Istanbul, Turkey – With the centennial of the Armenian massacre just days away, Armenian-Turkish relations and the history the neighbouring countries share have come under the spotlight again.
The diplomatic arena has been heating up as Pope Francis recently used the word “genocide” for the first time to describe the 1915 killings and, earlier this week, the European Parliament reiterated its call for Turkey to recognise the “Armenian genocide”.
Ankara agrees that many Armenians died in ethnic fighting and the deportation process between 1915 and 1917 during World War I, putting its estimate at 300,000 casualties. Armenia says 1.5 million died in the process, including the march to Syria, in what it calls a genocide – an accusation denied by Turkey, which says there was no systematic attempt to destroy Armenians.
Al Jazeera spoke with Etyen Mahcupyan, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s chief adviser who has Armenian roots, about a range of issues, from Turkey’s changing rhetoric on 1915, to the future of Turkish-Armenian relations, and the conditions of the Armenian minority in Turkey.
Etyen Mahcupyan: Turkey is acting with a perspective to create an environment for the sides of the issue to come to an agreement. Ankara wants to achieve this without any negative spillover to its other policy areas. It is pursuing a balanced policy without rushing things, leaving it to time.
The Armenian issue is not the most important topic on Turkey’s agenda. It ranks somewhere in the middle. And for this reason, it is kept a bit in the background in case it might harm positive developments in other policy areas. The government will continue with its positive approach on the issue as far as the situation allows it to.
Many people use the word 'genocide' here. Turkey is over this issue.
Al Jazeera: Erdogan changed the date of the Gallipoli Campaign [a World War I conflict] anniversary and invited Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to Turkey this year. If Sargsyan accepted the invitation and uttered the word ‘genocide’ in his speech, how would that be received in Turkey?
Mahcupyan: It is not really significant for Sargsyan to say ‘genocide’ in Turkey. Many people use the word ‘genocide’ here. Turkey is over this issue.
The important issue is if the Turkish state is going to formally accept it or not. And this issue is going to be resolved in the domain of nation states. So, I don’t think it makes sense to revisit what happened in 1915 all the time. Nation-state mentality does not seek acknowledging historical facts, but seeks the interest of its people today.
Al Jazeera: The Armenian diaspora is influential both on the Armenian government and on some of the other governments in the world. And the diaspora actively promotes recognition of the 1915 tragedy as ‘genocide’. How does this situation influence Armenian-Turkish relations?
Mahcupyan: The strategy implemented [by the diaspora] through third parliaments and governments has a negative influence on the atmosphere in Turkey. Turkish society has been carrying out this initiative and opening up, but the interventions from abroad stall the process.
There is this dilemma: You try to use foreign countries to push Turkey to make a move, but as you use these countries, the change in the Turkish society stalls and prevents the Turkish government from taking certain steps.
Al Jazeera: What realistic steps can be taken between Armenia and Turkey today in order to normalise relations?
Mahcupyan: There is a third party in this equation: Azerbaijan, in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. We need a three-party solution, in which Turkey and Armenia as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan solve their problems and normalise relations simultaneously. We need a political conjuncture [where] this can be realised.
Perhaps after the elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan, we can find such an opportunity. Or the Minsk Group [a group within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe dedicated to solving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute] might start to take on such an initiative. I believe these disputes can be resolved all together, not one by one.
Al Jazeera: Do you think the government made the religious and educational conditions better for the Armenian Turkish community? Do you think the community is better off today?
Mahcupyan: The conditions of the Armenian community and other non-Muslim communities in Turkey are better today. It is clear. Today, there is an open and comfortable dialogue between the government and these communities. It doesn’t have to be behind closed doors as it was in the past.
The majority of the foundation properties [nationalised by the Turkish state in the past] that are possible to return have been returned to communities. This is only 25 percent of the total, but it is all that can practically be returned for now, as most of the others are properties occupying very large territories, such as graveyards.
The Armenian Patriarchate still has no legal entity. There are still big problems with the content of school textbooks… Things are better than in the past, but there is still a long way to go.
Then there are ongoing problems, of course. The Armenian Patriarchate still has no legal entity. There are still big problems with the content of school textbooks. These are the issues that haven’t been resolved yet. Things are better than in the past, but there is still a long way to go.
Al Jazeera: In Armenian minority schools, the vice principal still has to be a Muslim Turkish citizen. This is also among their complaints. What would you say about this?
Mahcupyan: Largely, such issues are resolved in practise in Turkey today through the AK Party government’s pragmatism. They don’t have as much significance as they had in the past… Principals are invited to relevant state meetings and gatherings now, rather than vice principals.
The government tries to initiate new practices and make things more convenient for communities without changing the actual relevant laws. However, ideally, laws should be amended to make structural changes.
Al Jazeera: In a recent meeting with Armenian community leaders, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the ‘Armenian diaspora is our diaspora.’ Is this a historical reference? What did he mean by saying this?
Mahcupyan: He had said this before that as well. It is a correct observation and a good approach for looking at the future. Turkey should be ready to embrace all its citizens who had to leave the country in the past. Turkey today is able to accommodate two million Syrians. Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks and Jews … all people who left the country should be given the chance to come back if they want to do so. Their worries and feelings should be taken into consideration.
Such an approach, perhaps reminding us of the times before the [Turkish] republic, exists within the AK Party. However, this goes as far as the political conjuncture in the country allows it to happen and as far as it doesn’t happen to undermine other issues Turkey is trying to deal with. Therefore, progress remains a bit slow.
Al Jazeera: In the past, people had been prosecuted, even indicted for acknowledging the Armenian ‘genocide’ in Turkey. The cases were based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code [which makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a crime]. The article is still there, but there are no more prosecutions. Why?
Mahcupyan: The AK Party has come up with a technical arrangement and made prosecutions for certain articles subject to the Ministry of Justice’s approval. The government did not change these articles, as it would spark a negative public reaction.
The minister of justice does not approve these cases [on the ‘genocide’ issue]. And there are no complaints any more anyway, as the word has been used widely and publicly for awhile now, and the society has gotten used to it. The resistance has been broken through this process. It is one of the tactics the AK Party uses while transforming Turkey.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_uras