In Turkey, taboo lifts over past treatment of Armenians

Last week, Prime Minister Erdogan proposed a joint study into Armenian claims of genocide.

When Turkish executive Noyan Soyak helped found a group to bring together businessmen from Turkey and Armenia, the organization stepped into a gaping void.

"When we started [in 1997], it was difficult even to publicly pronounce the word 'Armenia' or 'Armenians' in Turkey," says Mr. Soyak, whose group today has some 250 Turkish and Armenian members.

The Armenian issue has long been one of the most fraught in Turkey, the limits of its discussion strictly controlled by the state. Driven apart by nearly a century of hatred and accusations of genocide, the two neighbors became further estranged after diplomatic relations were broken off by Ankara in 1993, in the wake of Armenia's occupation of a large chunk of territory belonging to Turkish ally Azerbaijan.

But Soyak and others say something has changed - that Turkey's increasing democratization and reforms related to its European Union membership bid have slowly started to soften the country's historical stance.

Despite the lack of official relations, a growing number of nongovernmental Turkish groups - from academics and businessmen to musicians and women's organizations - are now meeting with their Armenian counterparts, in the process helping to redefine the debate in Turkey and ease the enmity between the two nations.

"Any and all kinds of relationships are important for softening up the infrastructure for the politicians," Soyak says. "Governments can't move as quickly as we do, so civil society groups are leading the way."

Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, a newspaper serving Turkey's Armenian community, says the evolution of what is allowed to be said can be seen in the pages of his publication. When Agos was launched 10 years ago, Mr. Dink took an indirect approach to writing about the past. "Previously, when we talked about history, we didn't mention things that happened but focused on culture instead," says Dink, speaking in the newspaper's Istanbul office.

"Slowly we started to ask what happened to the Armenians," he says. "Now we're at the point of telling what happened."

Even if the subject is "no longer taboo" as Dink says, the debate still fundamentally divides Turkey and Armenia. Armenians say the Ottomans killed 1.5 million of their people from 1915 to 1923 through deportations and mass killings in what is now eastern Turkey. Armenians have been waging an international campaign to have this recognized as genocide; more than a dozen nations do so today. Turkey rejects the genocide claim. It admits that Armenians were killed but disputes the number and says that the deaths were unorganized and part of wider regional violence that also affected Muslim Turks.

Until recently, the Turkish state's official version of events was all that could be aired publicly. But observers say that democratic reforms - many of them the result of pressure by the EU - have created more space for public debate on the topic.

"The level of education has gone up and civil society has expanded, so the state can no longer dominate and monopolize the public sphere," says Muge Gocek, a Turkish sociologist who is the co-organizer of the Workshop for Armenian-Turkish Studies, an annual gathering of Turkish and Armenian scholars.

In an unusual turn, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called last week for a study by Turkish and Armenian historians of claims of genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turkish troops. The Armenian Foreign Ministry has rejected Mr. Erdogan's proposal.

Indeed, those involved in Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts caution that the road towards normalizing relations is still very bumpy. Turkish officials say they believe Armenian genocide claims will lead to demands for reparations and territory.

Ustun Erguder, a Turkish political scientist and member of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission, a group of academics and former diplomats from both sides, says the association of the word "genocide" with the barbarity of Nazi Germany makes the claim hard for Turks. "I think Turks have come a long way even to say, 'We did something wrong to the Armenians.' "

The issue remains explosive. When Orhan Pamuk, a famous Turkish author, stated in a Swiss paper last month that "a million Armenians were killed in Turkey," the response included death threats and charges of dishonoring the state filed against him in court.

Van Krikorian, a former chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, says the only way forward is more dialogue. "On the Turkish side and the Armenian side, people need to feel they can discuss what happened and not feel as though somebody is going to attack them," he says.

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