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Turkey & Armenia : Promise amid discord

vendredi 23 mai 2008, par Diba Nigar Göksel

An inspiring conference on Turkey-Armenia relations was held in Yerevan this past Tuesday. At the end of the event, which was organized by the Yerevan-based Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation, and supported by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and USAID, a number of students among the audience took the microphone kindly asking that their “elders” guide them in making a difference in the relationship. Thirty young students were motivated to give me their email addresses with hopes that I could link them with Turkish counterparts upon my return to Istanbul.

The conference witnessed a clash of opinions between Amberin Zaman, Turkey Correspondent of the Economist, and Chairman of the Liberal Democrat Party in Turkey Cem Toker, about Turkey’s domestic trends. By evening, the debate had made its way to the Armenian press under the title “TURKISH POLITICIAN AND JOURNALIST HOLD A HEATED DEBATE” – where the discussions were labeled “surprisingly frank.” Armenians were amazed to see Turks arguing with each other in Yerevan. “We imagine Turkey as one very unified bloc – in fact not only unified within its borders, but with the entire Turkic world,” a young Armenian man admitted hours after the conference.

Shaken concept of the Turk

Despite deep and undenied differences, there were certain points all conference discussants agreed upon : only if a country has a strong democracy can ideas of reconciliation spread and effect policy. Unless we challenge some of the common wisdoms and obtain the knowledge necessary to form informed opinions, we will be susceptible to the provocations of nationalist and populist forces. In terms of bilateral relations, both the genocide resolutions in third countries pursued by the Armenian diaspora and the policy of keeping the Turkish border closed seems not to have served intended purposes – perhaps they have backfired ; There is a lack of clarity and a gap between declarations and practice on both sides.

It also seemed hopeful that the sides could move closer to a shared view of history, as long as they set reasonable expectations. Whether ultimately a plurality of ideas about history can be lived with or whether a shared version needs to be achieved was left inconclusive.

As the end of the conference neared, one young man expressed the joy he felt in having his conception of the Turk shaken through this event. He was warned, with humor, that there are many different Turks just like there are many different Armenians – naturally. The young Armenian, like most others, had never met a Turk before, he was in his mid 20s.

Armenia’s turmoil

Armenia is undergoing deep domestic turmoil, especially heightened since March. There are close to 100 opposition members jailed. Every public institution is internally divided in terms of political camps. Political apathy has been replaced, among many young and well-organized people, by a drive to shift political dynamics through momentum. More people are questioning what they took for granted or felt powerless in the face of. Economic hardships are also instrumental in this restlessness. No matter what the result of these particular crises, there is change in Armenian society and the need to restore legitimacy will in some form or another effect politics, eventually. Though very limited, there are already signs of “fresh professionalism,” as cautiously indicated in a recent article by a well-known analyst, Richard Giragosian.

I was as proud of Turkey as I have ever been when I was able to respond with a confident “no” to a young Armenian woman who asked if we would be penalized when we returned to Turkey, for disagreeing with certain policies, past and present. There are, to be sure, still limitations on freedom of speech, but not like as it was in the past.

Sometimes it takes a trip eastward to appreciate how far Turkey has traveled and the untapped potential it has for more influence. A pity that Turkey is so consumed with its own internal conflicts.

- Diba Nigar Göksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative (www.esiweb.org) and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).

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Source : Thursday, May 22, 2008 TDN

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