Not being invited to a big occasion usually causes bad blood, but, in Turkey and Armenia’s case, it was actually mutual invitations that started the trouble. After trading invites to anniversaries of two major historic events, the two countries’ leaders are waging a war of letters larded with testy remarks and history lessons.
Armenia on February 2 described as a “petty trick” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s invitation to President Serzh Sargsyan to attend Turkey’s April 23-24 centennial commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli, a critical World-War-I campaign in which Ottoman Turkey repulsed an Allied invasion. The invitation is “amoral” and runs counter to all norms of protocol, declared Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharian.
Sargsyan earlier had invited Erdoğan to come to Yerevan on the same date to attend Armenia’s commemoration of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915-16 slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians; deaths it condemns as genocide.
As Yerevan no doubt knew, the chances were less than remote that the increasingly sultanesque Erdoğan would shuttle on over to see Turkey’s Ottoman forbearers condemned for genocide.
His response was to ask Sargsyan to attend the Gallipoli memorial.
The annual April 24 commemoration of the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians has long played out according to an unchanged script, with Ankara refusing to acknowledge the horrible deeds of the past and Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora using the refusal to again remind the world that Turkey remains unrepentant for what took place almost 100 years ago.
This year, though, things played out a bit differently, with mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan going off script and issuing a statement yesterday that offered Turkey's "condolences" to the grandchildren of those Armenians who lost their lives during the events of 1915. "Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences - such as relocation - during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards one another," Erdogan's statement, which was translated into nine languages, including Armenian, further said.
Erdogan's words were certainly a change from the blanket denials of the past and were welcomed by some in Turkey's small Armenian community. Rather than groundbreaking, though, they were more of an elaboration on a statement Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made this past December during a visit to Yerevan, when he called the "deportation" of Armenians in 1915 "inhumane."
Armenia and Turkey's periodic efforts to make peace tend to hit a wall, but the nettlesome neighbors seem to be, once again, having another semi-go at rapprochement. Turkey has been invited to attend a Black Sea summit in Yerevan and Ankara is reportedly trying to resuscitate the failed international mediation campaign to end one of the region’s longest-running disputes.
For reasons that remain open to interpretation, Ankara reportedly recently dusted off its foreign-policy master plan, ambitiously billed as "Zero Problems with Neighbors," to call for normalizing with Armenia whatever can be normalized.
Granted, we've been down this road before. Despite all the cheerleading from the US, a 2009 campaign to reconcile the two flopped. Both sides remain hostages to past and present regional conflicts -- namely, the World-War-I-era slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, and the 1988-1994 conflict over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and close Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
But this time, the cease-fire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are more frequent, and the international community, arguably, more concerned about a resumption of war.
So, the thinking may go, maybe it's time to shake things up a bit.
This time round, the US, one of the overseers of the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, is keeping its cards to its chest, however.
When they were signed in Switzerland in October of 2009, the normalization accords between Turkey and Armenia promised to be perhaps the fullest expression of Ankara's then new (and now failed) "zero problems with neighbors" policy, restoring diplomatic ties with a country that had strong historical grievances against Turkey.
Sadly, the accords never went much further, languishing to this day in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments, where they have yet to be ratified. Although both sides blame the other for the failure of the process, the general consensus among experts is that what mostly doomed the process was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence after the protocols were signed that their ratification be linked to the successful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a precondition that was not part of the original negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan. (For a thorough history of the rise and fall of the protocols, take a look at this report by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights Institute for the Study of Human Rights.)
Is there any prospect for the Turkey-Armenia normalization process to be revived? Yesterday, on the signing's fourth anniversary, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested Turkey is still trying to find ways to move forward. From Today's Zaman:
Sometimes diplomatic breakthroughs can happen through unlikely channels. Although the Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process that resulted in the 2009 signing of protocols to reestablish relations between the two neighbors is now almost completely dead, it's worth recalling that it was "soccer diplomacy" -- mutual visits by the Turkish and Armenian presidents to watch their countries' national teams play each other -- that got the diplomatic ball rolling in the first place.
Now that sports have been used in an effort to get the two neighbors to talk to each other, could "cheese diplomacy" be the next thing that sparks a breakthrough in Turkey-Armenia relations? That's the hope of Armenian activist Artush Mkrtchyan, who for the last few years has been the driving force behind an effort to create a kind of Caucasian "peace cheese," one produced jointly be Turks and Armenians living near their shared border. From a New York Times story about the project:
Artush Mkrtchyan calls it cheese diplomacy. Others speak of informal, or “track-two,” diplomacy. By either name, it is all about building bridges between Turks and Armenians in the absence of formal, or “track-one,” diplomatic relations between their governments.
Mr. Mkrtchyan, 55, an engineer, art critic and activist from the Armenian town of Gyumri has made cheese the medium of contact and cooperation with the neighboring town of Kars, in Turkey.
