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.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy may not be able to have it both ways when it comes to balancing between the Armenians and the Turks. Faced with pressure from Armenian Diaspora groups, Sarkozy pledged not to give his 25-centimes' worth when France's Senate on May 4 votes on a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the massacre ethnic Armenians suffered in 1915 at the hands of Ottoman Turks is a genocide.
France's National Assembly adopted the bill in 2006. But alleged US diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks suggest that Sarkozy has played a diplomatic double game about the bill ever since.
Sarkozy vowed to France’s significant ethnic Armenian electorate to pull the bill through the parliament, but, according to Wikileaks, he also promised Ankara that the Senate would kill the measure.
The revelations sparked an outpouring of Armenian anger in France. Crooner Charles Aznavour, one of the most prominent Armenian Diaspora members in France, threatened to rally the Armenian vote against Sarkozy in next year's presidential elections.
Sarkozy may now have promised Armenian Diaspora members not to interfere with the genocide denial vote in the Senate, but will he say the same when Ankara calls?
Sizing up the US president's annual April 24 statement on Ottoman Turkey's 1915 massacre of ethnic Armenians has become as routine an event as evaluating a State of the Union address. As in years past, no one is happy with it. And, as in years past, President Barack Obama again did not use the "g" word ("genocide") in his statement.
Still, there were some flutterings of activity. This year, for the second time running, a group of Turkish writers, artists and other intellectuals staged demonstrations in six Turkish cities (Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Diyarbakır, Bursa and Bodrum) to commemorate the bloodshed -- events that, several years ago, would have been unthinkable, participants underlined.
“This is a matter of conscience . . . Facing the Armenian taboo will mean Turkey has to face its own history,” one participant in the Istanbul commemoration told Hurriyet Daily News.
In an April 24 column for Today's Zaman, human rights activist Orhan Kemal Cengiz argued that the government allowing the commemorations to take place would signal its " timid and unofficial support for this process of 'remembering' the past of Turkey."
Hopes for sculptural diplomacy between Turkey and Armenia are turning into dust as workers on April 18 began demolition of a giant monument near Turkey's border with Armenia meant to promote friendship between the two feuding states.
And now, after months of opposition from liberal voices at home and angry reactions from Armenia, a touch of crime has been added to the struggle over the statue. The monument's Turkish sculptor, Bedri Baykam, and a companion were stabbed yesterday in Istanbul in an attack that Turkish media linked to the statue's destruction. Baykam, who had described the demolition plans as “artistic murder,” had planned to lead a march to the nearby city of Kars to stop the sculpture's destruction.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in January ordered the demolition of the 30-meter-high concrete statue, calling the structure a “monstrosity."
World leaders nudged Armenia and Turkey into signing a road map to reconciliation in 2009, but the two, still scarred by a near-century-year-old massacre and differing views on the Nagorno-Karabakh independence bid, soon became locked in a you-go-first style of bargaining that eventually brought the two sides back to square one.
Felling the monument, ugly as it may be, is likely to help keep them there, critics fear.
The US Federal Reserve faces a lawsuit from an Armenian Diaspora group that claims the Fed is withholding information about a US government purchase of gold it claims was pillaged from ethnic Armenians in Turkey.
The gold, now supposedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was supposedly seized during Ottoman Turkey's bloody crackdown on ethnic Armenians in 1915.
The Glendale, California-based Center for Armenian Remembrance claims that the Ottoman Turks melted the gold into coins and stashed it in a German bank. “When Germany and Turkey lost [ World War I], the Allies confiscated this loot as ‘war reparations’ against Turkey,” attorney Vartkes Yeghiaian, the Center's director, told Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News. Yeghiayan claims that eventually the gold was sold to the US government.
The Fed reportedly has responded that it has no record of purchasing Armenian gold.
The same group earlier pushed for US and French insurance companies to pay up on 100-year-old life insurance policies held by victims of the 1915 massacre. Two former colleagues are suing Yeghiaian for his handling of a settlement with one of the companies, New York Life Insurance, the Courthouse News Service reported on March 15.