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The Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent

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Abstract and Figures

This article aims to explore one of the critical and relatively understudied dimensions of Turkish politics: the complex characteristics of interactions between the Armenian community (mainly Gregorian Orthodox Christians) and the incumbent government of the Justice and Development Party. Two interrelated questions are raised below: Why did the relationship between the AK Party and the Armenian community become an important topic to discuss? What repercussions did the assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007 have on relations between the Turkish government and the Armenian community? The answers to these questions can help us better understand why a majority party with Islamic roots produced more reliable bonds for the Christian minority than previous governments with their more secular backgrounds and political agendas. I argue that the Armenian community in Turkey is in a constant quest for a secure socio-political climate where it can safely preserve its cultural, ethnic and religious identity. Hence, the political agenda of the AK Party essentially matched the Armenian community's aspirations for large-scale reforms, which paved the way for a period of vigilant collaboration that remained in effect until the assassination of Hrant Dink.
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93
T
he arguments made in this paper
should make a modest contribution
to a somewhat intensied eort to understand
this particular topic. Since the 1920s, the pecu-
liar essence of interactions between the appli-
cation of the secular principles of the repub-
lic and the accent of political Islam has been
on the agenda of Turkey’s political discourse.
Freedom of religion comprises freedom of
belief, conscience and worship; that is, the
right to practice one’s religion unhindered. A
constitutional counterpart of religious freedom
is a duty for the state to exercise religious and
ideological neutrality. In Turkey, undoubtedly,
this religious neutrality remains a scarce com-
modity. e only religious freedom which is
truly guaranteed is that of those who conform
to the Sunni variant of Islam supported by the
state.1
Citizenship is another important matter of
concern. e basic characteristics of Turkish
The Armenian Community
and the AK Party: Finding Trust
under the Crescent
* Senior Research Fellow, Department of Turkish Studies, Institute
for Oriental Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia,
termatevos@yahoo.com
is article aims to explore one of the
critical and relatively understudied
dimensions of Turkish politics: the
complex characteristics of interactions
between the Armenian community
(mainly Gregorian Orthodox Christians)
and the incumbent government of the
Justice and Development Party. Two
interrelated questions are raised below:
Why did the relationship between
the AK Party and the Armenian
community become an important
topic to discuss? What repercussions
did the assassination of Hrant Dink
in 2007 have on relations between the
Turkish government and the Armenian
community? e answers to these
questions can help us better understand
why a majority party with Islamic
roots produced more reliable bonds for
the Christian minority than previous
governments with their more secular
backgrounds and political agendas. I
argue that the Armenian community in
Turkey is in a constant quest for a secure
socio-political climate where it can safely
preserve its cultural, ethnic and religious
identity. Hence, the political agenda of
the AK Party essentially matched the
Armenian community’s aspirations for
large-scale reforms, which paved the way
for a period of vigilant collaboration
that remained in eect until the
assassination of Hrant Dink.
ABSTRACT
Insight Turkey Vol. 12 / No. 4 / 2010
pp. 93-111
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN*
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
94
citizenship, established during the found-
ing years of the Turkish state, include the
following distinguishing features: subor-
dination of the individual to the objec-
tives of political unity, i.e. acceptance of
the Muslim majority as an organic total-
ity, and a civic–territorial, secular and
republican, duty-based–passive identity.
e features of the new Turkish citizen
were completely dierent from the Ottoman model of membership and political
community.2 To support this point, it is sucient to refer to the general nostalgic
sympathy among the Armenians towards the pre-20th century Ottoman period,
when the Armenian community enjoyed more religious, political and cultural
freedoms than it did in the Republican period. It is taken for granted that being
a citizen of a republic entails specic rights, entitlements, and duties, which are
proliferated and developed in the course of time. In that sense, the members of the
Armenian community perceive themselves rst and foremost as Turkish citizens
of Armenian origin, a perception which reects a certain sense of both integration
and resentment. Recent developments indicate that Armenians living in Turkey
want to reassert themselves in the public and political spheres and be able to be
both Armenians and citizens.
e role of Turkey’s Christian religious minorities in contributing to the
secular and citizenship discourse has largely been ignored due to several reasons.
