GMF’s Unluhisarcıklı: Turks, Armenians to test their limits in 2015

2015, the centennial of the tragic events of 1915 that led to the relocation of the Armenian population from Anatolia by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, will be a year in which both Turks and Armenians will see their limits, Ankara Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) Ozgur Unluhisarcıklı stated in an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman.

“I believe 2015 will be the end as well as the beginning. It will be the start of a dialogue between Turks and Armenians. Armenians will see their limits of what they can do without dialogue and Turks will see what they will suffer without dialogue. Therefore, 2015 will a test for both Turks and Armenians to see their limits,” said Unluhisarcıklı.

As the 100th anniversary of the 1915 tragedy approaches, mutual preparations and tensions are gaining momentum in Turkey and Armenia. Both the Turkish government and Armenian diaspora groups are revealing their strategies for 2015.

Unluhisarcıklı stated that the Armenian diaspora considers this year’s April 24, which is the annual Armenian Remembrance Day, as a preparation for 2015 and is building up the tension as a tactic before the centennial.

“Armenians themselves do not expect a breakthrough on April 24 of this year. So Turkey should not worry about this year,” said the GMF’s Unluhisarcıklı.

Unluhisarcıklı believes that Turkish-Armenian rapprochement cannot be concluded in a year, as it needs time for both Turks and Armenians to take confidence-building measures.

He also added that Turkey should prepare for beyond 2015 rather than obsessing about it, saying, “Whatever is going to happen in 2015 is going to happen, and I think it is too late for Turkey to prevent it.”

Armenia claims that the deportation of Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed, was an act of ethnic cleansing and wants it to be internationally recognized as genocide.

Meanwhile, Turkey, which sees the allegations of genocide as a threat to its national honor, says the killings were not intentionally perpetrated to eradicate a particular ethnicity but were the result of the wartime conditions of World War I.

The issue has long been a source of tension between Turkey and several Western countries, especially the United States and France, both of which are home to a large ethnic Armenian diaspora.

Are Armenians ready to acknowledge the part they played in history?

According to Unluhisarcıklı, neither the Turkish narrative on what had happened in 1915 nor the Armenian narrative on it reflect the truth entirely. “It is obvious that whatever we call it, there was a crime against humanity in 1915. There was a violation of humanity and the Armenians were massacred en masse. Can we talk about genocide? That should be left to legal experts and historians. From my perspective, it was a big massacre, but not genocide,” he added.

Unluhisarcıklı noted that there is an increasing trend for free thinking in Turkey about what happened in 1915. “Eventually, what might lead to an apology from the Turkish nation to the Armenians? The question is: Are Armenians ready to acknowledge whatever part they played in 1915 and before? But I don’t see that kind of trend either in the Armenian diaspora in the United States and Europe nor in Armenia itself,” he added.

Unluhisarcıklı stated that Turkey’s acknowledgement of the events of 1915 as “genocide” is one of the fundamental concerns of Armenians today.

“However, not all Armenians give equal priority to 1915. While there are some who think that any dialogue with the Turks can only start once Turkey recognizes 1915 as genocide, there are also others who think that dialogue with Turkey and the Turks is more important, although they still think that 1915 constitutes genocide. The second group thinks the genocide issue can come at the end of the dialogue rather than the beginning,” he added.

The general view of the Armenian diaspora is that Turkey is ignorant of the diaspora’s level of organization for 2015. The diaspora is ready to talk with Turkey, but it believes that Turkey should first admit the genocide.

Despite this rhetoric, some diaspora Armenian groups have recently revealed that Turkey has been in contact with them.

When asked about Turkey’s contact with the diaspora, Unluhisarcıklı stated that there has been contact between the Armenian diaspora and Turkish officials; however, he added that these contacts cannot have a significant impact on 2015.

Turkey-US ties too strategic to be undermined by a certain lobby

The Armenian lobby in the United States has been making great efforts for the recognition of the so-called Armenian genocide by the US Congress and is making huge preparations for 2015, the centennial of the events Armenians refer to as genocide.

When asked what the Turkish lobby was doing in the United States for 2015, Unluhisarcıklı stated that it was trying to do two things at the same time. Firstly, says Unluhisarcıklı, the Turkish lobby is trying to persuade — as they have done for decades — American decision makers that Turkish-US strategic relations are too important to be undermined by the interests of a certain lobby in the US.

Secondly, adds Unluhisarcıklı, the Turkish lobby in the US has discussed the massacres of Ottoman Muslims committed by other nations, including non-Muslim ones.

“The Turkish lobby is trying to highlight the fact that it was not only Armenian civilians in the Ottoman Empire that were mistreated in World War I,” he added.

Unluhisarcıklı said: “Let’s talk about what might happen in 2015. Some of my Armenian friends say Turks take 2015 more seriously than Armenians do. I think we are exaggerating it a little bit. Sometimes exaggeration can be a tactic to stop friendly governments accepting a resolution on the issue.”

Unluhisarcıklı said Turkey should acknowledge that throughout the world it is now a generally accepted view that the Turks committed genocide against Armenians in 1915.

“There is an already such a perception in other countries. So, in 2015, because it is the centennial and also because the media will be widely used, that perception will be enhanced throughout the world,” said Unluhisarcıklı, adding: “So, what else can we expect from 2015, other than the impression that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians? Some governments might pass resolutions recognizing that what happened in 1915 was genocide.”

Turkey suffers weak support in Congress if not in White House

With the support of Armenian lobby groups in the US, numerous “Armenian genocide” resolutions have been introduced to the committees of both chambers of the US Congress over the years. In the majority of cases, Turkish lobby groups in the US capital have been able to defend Turkey’s policies, and the resolutions have not reached the US House or Senate floor.

