Tuesday, 25 September

Gul’s Visit to Armenia Opens a Crack in the Window

I am not a football fan but as I watched the game on September 6th   at the Hrazdan Stadium between the Armenia and Turkey I got the impression that the Armenian players were meeting each other for the first time on the pitch. Of course, football isn’t the topic of my discussion here. There are other prominent commentators in Armenia to do that.

Football did open the window a bit in terms of Armenian-Turkish relations. This window is quite narrow but given the wall of enmity that has existed between the two societies for almost one hundred years, it will turn into an important window.

Two weeks before President Gul’s visit to Armenia a number of Turkish news agencies contacted me with proposals for an interview. The questions were almost the same - how is Armenian society reacting to the visit of Gul and how do Armenians in general relate to Turks?

Answering these questions I noted that the two societies are more prepared to the creation of relations than their respective political or government leaders. I felt this to be the case during meetings I had in Istanbul in June of this year. It was my first visit to Turkey. During the past fifteen years hundreds of thousands of Armenians have traveled to Turkey. Despite the absence of diplomatic relations the two societies come into contact with one another. They basically engage in trade with Armenians bringing back a wide range of goods from Turkey. A segment of Armenians have also found work in Turkey. Thousands of Turkish-Armenians, who have Turkish citizenship, come to visit Armenia. A much smaller number of Turks also travel to Armenia, mostly drivers of freight trucks or tourist buses. Thus, even before the authorities were making timid statements about Armenian-Turkish relations, the two societies were already intermingling. It turns out that the people were more courageous than their leadership. After my trip to Turkey I have constantly been wondering about the plight of Armenians from the ROA residing in Turkey and the Turkish-Armenian community. In all likelihood, there isn’t another Armenian community in the world that is as isolated from Armenia than the Turkish-Armenian community. They live in a state of fear and absolutely do not feel the presence of Armenia.

 Given all this, September 6th was an historic day for the two countries. For years on end each has portrayed the other in the guise of the enemy. Armenians cannot forget the most tragic page ion their history, the Genocide and the one and a half million martyrs. Turkey doesn’t wish to accept the fact of such an event. In Turkey it is prohibited to use the term “genocide”. People are jailed for doing so. Today, Turkey is not ready to bear the brunt of self-responsibility. Sooner or later, however, this too will happen.

Now, a situation has come about where the two nations have been given the opportunity for mutual contact. Not to take advantage of this opportunity would be dangerous for the two nations. The world is replete with tragedy and conflict and the creation of relations and the establishment of relations between the two can serve as a shining example as how to avert such a conflict. In Turkey they have also come to realize that the Karabakh issue can no longer be resolved through military means.

We are neighboring countries but we hardly have any contact as reporters on a journalistic level. When I was in Istanbul I didn’t know what reporters I could talk to there. The bottom line is that the existing official position regarding Armenia, which isn’t all that friendly and which contains dangerous manifestations, is reflected in the media outlets. The meeting of the presidents will also be a wake-up call for expanded contact between Armenian and Turkish journalists; in order to better represent the other in their respective countries. There is much to write about in Turkey, especially for Armenian reporters.

President Serzh Sargsyan took a bold step and the wheels have started to turn. Once spinning, they cannot be stopped.

It will be quite difficult for the societies in the two countries to demolish the stereotypes dominating for over a century. National chauvinism is dominant in Turkey and I state this based on my observations there. The same isn’t the case in Armenia. Of course, I have my reasons for saying this but it’s a topic for another discussion. Thus, we have to take into account the possibility that certain segments of the society will react unfavorably to all this and take countermeasures.

For we Armenians, there’s a sensitive aspect to the issue - the Diaspora.  Giving an explanation to the Diaspora regarding all this will prove to be most difficult. How will the Diaspora react to President Gul’s visit and to normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations without any preconditions? It is a very touch matter. The Diaspora has yet to speak out on the matter and it’s even possible to assume that the Diaspora is proceeding cautiously as well. It’s my belief that these relations will serve to bolster the self-identity issue for many Armenians now living in Turkey, the community will breathe in fresh air and their freedoms will be expanded.

Istanbul has always been a multi-national metropolis. This crossroad of cultures has primarily attracted others for this very reason. Turkey, however, faces a big problem. The press avoids covering the thorny pages of history as they actually occurred. Today, for example, only a small number of Turks know about the incidents of September 5-6, 1955, when acts of violence were targeted against non-Muslim nationalities. There a mass exodus of Greeks from Turkey after these events and scores of Greeks were murdered/ Few Turks know that during those days stores and churches belonging to non-Muslims were burned and looted.

Few Turks today are aware of the fact that Armenians live in Turkey, that Armenian churches and schools openly operate within the country. For the moment, let’s not discuss the conditions these schools and churches are burdened with. Few Turks are aware that Armenian schools, where the language of instruction is Turkish, do not receive a penny of state financing like other schools.

Turkey implements a policy of discrimination regarding its national and religious minorities. Furthermore, the Turkish press doesn’t see fit to cover these issues and, to make matters worse, labels those who voice such concerns as enemies of the Turkish state. As a result many of these activists wind up in Turkish jails or are forced to leave their native country. But these too are other issues that have nothing to do with the game of football.

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