Firstly, during the Republican period proper, the secular character of the Turkish
state was a matter of no compromise. Hence even the voices of Muslims, let alone
Christian minorities were seldom heard. Another problem hindering Christians
from participating in the discourse was the nature of laicism and its strict applica-
tion in Turkey. At the same time, there are ever-increasing popular and vernacular
demands for participation in the state-consolidation and pluralisation process,
and the vast majority of them come from a religious background. In the case of
citizenship, suce it to say that the Turkish version of national enclosure has
framed a paradigm of hegemonic cultural identity and maximum homogeneity
built through a variety of methods ranging from overt exclusion to isolation, mar-
ginalization, assimilation and annihilation of particular identities and loyalties.3
Recently, much has been written on identity and citizenship questions and
my intention is not to reiterate them. I rather intend to clarify the aim of the AK
Party in constructing a new republican citizen devoid of former prejudices, and
AK Party, by representing
the periphery of politics,
was devoid of previous elitist
constraints and characteristics;
instead it incorporated a non-
conventional approach to
identity
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
95
to explore in a more deliberate way the role that the AK Party designated to the
Armenian community in construction of its political agenda.
e Emergence of Reconsidered Republican Identities
e AK Party, founded in 2001, is a political party striving to represent a new
identity in the Turkish political landscape. It was taken for granted that the AK
Party, by representing the periphery of politics, was devoid of previous elitist con-
straints and characteristics; instead it incorporated a non-conventional approach
to identity long desired by the citizens of Turkey. In a word, the AK Party’s formu-
las set a fertile ground for generating hope among dierent identities in Turkey.
Turkish society’s initial endorsement of the AK Party as an alternative to for-
merly dominant political forces gained momentum prior to the elections in 2002.
Although the AK Party can by no means be perceived as a monolithic party, its
identity and legitimacy were both largely anchored on pro-Western, pro-global-
ization, pro-democratic, pro-liberal and all-inclusive denitions. With a secure
majority in the Parliament, the leader of the party and PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
undertook reforms in almost every problematic eld that aected the status of an
EU accession candidate country (the Kurdish issue, human rights, civil-military
relations, minority issues, Cyprus disputes, etc). More importantly, the AK Party’s
ideological shi away from the “Milli Görüştowards a conservative democratic
ideological orientation and its endorsement of the notion of “social diversity” put
the party rmly “against the uniform vision of the republican establishment.4
e EU membership perspective of the AK Party had slowly persuaded the mili-
tary and the bureaucracy of the importance of conducting substantial reforms,
although neither the military nor the bureaucracy ever abandoned their constant
vigilance against the “black Turks.5 Moreover, every step taken by the AK Party
in the direction of widening religious freedom was interpreted by the Kemalist
elite as a proof of its concealed agenda to undermine the principles of laicism.6 As
İhsan Dağı asserts, “the fact that a political party that enjoys the support of nearly
one-half of all voters in Turkey sees human rights as fundamental to its very sur-
vival is indicative both of its insecurity and the social and political strength of
a human rights discourse.7 Insecurity has in fact been the Achilles’ heel of the
AK Party.8 is symptomatic description helps us to comprehend how the party’s
security perceptions designated the accents of its program. Despite its two consec-
utive victories in the general and municipal elections (in 2002 and 2004), the AK
Party failed to hide or overcome the vulnerability syndrome. As a result, the inse-
curity factor came to undermine the AK Party’s radical-reformist stance. us,
from the very outset, it was obvious that the AK Party would face clear limitations
96
from certain Kemalist circles (the army,
opposition parties, the judicial system,
law enforcement, the universities, etc.);
hence, it would have diculties in pro-
viding security guarantees to those who
needed them most.
Since 2002, Turkey has undergone a
very impressive process of transforma-
tion by speeding from one reform to another, a situation which was mainly driven
by external factors. In spite of some obvious shortcomings of the reforms in terms
of their implementation, the reforms and the EU harmonization drive did manage
to establish a climate of change. Moreover, the AK Party wanted others to contrib-
ute to that change. However, the processes to follow proved that Turkish society’s
dominant enthusiasm needed to be treated with the utmost care, simply because
being a strong party has proved to be an insucient force to carry out extensive
reforms.
e Armenian community, just like the other minorities in Turkey, has expe-
rienced decades of ignorance, prejudice and intimidation without being able to
speak up in its defense. Repressive measures, such as restrictions with respect to
their autonomy and the property rights of their foundations in the 1920s and 1930s,
special taxes in the 1940s, pogroms in the 1950s and 1960s, the seizure of the prop-
erty of congregational foundations in the 1970s, and restrictions on admitting chil-
dren to minority schools have all been eects of the republic’s policy towards its
minorities, resulting in a steady decrease in their numbers together with those of
their schools, churches and foundations.9 e Armenian community in Turkey in
this period was characterized by its fearful existence and collective silence.
