“Bridging a Mental Gap: Hrant Dink and Armenian-Turkish Relations”
In general, to put the names “Armenian” and “Turkish” together in the same sentence is to evoke a wave of negative emotions: anger, confrontation, grief.
Over the past 15 years, a few individuals have begun to challenge such associations and tried to bridge the huge mental gap between Armenians and Turks. One person, above all, rose to that
In articles and essays written over the years for
He brought something completely new to this question and it is probably no coincidence that he did so as an outsider, a self-made man, who thought everything through
He had two identities, being proud both to be an Armenian and a citizen of the Turkish Republic. He used that double identity to express a rare empathy for the collective psychological state of both Armenians and Turks. Both of them, he writes with insight and a dash of black humour, have clinical conditions: the Armenians suffer from trauma, the Turks from paranoia.
Two of his convictions shine through in these writings and have stood the test of time. The first—unwelcome in many Armenian diaspora circles—was that the resolution of the issue of justice for the Ottoman Armenians and of the 1915 Genocide needed to take place inside Turkey itself. As he put it, the crime was committed in Turkey and justice for it needs to occur in Turkey too. That led Hrant Dink to be sceptical about the main focus of Diaspora politics, the passing of genocide resolutions in foreign parliaments with the aim of applying pressure on the government of Turkey.
A second conviction was that the greatest asset Armenians had after 1991 was the independent post-Soviet Republic of Armenia, a small weak state that needed the support of all Armenians across the world to survive and prosper. (And it is important to stress here that that was not a call for unconditional support of the government but of the state as a whole).
Hrant Dink was an oracle and that also made him a threat to those who did not want to change and who wanted to stick with a narrative of hatred and ignorance. In Turkey, his articles earned him rebukes from senior representatives of the old Kemalist establishment and death threats from the nationalist far-right.
The reaction to the tragedy was heartening. Tens of thousands of people from all over Turkey turned out for Hrant Dink's funeral on January 23rd, 2007. Many of them held placards saying "We are all Hrant Dink," or, even more remarkably, "We are all Armenian."
Following the assassination, four Turkish intellectuals launched an initiative for an online campaign entitled "I Apologize." When the website opened
On a societal level, much has changed in Turkey over the past eight years. Turkish historians have written more openly about the mass slaughter of the Armenians in 1915, new oral histories have been published, Armenian churches have re-opened. Slowly, but surely, the "Armenian question" has stopped being a taboo.
The aftermath of Hrant Dink's funeral was also the most favourable moment for political rapprochement. At the end of 2007, Switzerland began chairing confidential negotiations between Armenian and Turkish diplomats on the normalization of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border.
The process gathered speed in 2008. Serzh Sarkisian was elected as independent Armenia's third president and made it clear he wanted to normalize relations with Ankara. It was then helped along by a coincidence of sports scheduling. Armenia and Turkey were drawn to face each other in the same qualifying group for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Sarkisian invited the Turkish president Abdullah Gül to come to Yerevan to attend the football match. On September 6th, 2008, Gül made a short but historic trip to Armenia, attended the game with Sarkisian and then held bilateral talks.
In the spring of 2009, the text of two Protocols on establishing and developing diplomatic relations was ready. But the process was crippled with misunderstandings. The most difficult issue to negotiate had been over the status of a "commission of historians", which the Turkish side wanted, to be established to study the question of 1915. This was not such an important issue for the Republic of Armenia as it was for the Diaspora. They represented two different Armenian perspectives: that of an eastern Armenian territory, which had spent most of the previous two centuries in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and that of the scattered descendants of the Ottoman Armenians, for whom 1915 was the crucial breaking-point in their history. Although the Armenian side negotiated a form of words in the Protocols which they believed was ambiguous on this issue; this was not good enough for Diaspora political organizations, which denounced President Sarkisian as a traitor for having negotiated a deal on Armenian history with the Turks.
The second issue was of fundamental importance in the Caucasus. At their talks in Switzerland, the Armenian and Turkish negotiators had agreed not to discuss the issue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, which had been the reason for the border closure in 1993. For the Armenian side this "de-linkage" was a prerequisite for doing a deal. The Turks went along with this on the understanding that either their Turkic cousins in Azerbaijan would tolerate the de-linkage or that someone--preferably the United States--would ensure some progress in the Karabakh talks that Turkey could use to declare that Azerbaijan was benefiting from the normalization process as well.
On October 10th, 2009, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey signed the two Protocols in a ceremony in Zurich, attended by luminaries who included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the French and Russian foreign ministers. Clinton persuaded Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian to sign after he had last minute objections to the planned speech by his counterpart Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
The Protocols were signed, but they had then to be given a political imprimatur and ratified by the two parliaments. And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan made it clear that, even if the diplomatic talks did not make a linkage with the Karabakh conflict, he saw one. The process drifted, the Turkish side hoping for progress in the Karabakh talks that did not materialize, the Armenian side sticking firmly to its position that the Protocols must be ratified. Eventually, with no breakthrough in sight, President Sarkisian suspended Armenia's participation in the Protocols process in April 2010.
So, as the centenary of the Armenian Genocide is marked in 2015, the two republics of Armenia and Turkey still have no diplomatic relations and no open land border. Hrant Dink's dream of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation remains unfulfilled, the hostage of prejudice and high politics. However, his vision of dialogue and better understanding between ordinary Armenians and Turks continues slowly to advance, step by step.