Editorial: Turkey Swings Back and Forth
By Åke Daun

Turkey’s negotiations with EU start on October 3. Confronted with the demands for freedom of speech, the Turkish government has turned on its heel. The conference in Istanbul, entitled “Ottoman Armenians during the decline of the Empire”, which was stopped shortly before its opening on May 25, was instead rescheduled for September 23-25.

In May, the minister of justice described the conference as “a stab in the back of the Turkish nation”. The participants were risking prosecution. In August, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül declared instead: “Turkey does not avoid discussing the Armenian Question. We have nothing to fear. Let the Turkish general public discuss this issue under calm conditions and draw its own conclusions”.

On Thursday, September 22, just before the opening, the conference was stopped once again. The denial of the Christian minority genocide in that beginning of the 20th century has been official policy since 1920s. The Armenian Question has been as taboo as the Kurdish one. At the same time the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk is charged with the crime against the “Turkish national identity”. He has mentioned the Armenian Genocide.

But in order to mark its change of position, the Turkish state has decided to spend one and a half million (US Dollars) on the reconstruction of the Armenian church of Sourp Khatch on the Akhtamar Island, a architectural treasure from the old Great Armenia. The measure is a sensation, keeping in mind the large number of churches in the old Armenian areas which have been left to fall into disrepair.

Regardless to the fact whether a positive social change is politically forced on or not, it should be confronted with respect – without malice! It will be a gift from history to the next generation, which will be spared to bear the legacy of its forefather’s inability.

It is though problematic that Turkey has several contradictory centres of power. When the conference was stopped with threat of prosecuting the participants, the organizers decided to move the conference from the two state universities of Bosporus and Sabanci to the foundation owned Bilgi University which could be excluded from the court jurisdiction. The court decision had met by government’s anger, who, at the prospect of starting the EU membership negotiations, did not wish for any new spanner into the works. Foreign Minister Gül bitterly noted that “few countries in the world are so skilled in damaging themselves so much.”

But the lawyers have not given up so easily. According to the Internet edition of a Turkish newspaper, the same group who threatened the organizers of the conference with legal actions, now asked the Chief Prosecutor to raise charges against 17 of the involved people in the conference at the Bilgi University. Among the names on the list are also Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Gül, who have been forced to join those who committed crime against the “Turkish national identity”. The quite peculiar situation seems to have aroused – or actually is asserting more clearly than ever that the Turkish foreign policy is driven only partially by its government.

From government’s direction there is, at the prospect of the EU negotiations, a more conciliatory posture than before. A similar opening has not been given in the Cyprus question, which could put a stop to the EU entry. Turkey does not recognise Cyprus as a state. It is difficult to consider this as a negotiation manoeuvre. That a member country would not recognise another member country is as imaginable as unrealistic.

With some knowledge about the Ottoman Empire the posture of Turkey is more comprehensible. The Greeks were actually involved in the same history which resulted in the Armenian Genocide. Both were Christian minorities in the mighty Turkish state. The other subjected Christians were the Assyrian-Syrians and the Chaldeans. They carry on the same memory. Even the Greeks are waiting for Turkey to make up with its bloody past.

The history – which has a much longer political background history – is in short the following: In 1878 Turkey was forced to give up Cyprus to Great Britain, one of many decisions which altered the history of the Ottoman Empire. In 1960 Cyprus became an independent state, ruled by Greek-Cypriot president and a Turkish-Cypriot vice president. The mere fact that these two could not fall into each other’s arms should have been realised much sooner.

Let us study Eastern Anatolia from a different hypothetical perspective, i.e. the old Armenian nucleus area in Turkey. Imagine that it has become an independent state with an Armenian president and a Turkish vice president (yes, as unrealistic as Cyprus!). Then imagine that the country, after internal conflicts, have been divided in an Armenian-Anatolian part and a Turkish-Anatolian part. Imagine that the Turks had made the Turkish part to a federal state within Turkey and nine years later declared it as an independent state, illegal according to the UN Security Council.

And finally. Imagine that our virtually Armenian-Anatolian government have applied for EU membership and has received it in 2004. What would EU had said if Turkey then refused to accept the demands of EU about recognition of this Armenian ruled country, already an EU state?

Turkey had most likely reacted in the same recalcitrant manner as the country has done in the reality in regard to Cyprus. Does this long grievous history belong to the kind out of the possibility range of the diplomats? Maybe all the factors which decide the outcome already in place. I do not think so.

Åke Daun is professor in ethnology at the Nordiska musset and Stockholm University. Daun’s speciality is within the field of European culture. He has been editorial writer for Dagens Nyheter and the TCO newspaper and is often consulted expert and lecturer in ethnical issues.