For the better part of the 20th century, the question of Turkey’s Armenian
community has been considered both as a minority issue and as a state security
concern.10 It was never taken into serious consideration as an identity question.
ere are several reasons to explain that, as prejudiced interpretations of the Lau-
sanne Treaty’s (1923) clauses, and the principles and essential ideological features
of Kemalism created the very framework which shaped the worldview of the citi-
zens residing in the country and Armenians among them. With the passage of
time and with the application of the rigid forms of laicism, the Armenians’ reli-
gious and ethnic identity was put into serious jeopardy. e Armenians, along
with other non-Muslim communities, had long been treated as “local foreign-
ers with Turkish citizenship.11 Even today, Turkey’s bureaucracy continues to be
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
e Armenian community,
just like the other minorities
in Turkey, has experienced
decades of ignorance, prejudice
and intimidation without being
able to speak up in its defense
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
97
guided by a strongly nationalist, unitary concept of society, thereby denying and
neglecting the existence of ethnic or religious identities.
Under the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, Armenians in Turkey are not
seen as an ethnic minority but rather as a religious, i.e., non-Muslim, minority.
eir minority rights therefore mainly encompass the maintenance of the Arme-
nian language to the extent that it is part of the Armenian Apostolic or Uniate
Armenian rites.12 e Church and private Armenian schools thus represent the
most important institutions for preserving Armenian identity. For that and other
relevant issues to be properly handled the Armenian community rst and fore-
most needs to be acknowledged as such. In other words, it is a vain hope to expect
a Christian (religious) community to be active and cooperative in a rigidly applied
laicist system. It is anathema to the Turkish Constitution and to the logics of the
Turkish politics.
In spite of the promising start in 2002, the EU harmonization process in
Turkey has been progressing rather slowly due to a number of reasons. Speci-
cally, those reforms which were supposed to make the lives of Turkey’s minorities
much better (congregational foundations, property issues, status of the churches
and synagogues) suered from the well-intentioned actions of small and medium
bureaucrats, judiciaries, etc. and as a result have had limited eect. Many more
issues remain unaddressed and were not even included in the reform projects.
Moreover, the process of granting certain rights to the religious minorities did
not come along with proper and democratic legal provisions in the jurisprudence.
us, in many cases the bureaucrats were given the nal word in solving impor-
tant property and foundation related issues. e slow withdrawal of the state has
been accompanied by increasing unease and reluctance on the part of the Turkish
bureaucracy to lose its hold on society. us, a set of institutions have continued
to function in Turkey with ultra-conservative attitudes toward sensitive matters
(secular education, religious services and minorities’ estates, etc.) for example
the Directorate of Religious Aairs, the Ministry of Education and the Directorate
General of Foundations and the Higher Council of Minorities (before 2004).
Contextualisation of the Minorities
From 2002 onwards a few distinctive measures were taken to improve the situ-
ation. e improvements were also acknowledged in the EU Enlargement Reports.
In this paper those achievements will not be elaborated upon in detail; instead we
aim to determine what necessary measures are still missing and what remains to
be done. On September 22, 2003, the Christian minorities of Turkey sent a joint
98
letter to the Human Rights Committee of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey
(TBMM) in which they called upon the state to grant “... rst and foremost recog-
nition of the legal personality of all Christian patriarchates and churches and the
removal of all legal obstacles to such recognition...13 In the same vein, the Political
Bureau of the Foreign Ministry’s Secretariat General for the European Union asked
academic jurists to make recommendations for the reorganization of the religious
bureaucracy. As a result, Professor Hüseyin Hatemi, from the Faculty of Law of
İstanbul University, draed a bill that foresaw the granting of the status of “body
corporate” to indigenous non-Muslim communities such as the Greek Orthodox
Patriarchate, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch-
ate and the Rabbinate. e new corporate bodies were supposed to be supervised
by a new Ministry of Religious Aairs, which was to be in charge of two Director-
ates of Religious Aairs, one for Sunnism and one for Shi’ism, which would serve
as a framework for integrating the Alevi communities.14 However, due to various
reasons, little has been done to meet these recommendations and suggestions.
