A death in Istanbul
The assassination of editor Hrant Dink set off the largest peaceful demonstration in modern Turkish history. Can last week’s symbolic events lead to reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia ?
By Stephen Kurkjian | January 28, 2007
ISTANBUL — On Tuesday, after hundreds of thousands of Turks filled the streets of this city to honor the slain Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink, in what was the largest peaceful demonstration in modern Turkey’s history, a group of academics and political leaders appeared on Turkey’s most respected television talk program to discuss what lessons might be learned from Dink’s assassination.
Dink’s outspoken columns in Agos, the Armenian-language newspaper he edited, had long called for recognition of the deep and tortured history of Armenians in Turkey, as well as respect and improved conditions for the fraction (70,000 in a country of about 70 million) who still live here. Although his columns led to his prosecution for "anti-Turkish" views, none of those issues were debated in the televised round table. Instead, the discussion centered on who might benefit politically from Dink’s killing, whether there might have been some dark political motivation behind it, and why the northern city of Trabzon, where the 16-year-old alleged killer lived, is producing such a wave of youthful thuggery.
It was a revealing disconnect. The outrage voiced by political leaders over Dink’s death, and the turnout of all segments of Turkish society at Tuesday’s demonstration, so impressed Armenians here and throughout the world that many saw reason to hope that it could lead to a breakthrough on the bitter issues that have divided the two people since 1915.
The biggest of those issues, of course, is how the two sides view what happened in 1915. That was the year an estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and hundreds of thousands more driven from their ancestral home in Turkey’s eastern Anatolian region.
Although the mass killings have been recognized by most historians and scholars as a genocide, the Turkish government has vehemently rejected that characterization, teaching in its public schools that the Armenians left Anatolia on their own and that both Armenians and Turks died in large numbers. The official state position remains that whatever losses were suffered resulted from Armenians conspiring for independence or were ordered by Ottoman rulers who have no connection with the modern Turkish state.
But whether meaningful change can emerge from the symbolic events of the past week is uncertain at best, as generations of bitterness and suspicion as well as modern-day political realities divide the two peoples.
. . .
My connection to this story is a personal one : My father lost his father, brother, and sister in the 1915 genocide, and he survived only by making a 300-mile trek with his mother to Syria, where he remained until coming to the United States in the early 1920s. I went to Turkey last week to attend Dink’s funeral at St. Mary’s Armenian Church and to witness the demonstration in his honor to see for myself what his tragic death might mean for the future of Turkish-Armenian relations.
On Wednesday night, after a meeting with Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan at the Armenian Patriarchate across the narrow cobbled street from where Dink’s funeral had been held the day before, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan missed an immediate opportunity to shed some light on the path he sees ahead.
Emerging from the 15-minute meeting, his first visit to the patriarchate in his four years as prime minister, Erdogan waved off questions from reporters eager to learn, among other things, whether he planned — as other Turkish officials have speculated he might — to abolish Article 301, the provision in Turkish law that holds public figures criminally liable for making "anti-Turkish" statements. Dink, as well as Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, are among dozens of Turkish writers who have been charged under the law for referring to the Armenian genocide, and Dink’s supporters believe his conviction in 2005 put a target on his back.
Doing away with Article 301 would seem to be a relatively easy move for Erdogan to make, in contrast to other changes that have long been sought by Armenians : Reopening the border between the two countries, which was closed in 1993 following Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan, Turkey’s ally ; and giving some recognition or apology for the mass killings of 1915. But even to take such a modest step would place Erdogan in a tough place politically, with the campaign for Turkey’s national elections in November about to begin, and his Justice and Development Party dependent on conservatives and nationalists for its support.
Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who heads the American Diocese of the Armenian Church, says a reopening of the border should be the first step in building trust between Armenians and Turks. "The two governments and their people need so badly to get to know one another again, to begin a dialogue so they can build trust," said Barsamian in a telephone interview from New York after his return from Dink’s funeral.
The advantages, he noted, would be enormous for both sides. For the now-independent Republic of Armenia, whose 3 million residents continue to struggle financially after nearly 70 years under Soviet rule, there is the prospect of a great economic lift. For Turkey, as it seeks to enter the European Union, there is the prospect of improving relations with member countries such as France and the Netherlands, who are sympathetic to Armenia and their own citizens of Armenian heritage.
There is still another factor, however, that could stand in the way of reconciliation. The Armenian diaspora of 6 million, who were spread worldwide by the genocide, generally opposes making any concessions to Turkey without a formal recognition and apology for the events of 1915, and it remains far from certain whether the diaspora is now willing to give up this opposition.
My father came to epitomize this conflict for Armenians. Having spent his life avoiding any contact with Turks because of the government’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide, his feelings eased somewhat after a return to the country in 1992. During that trip he saw firsthand the poverty that has long defined the lives of Armenians living in Turkey. While he could never forgive Turkey for the losses he suffered, he said it was time to put aside such bitterness if it served in the end to improve the lives of Armenians there.
Dink himself challenged the Armenian diaspora about its hard-line position on the genocide. While Dink wrote that acknowledging the sins of the past would in the end serve to improve Turkey’s image as a democracy, he also said a more pressing priority is to improve living conditions for the small community of Armenians in Turkey as well as those in neighboring Armenia.
"There is a big difference between Armenians in the diaspora and Armenians in Turkey," he once said. "You guys are Armenian one day a year, on the 24th of April" — the day on which the 1915 killings and deportations are commemorated — "whereas we are Armenian every day of the year. . ."
Meanwhile, as Tuesday’s demonstration showed, there is increasing pressure on the Turkish government to reassess its position on 1915 — and that pressure isn’t just coming from Armenians. One of Dink’s close friends, Taner Akcam, a Turkish-born historian who teaches at the University of Minnesota, has urged Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide and come to terms with the events of 1915.
"The government should realize that the world applauded those thousands and thousands of Turks marching in the streets because they were all saying we condemn this murderer," said Akcam, whose recently published book, "A Shameful Act : The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility," documents the case for calling it a genocide. "The government could do the same thing by condemning the events of 1915, and tell the world that modern Turkey is different from that."
Stephen Kurkjian is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached at email@example.com .
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