Less than 70 kilometers, or 45 miles, apart but separated by a border that has been closed for nearly two decades, cheese makers in Gyumri and Kars, along with colleagues in the nearby Georgian town of Ninotsminda, produce and market a “Caucasian cheese,” invented by Mr. Mkrtchyan in 2008 to foster cross-border cooperation.
Both in 1991 as a presidential aide (to then US President George Bush) and in 2007 as secretary of state (under then President George W. Bush), Rice worked to defeat the congressional push for recognizing the World-War I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.
While acknowledging the brutality and the scale of the bloodshed, Rice writes that US recognition of the act as genocide would have antagonized Turkey, a key strategic ally for the US. She argues that she was guided by the raison d’état that labels are best left to historians.
Not in the view of American-Armenian Diaspora groups or many Armenian-language news services, who have republished a letter from Harut Sassounian, the publisher of Los Angeles' The California Courier, a weekly catering to the city's sizable Diaspora Armenian community, that advises Stanford University (where Rice now works as a political science professor, a political economy professor at Stanford's business school and, lastly, a public policy fellow) to inform the 57-year-old foreign policy veteran that "genocide deniers are not welcome at one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning."
If you're looking for proof that the economic bottom-line can outweigh political troubles, has the Tamada got a story for you.
The Armenian investigative news service Hetq reports that at a September 20 celebration of the 20th anniversary of Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union some Armenians sported commemorative t-shirts made in Turkey, a country deemed -- at least, traditionally -- to rank second only to Azerbaijan as a threat to Armenia's security.
As a telephone transcript posted by Hetq indicates, Independence Day celebration organizers initially appeared at a loss to explain the fashion faux pas, leveling blame on the sponsor, scrap metal exporter Metexim, Ltd. Representatives of the exporter, in turn, confirmed that they were responsible for the t-shirts, but dodged questions about the specifics.
This isn't the first time that economic ties -- be it t-shirts, jobs or tourism -- have been shown to exist between the two countries, but, coming on such an occasion, chances are many Armenians may well wish that it could prove among the last.
A pile of rocks is once again straining the already rocky relations between Armenia and Turkey.
The pile in question, Turkey's Mt. Ararat, is a stumbling block hard to miss, no matter which side of the border you are on. Height: up to 5,137 meters tall; massif: some 40 kilometers in diameter; symbolic value: immeasurable.
For Armenians, Ararat is what Mount Olympus is for the Greeks and more. Here, per legend, Noah anchored his cruising zoo after the biblical deluge. Armenians claim they adopted Christianity in the mountain’s foothills, and Ararat holds pride of place in Armenia's coat of arms.
Irredentist claims -- even to a mountain -- can go a long way in the Caucasus. The danger , though, lies in always interpreting literally the national symbolism with which politicians throughout the region love to lace their remarks.
Particularly in the run-up to an election. Armenia's ruling Republican Party, headed by Sargsyan, faces a parliamentary vote early next year for which maneuvering has already begun.
The Hurriyet Daily News has a report about the reopening of a long-closed Armenian church in the city of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey. From the article:
Hearkening back to Diyarbakır’s cosmopolitan past, diaspora Armenians and clergy held a small service in a local church Saturday in what many hope is a harbinger for a more multicultural future in the southeastern city.
“The sounds of the call to prayer and church bells will mix here on this land from now on,” Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir said following the service at the restored Surp Giragos Church. “There were major sorrows experienced in the past. We [condemn] the heartlessness of those days in our hearts and we want a new start.”
The reopening of the Diyarbakir church comes in the wake of the higher profile service last September at the Akdemar Church near the city of Van (see this previous Eurasianet story and photo essay). While the reconciliation process between Turkey and Armenia remains seriously stalled, it appears that a more grassroots kind of reconciliation process is happening in eastern Anatolia, with local administration trying to come to terms with the past.
Although the hit song "Namag," which sounds like many other Turkish pop songs, doesn't break any new artistic ground, it certainly has broken political ground in Turkey. The video to the song, sung by Armenian Turk Sibil Pektorosoglu, is the first ever Armenian-language music video to be aired on Turkish television. From the Hurriyet Daily News:
“Namag” (Letter) by Sibil Pektorosoğlu, an Istanbul Armenian, has been gaining mainstream popularity and can now be heard echoing from shops along the city’s iconic İstiklal Avenue. The lyrics were written by master Armenian poet Hovhannes Şiraz while the singer’s music video was produced by one of Turkey’s most famous directors in the field, Özkan Aksular.
Pektorosoğlu said it was like a dream to release her album and broadcast her music video on Turkish television. “When I hear my songs on İstiklal Avenue, I cry,” she recently told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
The showing of Sibil's video seems to follow an interesting pattern in Turkey where various political efforts to reconcile with historic problems (Armenian and Kurdish, in particular) have faltered, while interesting new ground is being broken on the cultural front. More on that here.