As the dominant policy parameters of the AK Party are delineated, it is appro-
priate to address the following question: what were the prime identity aspirations
of the AK Party and where was the Armenian community situated in that frame-
work? First and foremost, they both shared the identity of being oppressed and
being constrained by limitations. e AK Party used this image very wisely and
strived to grant a shelter to those who had identical perceptions. e AK Party’s
inclusive identity gave initial assurances to the Armenians who needed a sustain-
able Turkish state as much as the rest of the reform-minded citizens of Turkey. e
AK Party strived to base its identity not on citizenship-duty-bound and national
uniformity perceptions, but rather on individual perceptions. But the AK Party
leaders came to acknowledge that frontal confrontation with the Kemalist elite
based on the Milli Görüş’s previous anti-Western, anti-system rhetoric and relying
upon religious symbols seemed irritating for the Kemalists, and hence, could
not assure a prospective future in politics. According to Metin Heper, Erdoğan
believes in the potential of Islam to unite people around an ideal and build moral-
ity, integrity and drive.” He believes in a kind of Islamic version of the Protestant
work ethic, where you work hard for the benet of the country because it is a good
and right thing according to Islam’’.15 e AK Party’s political stance resembled
the fundamentally revised and innovated adaptation of the conservative political
thought which has dominated most of the republican history of Turkey.
Another important dimension that the AK Party was successful in promoting
was to capitalize on the idea of an ideological coalition of reform-oriented people.
Before the elections, the party managed to build a wide coalition of dierent
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
99
forces and extended a hand of coopera-
tion to the Armenian, Greek and Jewish
communities. However, in order to grasp
the nature of that cooperation it is appro-
priate to state that when speaking of AK
Party’s eorts to woo the Armenians I
don’t mean building an election coali-
tion. e Armenians’ share in the elec-
tions did not exceed 30,000 to 35,000
voters, hence, it is obvious that the AK Party was more interested in constructing a
symbolic alliance with marginalized communities. Moreover, the AK Party made
it clear that it would be a party where religious people feel at home, but it wouldn’t
be a religious party. In that sense it was interesting to observe during my interview
with the late Hrant Dink, when he mentioned the little known fact that in the 2002
November pre-election campaign Erdoğan invited him and a few other prominent
Armenian intellectuals, to participate in the elections on the AK Party ticket. e
oer was kindly declined by Dink on the grounds that their respective jobs have
important missions to carry out. Nevertheless, the three agreed to cooperate very
closely in the coming years.16 However, a few activists and prominent members of
the Armenian community in İstanbul did choose to join the AK Party.
Concerns and Expectations
What expectations and concerns did the Armenian community have about
the AK Party? Although PM Erdoğan has continuously stated that the Armenians
living in İstanbul do not face any problems, on dierent occasions the AK party
has acknowledged that there is a long way to go in gaining the complete trust of
the Armenian community. As skilled workers, craspeople and independent entre-
preneurs, Armenians belong to Turkey’s urban middle classes, and enjoy a certain
“petty-bourgeoislifestyle. Due to both open and covert discrimination, however,
they are scarcely represented in public service positions. No more than one to two
percent of Armenians is a member of a political party or actively participates in
politics.17 According to statistical data, most Armenians in Turkey live in İstanbul,
while a tiny minority lives in Ankara and in the southeast of Turkey. Hence, while
talking about the Armenian community we are essentially talking about the Istanbul
Armenians or Bolsahays, as they call themselves (Polsahay in Eastern Armenian.)
First of all, the majority of the Armenian community still feels the lack of suf-
cient security in their daily aairs, a feeling which became even stronger aer
Hrant Dink’s assassination. Each time there is an open outbreak of visible unrest
In the 2002 November
pre-election campaign Erdoğan
invited Hrant Dink and a few
other prominent Armenian
intellectuals to participate
in the elections on the
AK Party ticket
100
between Turkey and Armenia, France, or the USA, the Armenian community
nds itself in a condition of high anxiety. In such situations Turkish Arme-
nians become the defenseless targets of Turkish nationalists’ acts of retaliation,
an ongoing smear, disinformation and hate campaign which ultimately leads to
an increase in discrimination. In this climate, any Turkish administrations that
have dared even to consider, rather than neglect, these issues, have been largely
endorsed by the Armenians. e Armenian community in Turkey is working very
hard to overcome the physiological barrier of past injustices. Nevertheless, a sense
of fear and vulnerability still largely prevails among some members (especially
intellectuals, entrepreneurs, artists and activists) of the Armenian community.
