An interview with Rober Koptash, Agos Political Commentator
Rober’s parents hail from the town of Sepastia. When Rober was 12 years-old the family moved to Istanbul. The family name is “Shirvanian” which they were forced to change in 1934 when the Turkish government passed a law requiring Armenians to adopt Turkish surnames. Turkish was the language spoken at home. Rober began to learn Armenian at the age of seven at school. He writes articles for Agos in Turkish.
For the past ten years, he has also been working at Aras Publishing where he edits books translated from Armenian into Turkish. Presently, Robert is defending his doctoral thesis at one of Istanbul’s leading universities and conducts research into 19th century Ottoman archives. Robert states, “This was impossible a mere twenty years ago since the archives were closed. Now they’re open and they give me whatever I want. I haven’t encountered any problems to date.”
Q - How do you view the state of relations between Armenia and Turkey? Armenians adhere to two extreme positions; one group wants to normalize relations while the other is dead-set against such an overture, including the opening of the border.
A - While I would like to see the establishment of cordial relations, it is not something easily achieved. Let me provide an explanation of such relations on two different levels. On the first level are relations between governments and on the second, between peoples. Relations between the two governments are dependent on Moscow, Washington and various other geo-political factors. This issue could be resolved by taking a single step, in the course of one day, or it could take 20-25 years to iron-out. It’s a different matter when the issue is in regards to relations between the two peoples. Here, the potential for establishing relations is much greater. There are already regular flights between Istanbul and Yerevan. Cultural bridges can be created and we see such occurrences periodically. Such relations must be commenced now. If we wait for the governments themselves to resolve their issues, such work will be harder in the future. We can build these bridges as citizens, as individuals, to establish contacts as small groups. Steps in this direction have slowly begun and they must serve to further develop such relations. Theatrical troupes from Armenia already travel here to perform. Armenians from the ROA come here to work and Turkish journalists make working trips to Yerevan. Twenty years ago all this would have been unheard of, but today, it is a possibility.
Q - How would you explain why the murder of Hrant Dink moved so many in Turkey to take to the streets, in an outpouring show of sympathy?
A - Hrant always spoke of peace and the peaceful resolution of the issues involved. He never uttered a disparaging word about anyone. He was seen as a man of peace and this is one of the reasons for the support he engendered. Secondly, Hrant was the only Armenian a large segment of Turks actually knew. They had no other Armenian acquaintances. He was the only Armenian they had any contact with, the only Armenian to appear on Turkish TV speaking about political matters. Thus, when Hrant was killed, these Turks lost the one and only Armenian they knew. For these Turks, historical issues such as the Genocide, the fate befallen the Armenians, were open questions that their government refused to accept. These people viewed Hrant as a means to resolving these issues. TV stations all at once started to show pictures of Hrant and broadcast his statements. In the streets, what you saw was a more democratic-minded; left of center, mass of individuals that were more liberal thinking. Personally, I found this phenomenon to be quite surprising.
Q - What themes do you write about in the pages of Agos?
A - Mostly articles related to Turkish internal political issues but which also touch upon Armenians. In other words, I attempt, by writing in Turkish, to give voice to our issues and the repression we face as Armenians to the society at large and to counter the dominant viewpoints in circulation. This was the approach taken by Hrant Dink and what Agos continues today. Not everyone writes about the Genocide but I try to do so whenever possible. Naturally, there are pressures exerted in this regard but I always think not to do so will leave us empty-handed. Let us at least write about such issues now and let the chips fall where they may afterwards.
Q - What are the pressures that are brought to bear?
A - In reality, such pressures are not targeted at only Armenians. Anyone in Turkey who openly writes something against the state constantly faces the threat of Article 301 and other such statutes. Thus, it is more a matter of legally sponsored repression than any type of censorship. If, for example, you were to write an article stating that as a result of what was done in Turkey a guy named Zohrab was killed, more likely than not, you’d receive a letter in the mail a few days after the article appeared calling you a liar and that you will meet the same fate as Zohrab. We have received some such hate mail and give it little weight. They are only letters and such things are commonplace in Turkey.
Q - Do you report such things to the police?
A - Sometimes, such hate mail is addressed to the Agos offices and other times to the homes of Agos staff members. If the mail is sent directly to Agos, the police immediately follow up on it. On two occasions, I received such threats in letters addressed to my home but I never reported the matter to the police. Why, because I really did not believe that the police would actually investigate the matter if I did.
Q - Do Turkish TV stations invite you to participate in debates or other broadcast forums?
A - I have been asked to participate in a few university lectures and I have attended such events. I have turned down the few requests I’ve received to appear on TV. I have refused such requests after Hrant’s murder. Appearing on TV became a bit scary. Your face becomes known and since I get around on public transportation all the time things could get a bit dangerous. Hrant’s face was well known to the public at large since he was the only Armenian who spoke openly on behalf of the community. When TV stations ask me to appear on camera I tell them that it’s risky and look what happened to Hrant. They understand my predicament.
Q - Do you have any Turkish friends?
A - Yes, I am on good terms with many but this fact doesn’t present a true picture of Turks in general in this country. You must remember that the circle in which we work is quite limited and includes only the more open-minded ones, those that have contact with Armenians and who understand our issues. Naturally, we encounter more difficulties once outside this circle and when we visit other cities. We have Turkish reporters and intellectuals working at Agos who have always expressed a willingness to assist us. When a certain issue is raised in the pages of Agos these Turkish journalists report it to their Turkish papers saying, look what the Armenians are writing about. In this way, these issues get a much wider audience. We seem to work well together. However, there are reporters that refuse to a look at Agos, who view it as an enemy paper.
Q - Does Agos write about the Genocide?
A - Yes, but we try not to use that word. Rather we use the term “Metz Yeghern” (Great Atrocity). It’s a term that I use myself, whether spelt out in Latin letters or in Armenian. The pressures that Hrant faced were because he used the taboo word. You can describe what happened but if you employ the term Genocide you can be taken to court. We have had to create a new set of terminology to describe historical reality; it is something we’ve grown accustomed to. For instance, people understand what we mean when we use the term “Great Exile”. It is not only a matter of the term Genocide. For example, you cannot write that it was the Ottoman Army or Ottoman soldiers, or Turkish soldiers that did such things. You can only use the word “army” or “soldier”, without any qualifiers. When the anniversary of April 24th approaches, we write about the Armenian writers who were rounded up and killed, their lives and how they met their tragic fates. We do not have to use the term “genocide” but people clearly understand the message and this is important.
Q - Do you face any danger just by giving this interview?
A - I would say no because I have covered these issues already. However, people are fearful here just because being Armenian is risky in and of itself. My mother implores me, “Rober, for the love of God, doesn’t write such things.” However, my mother is a different person and I am different as well. I cannot see living any other way. If I do not write and speak out, well, let’s just say, I could not live that way.