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Hrant Gadarigian

Turkish PhD Student – “I hear more interesting views from average Armenians than the intellectuals”

An interview with Turgut Kerem Tuncel, PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Trento (Italy).

Mr. Tuncel, native of Turkey, is in Armenia to do research for his thesis entitled “Mayr Hayastan, Im Hayrenik; The memory and politics of the construction of the Armenian homeland”.

What prompted you to do your thesis on the Armenian experience?

Well, it all came out of my initial interest in Jewish studies and anti-Semitism. Then I decided to make a comparative study of the survival strategies of the Jewish and Armenian communities in Turkey. Then, I started to focus on the Armenian community there and the concept of the “diaspora”.

It was how the Republic of Armenia was portraying itself as the homeland of all Armenians that intrigued me, given that most Armenians in the diaspora derive from eastern Anatolia. This construct of the current Armenian identity was of interest to me.

What did this comparative study between the Jewish and Armenian experiences show?

Briefly, the two tragedies experienced by these two people resulted in opposite realities. In the Jewish case, the Holocaust, in many ways, resulted in the consolidation of the Jewish state, while 1915 resulted in the diasporization of the Armenian people.

Have you looked at the repatriation issue in Armenia during your research? The differences between Israel and Armenia in this regard are glaring?

Actually, the repatriation issue is a major component of my research. It directly ties in to this concept of the Republic of Armenia (RoA) as the homeland for all Armenians.

I’d say that what is being done here in Armenia can be best described a “lip service”. And there are many underlying reasons for this.

Many Armenians from the RoA actually want to leave for socio-economic and other reasons. So how can the government invite Armenians from Paris or Los Angeles, living relatively comfortable lives, to relocate? What will these people do here?

The economic, political and social infrastructure in Armenia is not sufficient to sustain any serious repatriation.

Here, I’d like to remind you of Theodore Herzl’s work “The Jewish State”. The second part of the book gives a very detailed approach to the repatriation of Jews to the land of Israel. Herzl lay down a very rational outline.

I don’t see the same thing in Armenia or in the diaspora press. For example, there is talk of creating a Pan-Armenian National Council but you won’t find any details on the website of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Then there was the idea of creating a two-chamber parliament in Armenia to get the diaspora represented. This too seemed to me less than serious 

You include the word ‘memory’ in the title of your dissertation. The memory of the traditional diaspora is that of pre-1915 western Armenia. If this collective memory of the past is a major component of the current identity of so many diaspora Armenians, how can the RoA redirect this focus and serve as a rallying point today?

This is a problematic aspect of the diaspora – homeland issue. When you look at some segments of the diaspora, you can say they live in a strange mental world. They live in the present day but their minds are always returning to the pre-1915 period.

The diaspora could be a real asset for Armenia and the country really needs all the assets it can attract. But the traditional diaspora, or let’s say the leadership of the traditional diaspora, they cannot grasp the reality of current Armenia due to this focus on an idealized past.

Thus, I believe young diaspora Armenians must establish real relations and ties with this Armenia in 2011. They must reach out to the Armenia of today and not with that of their grandparents in order to help solve the myriad problems now facing the RoA.

So, can we say that there are two ‘homelands’ competing for the hearts and minds of the traditional Armenian diaspora?

Well, I am sure there are some Armenians who say they do not identify with current Armenia but I would also say that after the creation of the third republic in 1991, more and more diaspora Armenians and organizations have realized that, on a practical level at least, the RoA should be the focus of their energies.

In a way, those talking about a return to western Armenia may be a convenient excuse to not doing more, or even relocating, to the Armenia of today. It would be a challenge for them to leave what they know and are comfortable with in France or the U.S. and move to an Armenia that faces many problems.

This is understandable. We are all human beings. But they have to face reality and not overlook the fact that the Armenia of today needs a lot of help.

You talk about “the politics of the construction of the Armenian homeland”. Can we assume that the RoA government has a political agenda in mind – creating an image of an Armenia where the concept of “love it or leave it” holds sway?

Well let’s look at the official state discourse – the attempt to portray the RoA as the homeland for all Armenians. Of course it’s a political strategy to connect the diaspora to Yerevan and tap into its resources.

In this sense, it’s a very understandable strategy on the part of the RoA government.

This divide between the traditional diaspora and the RoA probably manifests itself most clearly on the Genocide issue. Many argue the Turkish government seeks to manipulate the issue and thus divide the hard-line diaspora with a more malleable RoA. What’s your view?