Another important challenge is that despite the small size and enormous con-
tributions made by the Armenians to the Ottoman Empire, their historical role
and political potential is not appropriately recognized, which makes present-day
Armenians feel underprivileged and segregated.
As history is of vital importance in making any judgments about Turkey it is
worth mentioning the attitude of the Turkish Armenian community towards the
Genocide discourse. In brief, Turkey’s Armenian community has quite a dierent
strategy (if any) in pursuing the course of the recognition of the Armenian Geno-
cide. For instance, when there is a public debate concerning the course and the
strategy of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide there are at least three per-
spectives in play – a) the ocial standpoint of the Armenian Government, which
believes that recognition of the Genocide by Turkey should not be a precondition
for normalizing interstate relations, b) the dispersed and heterogeneous Arme-
nian Diaspora, which aspires for worldwide condemnation of Turkey, severe dip-
lomatic, trade and other kinds of sanctions, and the exertion of optimum pressure
on Ankara, and c) extreme caution among the Armenian community in İstanbul
when discussing “the events of the WWI,” because any steps taken by individual
activists without the consent and the approval of the Armenian community might
lead to unforeseen developments, which in their turn might endanger the secu-
rity of the Armenian community. at is why some activists from the community
want the Republic of Armenia and particularly the Diaspora to be vigilant and to
take their position into watchful consideration, because they are the closest and
prime target of any negative implications. In perspective, however, the Armenians
in Turkey are better positioned to play the role of a bridge or a mediator between
Yerevan, Ankara and the Diaspora, and hence they are the ones who demand
more clarity in that question.
In addition to the widely known diculties in the Turkish-Armenian rap-
prochement process, there is also a problem of communication between Armenia
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
101
and the Turkish Armenian community.
In this sense, it is appropriate to cite a
prominent Armenian intellectual (who
asked to remain anonymous) who cau-
tioned me to treat Turkey’s Armenians
separately and never juxtapose the Arme-
nian community with the Greek and
Jewish ones. His clarication sounded
quite acceptable – “unlike Greece and Israel we (Armenia - VTM) don’t have dip-
lomatic relations with Turkey. If there is a need to press on the Turkish Govern-
ment to resolve issues related to the Greeks and Jews it is rather easier to discuss
the questions on the state-diplomatic level. Meanwhile the lack of diplomatic rela-
tions makes Armenia a mere observer.18
In general, for a researcher, the Armenian community’s interactions with
Turkish state institutions may seem more than peculiar. For instance, above the
administrative buildings of the Armenian schools and churches the Turkish ag
is waving; in the corridors and classrooms, busts and pictures of Atatürk are com-
monplace along with many of his famous sayings. In Armenian schools, required
subjects are taught in Turkish, and except for classes that teach the Armenian lan-
guage and religion, there are no lessons on Armenian history and culture. Hrant
Dink wrote many columns about the state of the Armenian schools in Turkey, and
took special interest in their administration. While criticizing his own commu-
nity for its shortcomings, he also berated the Turkish government for imposing
numerous administrative restrictions on Armenian (and other minority) schools.
e Armenian community was encouraged by Hrant Dink’s ability to provide
public, constructive criticism to the government.
e atmosphere changed quite dramatically aer Hrant Dink’s assassination.
e cautious optimism of the Armenian community was seriously shattered. In
the words of Pakrat Estukyan, Editor of Agos, an atmosphere of despondency
held sway over the Armenian community, which started to suer from a certain
type of malaise.19 Questions of vulnerability and serious security risks came to the
surface. Although PM Erdoğan paid a hasty visit to Dink’s family and gave the
highest assurances that he would do his best to ensure stability and grant security
guarantees to the Armenian community, the security risks increased and there
were even voices of support for the perpetrators and a disturbing increase in anti-
Armenian discourse among some ultranationalist circles. AK Party ocials were
quick to condemn those trends, but in some cases the condemnation did not go
beyond lip service. On occasions the AK Party was associated with the label of
e atmosphere changed quite
dramatically aer Hrant Dink’s
assassination. e cautious
optimism of the Armenian
community was seriously
shattered
102
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
being passive. e deaths of Christian priests and servants by ultra-nationalist
Turks in 2007 escalated concerns among the members of the Armenian commu-
nity. Furthermore, the process of the trial of Hrant Dink’s assassins also raised a
series of profound questions with respect to the authenticity of support for the
Armenian community among some AK Party ocials.
