Saturday, April 07, 2007

US resolution on Armenian issue may damage US-Turkey relations

Cyprus Observer

A positive vote in the US House of Representatives may help Islamism and nationalism rise, hindering the EU process

By Sebnem Arsu / Istanbul
Oh the twists and turns of nationalism. It is always to the advantage of nationalists to turn the issue of the recognition of the Armenian genocide into something bigger and make believe others that it is a clash of civilizations between Christians and Islam. All the while we know that Turkey not having been chastised is now committing genocide on fellow Muslims the Turkish Kurds and Sudan is committing genocide on Darfurians their fellow Muslims. The author Sebnem Arsu is in complete denial. The genocide is an issue of the superiority of one race. In case of Turkey, Turks against Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Assyrians or Alevis and in case of Sudan Arabs against native Africans.
Relations between Turkey and the United States, which have been increasingly fragile over the past few years, are entering a particularly tense phase this month, as the US House of Representatives prepares to vote on a declaration that recognises the killings of Armenians by the Ottoman army in the early years of the Twentieth Century as ‘genocide’.

The official narrative in Turkey strongly denies claims of genocide and argues that there were casualties on both sides, with a large number of Turks also killed in WWI when the Armenians sided with Russian forces in the hope of claiming their own territory in eastern Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was falling apart.

Many Armenians, however, want Turkey to admit that around 1.5 million of their people were killed in a systematic genocide committed by Ottoman forces between 1915 and 1923. So far parliaments of more than fifteen countries have passed bills recognising the killings as genocide, while countries such as France and Switzerland went even further, calling for criminal charges against those who deny it. Turkey strongly opposes parliaments coming to conclusions in the matter before an intergovernmental history commission formed between Turkey and Armenia, and perhaps a third country, certifies such claims. Armenia, for its part, has expressed willingness to participate in such a discussion but insisted that the border with Turkey, which was closed in 1993 following a territorial dispute, be reopened before it joins.

Threat to US-Turkey relations

The US decision on the issue, however, carries more weight than similar declarations by some European parliaments, given the complex nature of bilateral relations between Turkey and the US. Up until now, similar votes have been successfully deferred by the strength of bilateral relations and strong lobbying, but today, with strong support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and under the shadow of worsening bilateral relations, the passage of the bill seems more likely than in previous years.

Such an outcome, however, is likely to further damage America’s already tarnished image in many Turks’ minds. The occupation of Iraq, just across Turkey’s southern border, is extremely unpopular, and this is coupled with America’s continuing resistance to assist Turkey’s efforts to eliminate separatist Kurdish rebel hideouts in Northern Iraq.

American popularity in Turkey has plunged from 52% in 2000 to a historic low of 12% in 2006, according to Pew Global Attitudes Project on America’s image in the world, published this month.

In another survey, focused for the first time on Turkish people’s reactions to the vote in the US, Terror Free Tomorrow, a US based non-profit organization, interviewed more than 1,000 people in 15 cities in Turkey in early 2007 and concluded that 80% of Turks opposed the legislation.

Further, 73% of those surveyed said their opinion of the US would worsen if the legislation passed while nearly 80% suggested strong action by the Turkish government in response.

Strategic cleavages to appear

The US decision, however, would not only worsen it’s public image, but also create a larger strategic gap between the two NATO allies, Mustafa Kibaroglu, Professor of International Relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University says.

“If the US House tries to judge a strong ally like Turkey on a sensitive and purely historical matter like the Armenian issue, it would be very hard for the US administration to seek Turkey’s support in a region where they have great interests but have been struggling against anti-Americanism,” Dr. Kibaroglu said. “Such a decision would be to the detriment of both parties.”

And it is more than historical friendship that is at stake. While Turkey hasn’t provided troops to the Iraq operation, 74% of the US military air cargo destined for Iraq flies through a cargo hub at Incirlik Air Base in eastern Turkey, while the south-eastern Habur border gate accounts for delivery of approximately 25% of the fuel used by coalition forces, according to the White House.