However, recently, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution commemorating the “Armenian genocide,” clearing the way for the resolution to be voted on by the Senate as a whole, a sign of Turkey’s diminished lobbying power in the US capital.

Turkey urged Congress not to carry the resolution further on its legislative agenda, warning that such a move could “harm bilateral relations” between the two countries.

Unluhisarcıklı believes that a resolution might pass through the US Congress as, according to him, Ankara and Washington are not enjoying their best days together.

“Turkey is suffering from weak support from Congress, if not from the White House. It is more likely when you compare it to previous years. There are things Turkey can do to make it easier for its friends in the US to stop such a resolution. The most important thing in this regard is of course Turkey’s relations with Armenia,” said Unluhisarcıklı.

Turkey and Armenia have been at odds over allegations of genocide and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A reconciliation process was launched in 2009, when the two sides signed twin protocols to normalize diplomatic relations, but the move was not well received by Azerbaijan. The protocols, signed in Zurich, shook Turkish-Azerbaijani relations, as the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has yet to be resolved.

“It is very important that there is a process between Turkey and Armenia that will eventually lead to a resolution on the border issue. But primarily, it is important that Turkey keep the moral high ground on this issue. First of all, we need to make sure that there is a completely free environment in Turkey for discussion of the Armenian issue,” said Unluhisarcıklı.

‘Those who think 1915 was genocide should not be stigmatized in Turkey’

Unluhisarcıklı said: “People who think the events of 1915 were genocide should not be stigmatized in Turkey. They should not be labeled as traitors. There should be a completely free academic and scientific environment in Turkey in order to discuss this issue openly and conduct research on this issue. In the past, we witnessed that conferences in which people claimed that the events of 1915 were genocide were accused of treason. We should not have any of this.”

He also added that both Turks and Armenians should go beyond their prejudices and beyond the official history. He added that Turks should be ready to think in a new way about what happened in 1915 and that opinion leaders and academics in Turkey should be ready to change their minds.

“Before opening the borders between the two countries, people on both sides should make an effort to open their mental borders,” Unluhisarcıklı added.

When asked how he sees the recent demand from a number of diaspora Armenians to be granted Turkish citizenship, Unluhisarcıklı says he finds the demand important, although it does not represent the majority.

“Who knows, maybe after a couple of decades Turkey will grant citizenship to all Armenians who are descendants of those in the Ottoman Empire. Good will from the Turkish side is very important; it would be a great gesture. But you cannot expect all Armenians to accept citizenship,” said Unluhisarcıklı.

In the first diplomatic push since Turkey and Armenia signed normalization protocols in 2009, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visit Yerevan last December — a move that appeared significant for the restoration of diplomatic ties between Ankara and Yerevan, two neighbors that have become estranged over several issues.

Unluhisarcıklı considers Davutoglu’s visit to Yerevan a symbolic one; however, he added that symbolic gestures do have an impact on relations.

“Actually, Davutoglu has said that the Armenian diaspora is also a Turkish diaspora, although Armenians do not accept this. I think this is a deep and symbolic expression. But has this turned into policy yet? No. Is this approach embraced by Armenians themselves? No. But in the long run, I think the Turkish state’s approach of seeing Armenians worldwide as members of its family is important,” Unluhisarcıklı said.

Turkey-US ties never had a ‘golden age’

Touching upon the relationship between Turkey and the US, Unluhisarcıklı stated that Turkey does not enjoy the support it used to from Washington today for several reasons.

“Let me clarify one generally wrong way of thinking about Turkey-US relations. We try to think that once upon a time there was a golden age in Turkish-US ties and then something happened that led to the end of the golden age, and now we want to go back to that golden age. First of all, there never was a golden age in Turkey-US relations,” Unluhisarcıklı underlined.

Unluhisarcıklı stated that the Turkey-US relationship has been a difficult one to maintain, despite the two countries’ several common strategic goals and interests.

“There are always ups and downs in Turkey-US relations. What we witness today is Turkey’s approach to the Middle East and its neighborhood being criticized mainly by Congress and some circles in the US. This is a process that started a few years ago, but it has increasingly became the dominant mood in Washington,” he added.

Following the appearance of reports in the Turkish media accusing US Embassy officials in Ankara of playing a role in the country’s ongoing corruption scandal, the US denied the allegations in Turkish dailies, saying such slander jeopardizes Turkish-US relations.

“Also, the White house is not happy about the US being accused by some circles close to the Turkish leadership over some developments that have taken place in Turkey. It is not possible to say things that are entirely for domestic consumption and expect your interlocutors on the other side to ignore those remarks,” said Unluhisarcıklı.

Unluhisarcıklı also said that although Turkey and the US are strategic allies, we should acknowledge that the two countries have different approaches to certain issues, including Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

“The US does not share Turkey’s enthusiasm about the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, from the beginning the US didn’t share Turkey’s idea of direct intervention in the Syrian crisis. Because of the diversity in Washington, contradictory statements can sometimes come from Washington. In order to overcome the friction in Turkey-US relations, the two states should communicate better. The misunderstandings still continue,” Unluhisarcıklı said.

US trying to walk a fine line in ties with Turkey

As it focuses on its interests in the Middle East and its need to cooperate with Turkey on many difficult issues, many believe that the US is reluctant to show a strong reaction to the Turkish government in terms of the developments following the corruption and bribery scandal that broke on Dec. 17, 2013.

“According to some the US administration is vocal, while others say it is silent about the developments in Turkey. However, the US administration is trying to figure out what fine line it should to walk. On one hand, they have openly expressed their concerns about specific issues concerning the democratic deficit in Turkey, basically about media freedoms. They also don’t want to interfere in Turkey’s domestic issues,” said Unluhisarcıklı, adding that it is a difficult situation for Turkey’s allies, including the US and European states, in terms of how they should raise their concerns.