e assassination opened a new page in relations between the AK Party and the
Armenian community. To a certain extent it was a setback. Hrant Dink’s death gal-
vanized certain ideas which he had made public when alive. It is widely known that
some of his ideas were not particularly embraced by some circles of the Armenian
community. Dink had alternative conciliatory solutions to the problem of the Geno-
cide and cohabitation of the two nations.20 When he made public the argument that
Armenians all around the world should overwhelmingly support Turkey’s bid for
EU membership, it caused uproar among the Armenians, simply because before
that it was unimaginable to picture Turkey among the EU member states without
acknowledging the fact of the Genocide. Hrant Dink’s perspective was very prag-
matic on that issue – “we need to help Turkey to achieve its goal because it will be
much easier to discuss thorny issues then rather than now, when Turkey is widely
viewed as excluded from EU trends. It is unimaginable to expect recognition of
the Genocide until the Turkish state has been granted a secure pathway to the EU
community.21 By that time, the general feeling among Armenians was that under
no circumstances should Turkey be allowed into the EU. So to put it mildly, Hrant
Dink’s alternative vision was a surprise. Yet rst and foremost, his novel vision
caught even the attention of the Armenian community in İstanbul, which started
to grasp the real meaning of Hrant Dink’s aims and largely backed him.
Recently, Armenians in the community have become more vocal in their con-
cerns about the genuine character of the AK Party’s initiatives. On dierent occa-
sions, Armenians have voiced their concerns in the hope that the members of the
ruling party would assist in their resolution. e problems facing Turkey’s Arme-
nians have multiple sources and characteristics (education, school enrollment,
foundations, cultural, social, familial and language preservation issues), hence,
their treatment also must derive from multiple sources.
Voting Preferences and Motivations
According to dierent post-election public opinion polls, around sixteen
percent who supported the AK Party in 2002 stated that the primary reason they
voted for the party was its promise to solve sensitive issues.22 Indeed, during the
republican decades a set of fundamental issues emerged, and the vast majority of
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
103
them remained unresolved. Moreover, in the 1980s and 1990s, issues that were
once merely sensitive (Kurdish nationalism, human rights, headscarf disputes,
minority rights, nancial crises, etc.) became even stronger to the extent that those
governments failed to tackle them eectively and had to hand over power to those
who claimed to possess more competent policy plans. e vicious circle seemed
endless, and any party with a good reputation and authentic devotion to the cause
could gain the support of the constituency. Suce it to look back at the turn of the
20th century a failed party system, a weak or absent opposition, a demoralized
economy, a heightened level of political apathy, etc.23 e AK Party leadership made
it clear to the constituency that despite the existing diculties their one-year-old
party was determined to eliminate the chronic problems of the Turkish state.
e ocial election results will not help to determine the exact voting pref-
erences of Turkey’s Armenians. However, the data from two densely populated
Armenian neighborhoods of İstanbul (Şişli and Bakırköy) and my eldwork
data indicate that in both the 2002 and 2007 elections, the Armenian commu-
nity demonstrated political sympathy towards the AK Party and for those CHP
and independent candidates who held favorable views in regard to Armenians.
e le-wing socialist ÖDP (Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi) led by Ufuk Uras
e successful completion of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process will enhance the prole of
the Armenian community and the latter will substantially benet from that progression.