In an address to Congress last week, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Daniel Fried, urged Congressmen to consider America’s shared interests with Turkey in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, as well as in counterterrorism, before deciding on the resolution.

“We believe this question (the alleged Armenian genocide), which is of such enormous human significance, should be resolved not by politicians, but through heartfelt introspection by historians, philosophers and common people,” Fried said. He also recalled the difficulty the US faced in addressing its own historical dark spots, including slavery and the internment of US citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, and called on Congressmen to be thoughtful while voting.

Turkey, for its part, has already taken some steps towards facing it’s own past. Last year a scientific conference in Istanbul survived several court challenges and successfully gathered intellectuals to discuss the events between 1910 and 1915 and their impact on the Armenian population, an event that was considered to be a major breakthrough for democracy in Turkey.

Armenian issue a taboo

In an effort to highlight Turkey’s opposition to a US resolution, many high-ranking Turkish officials have visited Washington in recent months. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gul, one of them, believes that the damage would be very deep if the resolution passed – an option, he said, he didn’t even want to think about.

“It is only natural that the Turkish public who closely follow the issue would also react to this strongly,” Gul said. “As the elected government of democratic Turkey we would not be able to remain indifferent, however, I am confident that common sense will prevail and these resolutions will not be adopted.”

Despite major legal reforms in recent years to improve freedom of expression in Turkey as it aspires to become a European Union member, discussing the Armenian killings is still a taboo and subject to criminal punishment.

Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and novelist Elif Safak are only two of the many intellectuals who have faced charges of insulting the Turkish identity for their comments on the alleged Armenian genocide. None have actually been jailed, but they have been publicly targeted as traitors to the state. Hrant Dink, the editor of the only Armenian weekly, Agos, was killed by a 17-year-old ultra nationalist gunman in January following his legal ordeal. As an outspoken critic of the political and public indifference to the Armenian killings in the 1910s, Dink’s views became more visible following democratic improvements but also drew the hatred of ultra nationalists.

Negative for EU process

Etyen Mahcupyan, a Turk of Armenian descent who took over Dink’s editorial position at Agos newspaper, believes that the external pressure on Turkey concerning the Armenian issue will feed the extreme nationalism that targets ethnic minorities and will hurt the country’s EU membership, a thing that helps the democratic process.

“Turkish people are just beginning to realise that there are things they were not taught in schools, so we are curious and willing to talk about not only the Armenian issue but also other things freely,” Mahcupyan said. “It is not fair to expect a society to accept the truths of other societies without having the chance to discuss them first.”

Mahcupyan’s thoughts find support in the Armenian community in Turkey, as many believe that a US resolution would only feed the nationalist tendencies in Turkey that consider ethnicities other than Turkish as separatist factors.

“As the people at the heart of the claims, we do not have an agenda on recognition here, and none of these resolutions would bring back our grandparents,” said Hosyar Koletavitoglu, a Business Consultant, as he inhaled his thin cigar in a busy café in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. “Our only expectation is that one day everything in Turkey will be based on facts, schoolbooks will no longer hinder realities so that future generations will be built on strong grounds.”

Islamism on rise

Concerns among the Armenian community here are not groundless. Nationalist tendencies with an undertone of Islamism are on the rise as many Turks feel betrayed by the EU in recent months with the partial suspension of talks which leads some to join in the rhetoric of some extremist circles.

Mistreatment of Muslims by the coalition forces in Iraq and incidents victimising Muslims around the globe, on the other hand, strengthen the feelings of a Muslim brotherhood in Turkey, hurting Turkish people’s sense of Western justice and enlarging their cultural gap with the West.

“Turkish people have been watching overwhelmingly Christian parliaments ignoring massacres of Muslim communities in Srebrenica or in Nagorno-Karabakh, but lining up to issue resolutions about Turkey, where people try to change things for better,” said Kemal Kirisci, professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University. “I can almost picture Samuel Huntington watching these events unfold, grinning and repeating that the clash of civilizations is inevitable.”

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home