All I can say is that the general perception in Turkey is that the diaspora takes a more hard-line approach as compared to the RoA. Just look at the fallout resulting from the Protocol debate. But as to whether Ankara has adopted a policy to play one off the other, I can’t say.

What I would like to add is that the RoA government, in turn, has somehow manipulated the issue as well. By creating this bogeyman image of Turkey, it has made calls for national unity and greater support for Armenia. In a way, it has sought the “unquestioning” loyalty of the diaspora in the name of national unity. This too is a fact.

This is your third visit to Armenia and you’ve been here for two months now. Can you give me a few general impressions?

Well, I came here to do research for my thesis and have interviewed several diaspora Armenians who have relocated but I also wanted to get a feel for the country and the people.

On a personal level, I have had positive experiences and have encountered no hostility when people find out I am Turkish.

I find it interesting that the press in Armenia has daily articles on Turkey and developments there. Mostly the press focuses on the negative aspects and not on the recent changes for the positive. This isn’t to say that Turkey doesn’t have problems and that conditions for Armenians living there aren’t problematic. Not at all.

I rented an apartment here and would always go to the same small shop to get bread and some breakfast. The sales ladies would always smile and joke with me. One day they asked where I was from and I told them I was from Turkey. Then they asked if I was Armenian or Turkish. I said, Turkish .After that, their smiles faded.

Another time, I and a few friends were at a nightclub in Yerevan. I went out for a smoke and there was a security guard outside smoking as well. He asked me where I was from. I said, Turkey. He asked if I was an Armenian from Turkey in a kind of aggressive way. I figured I should answer that yes, I was. He then started to interrogate me. Was my father and mother Armenian?  I guess he didn’t believe me. It was getting a bit heated. The guy then told me that “I have killed Turks in Karabakh” and repeated this. All I could say was “Ok” and then I left.

This was the only time I felt really uneasy in Armenia. I would like to say that I feel safer in Yerevan than I do in Istanbul. Armenians, I have found, are not an aggressive people.

You have met with repatriates and average citizens here. What about your meetings with officials and the academia? Did you encounter any problems in getting them to sit down and talk with you?

I tried to arrange interviews with the major political parties but only two agreed to talk with me – the Armenian National Congress and Heritage. The others declined but never told me why.

I also spoke to a number of intellectuals and university professors. To be honest, I heard more interesting views and ideas from ordinary people than from the intelligentsia in Armenia. I don’t want to sound over judgemental, but the role of intellectuals is to bring forth new approaches and concepts – in a way to make us angry and challenge us.

What I heard from most, not all, were the same old stories and prejudices regarding the Armenia-Turkish issue.

Maybe a majority of intellectuals in Armenia are too conformist or opportunist when it comes to opening new doors. It makes me somewhat less optimistic regarding the future.

What about preconceived notions of Armenians in Turkey, amongst average citizens?

Let me give you a concrete example. Several years ago there was a quantitative study conducted jointly in Armenia and Turkey about their views of the other.

What the research showed was that the average Turkish person knows very little about Armenians. But, recently, amongst university students and some intellectuals, there’s a growing interest in Armenia and the culture.  Again, it’s a new process of learning.

Armenians, on the other hand, have a certain knowledge and understanding of Turkey. This is another asymmetry between the two peoples.

There’s less coverage in the mainstream Turkish press about Armenia than the other way around.

Armenia isn’t a top priority when it comes to Turkish foreign policy. In the end, though, relations between the two neighbouring states must be normalized and this will require more dialogue and understanding of the other.

Comments (7)

foreign meddler
Good article - apreq! Yes, a lot of the diaspora does live in a strange mental world, that can't be denied. But Turgut should explain why this is: Turkish needs to recognise the genocide in order to help the diaspora overcome the past. Imagine what the Jews would still be living through if Germany denied the Holocaust...
No Rubik, I never have noticed it...
Oh I get it now Talin - they're closet 3rd generation western Armenians.
Just because practitioners of W. Armenian traditions are not flaunting their activities does not mean that their activities do not exist.
Mr. Tuncel: Why are you so concerned with a nano-state? There are way more important issues out there concerning Turkish foreign policy.
The fact is that Turkey committed genocide from the 19th century to the 20th century against Armenians and stole our property and land. Actually, considering forced Islamization, rape, and abductions, the genocide started centuries before. We Armenian Diasporans know very well where and how to focus our energy, and we do not need this young Turkish man to tell us.
Sounds fair and unbiased.

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