- February 13, 2010
- 6 minutes read
Turkey Is Moving Past the Past
“A taboo has been broken,” said Markar Eseyan, a columnist for the independent Istanbul daily Taraf and the Armenian weekly Agos. “Now we can at last acknowledge the past. The issue of genocide is a red line, along with the Kurdish and Cyprus issues. The AKP has had the courage to confront and even cross these red lines. It saw that in one stroke it could both transform the way Turkey sees itself and open it up to the world.”
Eseyan is from Istanbul, one of 50,000 Armenians left in Turkey. How does he view the protocols signed by Turkey and Armenia, on 10 October 2009, which agreed to establish diplomatic ties between the countries and called for the opening of their common border? “Many in the diaspora do not believe that the opening is a real coming to terms. But they have not lived here. I am hopeful that it is a beginning, not an end.”
At issue is Nagorno Karabakh: Turkey wants Armenia to agree to withdraw from Karabakh before it will open the common border. From 2007 Armenian and Turkish diplomats met secretly in Switzerland. Then came football diplomacy: Armenia’s president invited his Turkish counterpart to a World Cup match between the two national teams in Yerevan in September 2008. The opening has been backed by Washington (and US Armenians pressured to support it). And despite Armenian reservations and Turkey’s reluctance to use the word genocide for the 1915 killings of the Armenians, the countries finally signed an accord. This has yet to be ratified by their parliaments.
This external dynamic has gone hand in hand with developments within Turkey. The killing of the Armenian editor Hrant Dink on 19 January 2007, after he had been taken to court (like the writer Orhan Pamuk) for insulting Turkishness under article 301 of the Penal Code, provoked a heated debate within Turkey. A hundred thousand people protested following Dink’s murder, demanding the annulment of article 301; it was amended on 30 April 2008. “The taboo has gone,” said Eseyan. “Not to the extent of talking of genocide or saying that 1.5 million people were killed, but freedom is growing and we feel better.”
On Cyprus there is a sense that Turkey has done what it can and the issue has passed out of its control. After years of gridlock, the AKP government backed the UN peace plan under Kofi Annan. Turkish Cypriots voted yes (by 64.9%) to the 24 April 2004 referendum under which the constituent states would have federated and entered the European Union as the United Cyprus Republic. The Greek Cypriots voted no (by 75.83%) — and a week later joined the EU (whose acquis communautaire exclude the Turkish north of the island).
This has now become a matter of credibility for the Turks, whose own EU accession has been indefinitely postponed with the coming to power of France’s President Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Even so, some Turks see a new, if slender, hope for a solution in the election of Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, leader of the socialist PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), who, like his Turkish counterpart, is pragmatic and solution-oriented. What solution might emerge is unclear; but talks continued in January.
The opening to Iraq has brought social and economic dividends, but also security to the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq which borders Turkey, until recently a training ground and base for Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) resistance. This has opened the way to an important Kurdish initiative (now called a “democratic opening”) at home. The government has understood that it needs to defuse tensions to end the violence in southeast Turkey and the leadership role of the military there. The reforms have focused on cultural and social issues: some villages have been allowed to rename themselves, more rights have been given to local mayors and there is greater scope for teaching in Kurdish.
Ihsan Bal, professor at Ankara’s Police Academy and a security expert, said: “The opening taking place in the last two years has been substantial; this democratization will also affect the Alevis, Greeks and Armenians. Whether Turkey can handle all this simultaneously is another question.”
There is disagreement among Turks on this. Some say the government has handled the affair ineptly. Others see it as a courageous advance, especially since the high costs of policing the region and containing the PKK risks losing many votes. Many Turks note that the Kurdish party, the DTP (Democratic Society Party) with 21 seats, which was closed down by the Supreme Court on 11 December, had remained silent on the crucial issues of Turkish national life; they believe the government should invite back exiled diaspora Kurds to stop the cult of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
As Bal explained: “There has been some real reform in the prisons and among the police.” And with the revelations of the Ergenekon case, “the public has become aware of what was happening in the ‘deep state’, as the Gladio formations of the 1970s gave way to a gang culture that has infiltrated all parts of Turkish life. In the last two years, we have at least begun to touch the untouchables. Turkey now realizes it’s not shameful, but to its credit, to recognize past mistakes: It’s given it new credibility in the world.”
Wendy Kristianasen is editorial director of Le Monde diplomatique’s English edition.
© 2010 Le Monde diplomatique – Distributed by Agence Global.