As Turkey and Armenia appear are on the brink of a historic shift toward reconciliation, critics on both sides say the parties are moving too fast, and giving too much away.
In Zürich, Switzerland, the Turkish and Armenian Foreign ministers will ink two documents – known as the Protocols – that will give their countries a framework for restoring a working relationship.
The two neighbours have been in a state of almost unremitting enmity, and an uneasy co-existence since overlapping parts of the Ottoman Empire were carved up by competing Western powers in the early years of the 20th Century.
During the First World War, Armenia – believing it had Russian backing – made a territorial bid that was fought off by Turkey. In retaliation, Turkish forces drove much of the Armenian population out of the region which is now Eastern Turkey. In the process, say Armenians, more than one million of their people were killed. Turkey too suffered many casualties.
What was left of Armenia was subsumed into the Soviet Union, while Turkey – deeply nervous of Communism – became a founding member of Nato. Cross-border movements were limited.
There was a brief thaw after the USSR collapsed, but when Armenia became involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, seizing what Turkic Azerbaijan as it is own territory in 1993, Azeri ally Turkey slammed the border shut.
The protocols declare that the two countries will reopen those borders within two months of the agreements being ratified by their Parliaments and establish diplomatic relations immediately.
That could mean that by the beginning of 2010, the two countries are once again exchanging traffic and tourists, and trading goods.
Tea drinkers in Karakoyunlu village in Eastern Turkey shrug, and say that it is landlocked Armenia which has been most severely damaged by the blockade. Armenia’s population of 3.5 million has suffered – the economy hit at least twice as badly as Turkey by the global economic crisis.
But Turkey’s national averages hide an uncomfortable regional fact: Turkey’s east and southeast have turned into economic backwaters, too; trade, commerce and skills moving in one direction: West, to Turkey’s richer provinces, leaving the ageing East a haven for smugglers and armed insurgency.
Nevertheless, loyalty to the people of Azerbaijan and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is the strongest argument heard here against the Protocols.
“We don’t want to see an Armenian face here, till the Karabakh issue is resolved,” says retired teacher-turned-tea-shop owner Sefer Kavak.
The feeling in the tea-shop was universal, that Turkey should hold out on any deal, till Armenia withdrew from what these people – many of them with Azeri family – felt was stolen land.
“We shouldn’t open the border – we can’t trust them; they’re not Muslims,” said elderly tea-drinker Kemal Gulcin, overlooking the fact that he fought alongside the US military in the Korean War and supported his family by working for many years in Germany.
“Thirty people from this village left to work in Germany, including you,” another old man on the next table reminded him.
But Sefer Kavak concurs: “Turks do not have friends other than Turks. Muslims do not have friends other than Muslims.” He is, however, the first to concede that things cannot carry on in eastern Turkey as they are. “Young people can’t make a living here. It’s too hard. There’s no money to get married”,
His son Asker chips in. “They leave and go to Istanbul.”
Flow of people, goods
The tea-drinkers at our table can list the money-making potential of new trade – the flow of people, goods and tourists through the town. On that basis, they feel they can tolerate Armenian traffic if it returns, even if these Turks say they will greet returning Armenians with a “cold face”.
Their responses are tinged with wariness about what Armenia’s real agenda might be: Regaining Turkish land that Armenians once lived on.
Sevgison Kavak, Sefer’s wife, says: “It is very obvious that Armenia’s eyes are set on Mount Ararat. Even Armenians in Istanbul would happily join in and start a war for it.”
Ararat – the legendary resting-place of Noah’s Ark – is now a Turkish province – but is immortalised on the Armenian crest, or coat of arms.
Turkey has a “territorial disintegration complex”, explains Turkish sociology lecturer Nilufer Narli at Istanbul’s Bachesevir University.
She says there is Turkish tendency to see secessionists behind every door. “People are worried about territorial demands coming from Armenia,” he says.
Not just territory, but compensation for lands and lives lost, and property stolen and destroyed by Turkey.
Many of Armenia’s very vocal and successful diaspora – based in the US – would agree. Some are furious that Armenia is even agreeing to sign the protocols which implicitly accept the borders as currently defined, saying this gives away any chance of contesting the loss of their lands in 1915.
They talk of a ‘Right of Return’.
But another issue still dominates – something always demanded by Armenia: That the Turks acknowledge that their actions in 1915 amounted to genocide.
The ‘G’-word is electric in Turkey. While in private even our tea-drinking villagers acknowledge Turks killed many Armenians, publicly Turkey angrily rejects any discussion of the term.
The Turkish state talks instead about “casualties on both sides” in what was back then a “civil war”. Of course, ‘genocide’ has commercial and legal implications too, for compensation and reparation.
“The Armenian issue is upsetting many Turkish people, but also it creates polarisation in Turkey because the majority of people are not ready to face history and to discuss the issue very openly,” says Narli.
Agreement and change
The protocols could change this, with an agreement by both sides to set up a panel including ‘international historians’ – a history commission – to examine the events of 1915 and come up with a definition everyone can accept.
This will involve Turkey opening up even further its massive library of Ottoman documents to free and extensive non-Turkish investigation perhaps even involving historians that Turkey has not been comfortable with.
But before any of this happens, the Turkish government needs to sell the protocols to its people and have them ratified in Parliament.
Opposition figures have been have exploiting divisions in Turkey over this, but as the national mood swings more and more in the direction of conciliation, the government may push the protocols through without too much delay.
There is one more seal on today’s events – a football match between Turkish and Armenian World Cup qualifying teams in the Turkish town of Bursa on October 14.
The game is round two of what has come to be known as football diplomacy – first kicked off in December 2008 when Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, accepted an invitation to Yerevan to attend a Turkey-Armenia game there. It signalled the beginning of the thaw.
Now, Serzh Sarkisian, the Armenian president, is invited back for the return leg. Turkey is waiting to hear if he can make it.
Not everyone in the eastern province of Igdir was as wary as our villagers. A restaurant owner on the main highway leading to the border said the peace deal could not happen fast enough. “It is a symbol of Turkey taking a leadership role in the region,” said Engin Murat Turan.
“It won’t be easy or simple, but at the end we will see our borders open with Armenia, and our people communicating. We must.”
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