Photo: AA, Levent Harman
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
also received votes from the Armenians. e survey by the İstanbul-based Nor
Zartonk organization, whose name means “Being minority in Turkey,” indicates
that from 2002 until 2007 a distinct form of voting transformation took place.
e pre-election surveys of the July 22, 2007 elections indicated that the Arme-
nians were ready to increase their support to the AK Party by 100% compared to
the 2002 performance. On the contrary, the CHP was about to receive only 13%
percent of Armenian votes compared to the 35.6% of the 2002 elections. e ÖDP
also decreased its votes from 8% in 2002 to 4.6% in 2007.24 e independent can-
didate Baskın Oran, who was nominated in the Şişli district, received 8.7 percent
of votes in the elections of July 22, 2007 and failed to get elected. us, the election
results generally reected the Armenians’ pre-election voting preferences. A com-
parison of the results of the 2002 and 2007 elections reveal that there was initial
caution towards the AK Party, which slowly faded away and with the passage of
time Armenians gained more condence in the ruling political party. e reasons
for the Armenian community’s electoral preferences were multiple. e general
perception available at the time of the eld research in İstanbul was that, paral-
lel to the concerns of the secular-Kemalist elite, the Armenians also had been
extremely worried about the rise of movements with Islamic worldviews. at
perception was easily understandable because the picture presented by the secular
elite before the 2002 elections (and before the 1995 and 1999 elections as well)
was that Turkey was on the brink of a major choice between Islamists and secular-
ists. According to the unconditional devotees of the secular pathway the Turkish
constituency needed to make a wise, black-and-white choice between those forces
which strive to heal society’s wounds and those that bring more ambiguity to the
atmosphere. ere was a cacophany of mutual accusation among the secular and
pro-Islamic political forces. One can only imagine the general feeling of anxiety
about how to behave in the elections, whom to vote for, etc.
e data collected by Komşuoğlu indicates that Armenians’ voting percent-
age was by far greater than Turkey’s overall balloting percentage - 79.1 percent in
the 2002 general elections.25 More importantly that gure was set to stay stable in
the 2007 elections also, as indicated in the “Nor Zartonk survey,” which showed
80% of indented participation.26 ese gures are interesting because the 2002
elections were widely known for a low turn-out. ere could be various reasons
for the Armenians’ active participation; however, we would like to emphasize the
connection between the vocal participation of the Armenian community and
the contribution made by the Armenian periodicals, particularly of Agos. Hrant
Dink, thanks to his critical standing directed both against the Turkish state and
the Armenian community, wanted the latter to transform its neutral identity
104
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
into one of prominence. at was not
an easy process, but Dink managed to
make Armenians rethink their previous
standing on vital political matters. is
intention, as a matter of fact, coincided
with the desire of the newly founded AK
Party to establish a broad-based coali-
tion of dierent identities. A paradigm of
shared interests emerged, which worked
relatively well until Dink’s assassination.
e Armenian individuals who sup-
ported the AK Party stated that this party had a more positive approach towards
the problems of the community when compared with previous governments, and
they also drew a connection between the Islamist identity of the party and its antic-
ipated respect for their own religion. In their words they shared the statement that:
as they (the AK Party-VTM) are religious people they will also respect our
religion.27 Another respondent said “I’m a Christian, but I’m not scared of the AK
Party. ey are working for the good of the country; they are respecting other cul-
tures and accepting the rules of the EU.28 It should be mentioned that this mode
of positive approach needs to be considered with care, because the Armenian
community along with other members of the Turkish society shared a prevailing
enthusiasm aer the AK Party came to power. As a proof of that statement, when
the Armenians were asked about their opinion on the question of the Welfare Party
(Refah Partisi) they preferred to begin with their positive statements about the AK
Party. is general enthusiasm was so prevalent that Armenians did not recall those
instances when the WP mayors or deputies initiated or gave numerous permis-
sions to ruin Armenian churches or transform them into mosques. For instance,
on June 13, 1997, Hürriyet reported that the WP mayor of Beyoğlu allowed the his-
toric Protestant Armenian church of Çiksalın to be destroyed entirely. e church
had been expropriated a year and a half before that in order to build a health centre
on the site.29 ere were other identical cases of destroying Armenian historical
monuments by the WP in the Eastern part of the country.
