Armenian population, which was considered pro-Russian and disloyal.
But Turkish authorities have in the past 90 years denied this version of events, saying that both Turks and Armenians were killed in chaotic fighting.
While Ankara does concede that the Ottoman government ordered the deportation of its ethnic Armenian population to the southeast of the country, it insists this did not constitute genocide.
Turkish nationalists condemned
This controversy has led to heated and often violent disputes, with the official Turkish line fiercely defended within the country, effectively preventing public discussion of alternative points of view.
Yet this month, academics met to do just that – and were pelted with eggs and tomatoes by hardline Turkish nationalists, who accused the professors of betraying the country.
The conference had already been cancelled in May after the country’s justice minister described it as a “stab in the back” by Turkish academics who were willing to consider claims of a genocide.
Reset for September 23, at the last minute, hardline Turkish nationalists obtained a court injunction preventing the event from being held at its original venue.
Yet this ban was successfully got round by another Istanbul university offering its premises – a move also seen by many as deeply significant.
“This was Turkey’s academic community asserting its independence,” says Razmik Panossian, a leading Armenian academic and director of programmes at the Canadian Rights and Democracy pressure group.
“They were saying ‘We’ll go ahead with this even if people are against us’. This was a very important step to take.”
“The conference was about Turkey showing itself and the world that it can discuss issues like who we are and what kind of world we want to live in”
For many then, both in Turkey and elsewhere, the significance of the weekend’s conference, which saw mainly Turkish scholars debate the record, was not 1915, but 2005.
“The conference was not just about the Armenian issue,” says Ekyen Mahcupyan, the ethnic Armenian director of Turkish think-tank TESEV’s democratisation programme. “It was about Turkey showing itself and the world that it can discuss issues like who we are and what kind of world we want to live in.”
The conference was also taking place at a crucial time in Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union.
On 3 October, accession negotiations are scheduled to begin, with Brussels pushing Turkey to further democratise – and taking a dim view of the controversy over the conference.
Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, both gave their support for the event and reacted strongly against the court order cancelling it.
“It is obvious that Europe will be influenced in a positive way by how things turned out,” adds Mahcupyan. “As soon as the court halted the conference, everyone reacted – many people came forward to condemn the court and support the event and free speech.”
Istanbul’s Bilgi University hosted
The message here, many Turks believe, is that the recent democratic reforms the current government has introduced are taking hold.
“After the reforms were introduced, there was a lot of questioning in the EU over whether they would be implemented,” says Tinc.
“Now, the ability to hold this conference shows how the mentality has changed, enabling the implementation of reform.”
The issue also has wider strategic implications for Turkey’s EU accession bid. Turkey borders Armenia, yet the frontier remains closed, with no diplomatic relations between the two.
The claims over genocide are a key factor in these frozen relations – although there is one other major issue at stake.
“Relations are being held hostage by the Nagorno Kharabakh conflict,” says Panossian. Since war between Armenia and Turkish ally Azerbaijan resulted in the occupation of some Azeri territory by the Armenians, Turkey has shut off its links with its Armenian neighbour.
“From the moment the EU accession talks start, the Armenian issue will keep coming up”
“Yet, from the moment the EU accession talks start, the Armenian issue will keep coming up,” says international relations professor Gareth Winrow of Istanbul’s Bilgi University – where the conference was eventually held.
“All EU states must have good relations with their neighbours and Turkey must therefore find a formula for normalising its relations with Armenia. Perhaps the hope of some Turks in the conference was to begin that process.”
That being said, the conference’s reception has not been entirely popular in Turkey. Some see the Europeans in particular not as pushing democratic reform along, but as trying to use the issue against Turkey.
“People in France and Germany and some other countries encourage the Armenians to attack Turkey,” says Sedat Laciner , director of the International Strategic Research Organisation in Ankara.
“They can’t find any other reason to keep Turkey out of the EU so they use this. Western countries always used the Armenians – in World War I they did the same thing, encouraging them to rise up against the Ottomans.”
Some Turks say Europe will use
It is a view not too dissimilar from Panossian’s. “European capitals will use Armenia to put pressure on Ankara,” he says.
“This has been a convenient way for them to set up hurdles for Turkey ever since the 19th century.”
Meanwhile, ordinary Turks seem largely divided on the issue.
“I don’t think it should have been allowed,” says shop worker Mert Aslan. “There was no such genocide – it was the Turks who suffered. Nobody ever talks about that, and to think that Turkish professors are supporting the Armenians is a shame for us.”
By contrast, student Dicile Atacam said: “I think it’s a very good thing. If we can’t talk freely about the past, then how can we ever understand each other today, in the present?”