Certain circles in the Armenian community interpreted the success of the AK
Party in the 2002 elections largely based upon the perception that … there was no
other reasonable choice; in addition, the AK Party has been underlining the EU
vision and it did manage the EU relations well at that time.30 It was also appar-
ent for the Armenian community that the AK Party had distanced itself from
the Kemalist/ nationalist perspective when it rst came to power, while the CHP
105
e AK Party had distanced
itself from the Kemalist/
nationalist perspective when
it rst came to power, while the
CHP had turned more and
more aggressively nationalist.
erefore, the Armenians felt
more comfortable voting for
the AK Party
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
(Сumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) Republican People’s Party) had turned more
and more aggressively nationalist. erefore, the Armenians felt more comfort-
able voting for the AK Party.31
In terms of cooperation between the AK Party and the Armenian community,
the last parliamentary elections in July 2007 revealed some remarkable devel-
opments. During the last elections the AK Party used the leverage of the new
Law of Foundations, which had previously created considerable problems for the
religious minorities. e Armenian community’s response was less than posi-
tive: the AK Party “used the process of changing the law, yet we witness that the
new law is not capable of solving the problems associated with the foundations.
Many Armenians voted both for the AK Party and for independent candidates
like Baskın Oran, Ufuk Uras, Sabahat Tunçel on dierent grounds. Most probably
the ones who decided to vote for independent candidates took into account that
the EU process stopped, Hrant was killed, and that many who were in the govern-
ment knew about the murder before it took place. Nationalism was rising.32
e last parliamentary elections of 2007 were also known for divided opinions
among the members of the Armenian community. Agos, the Armenian weekly,
estimated that close to 60 percent of Turkey’s Armenians would vote for the AK
Party.33 Some Armenians noted that the fact that some social democrats and leist
parties nominated right wing and racist candidates caused many members of the
community to think that another term for the AK Party might not be such a bad
thing aer all. Prior to the elections Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan stated that “e
AK Party is more moderate and less nationalistic in its dealings with minorities.
e Erdoğan government listens to us; we will vote for the AK Party in the next
elections.34 Vasken Barın, deputy mayor of İstanbul’s central district, Şişli, and
a member of the CHP, said that this was only the Patriarch’s personal opinion.
And even the Patriarchs press spokesman, Luiz Bakar, said that Mesrop Muta-
fyan’s statement was his personal opinion, and noted that the Patriarch could not
provide political leadership to the community. He added that everyone was free
to vote as they liked.35 us, there were concerns about the actual role of the Patri-
arch in dealing with important community problems, and the Armenians did not
follow the words of the Patriarch in unison. Nonetheless, it was unusual for the
Patriarch to openly endorse a party running for Parliament. It indicates the level
of trust that the Patriarch had towards the AK Party. In any account, the represen-
tatives of community largely welcomed the AK Party’s successes in the election.36
e anti-Armenian intentions of the CHP and the MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket
Partisi – MHP, Nationalist Action Party) for the most part of the republican period
106
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
were fresh in the memories of the Armenians; therefore, in general they tried to
keep a distance from those parties. However, during the 1990s and 2000s, the
CHP tried to transform its anti-Armenian views, and the mayor of Şişli, Mustafa
Sarıgül from the CHP, was elected in 1999. Sarıgül, prominent member of the
CHP, invested a lot to set a common ground for cooperation with the Armenians.
Furthermore, Sarıgül appointed the above-mentioned Barın as his Deputy when
he came to power in 1999. Aer Sarıgül was re-elected in 2004, he kept Barın as
his Deputy and made him a member of the Şişli Municipality Assembly.
Continuity and Change
e results of the two elections revealed institutionalized predicaments hin-
dering the Armenian community and the AK Party from working more eciently
together. Other no less capable causes were the lack of modus operandi, lack of
systematization, lack of routines and coordination between dierent state agen-
cies and bureaucratic circles as well as lack of motivation. Simultaneously there
were too many responsibilities and promises.
ere are other indications to state that the elections (in 2002 and 2007) triggered
certain changes in the perceptions of the Armenian community in regard to its
political and societal participation proles. ose indications pointed to the need
for critical political and social reconsideration. Dr. Kentel’s words have come to
substantiate that increasing need. He states that the Armenian community “wants
to be the same as its Turkish counterpart, have the same status in society and
exercise the same expectations as everyone else in the mainstream.” He continues
Armenians feel that their political worlds must go beyond partaking in community
organizations, church and choir and alumni associations, reading Agos, etc.37
In the wake of the 2002 elections, the AK Party’s haste to deal with the reform
packages was juxtaposed with considerable external pressure. e Accession
Partnership Document of 2003 stated clearly that Turkish authorities needed “to
establish better conditions for the functioning of religious communities, their
members and their assets, the teaching, appointing and training of clergy, and
the enjoyment of property rights in line Protocol 1 of the European Convention
on Human Rights.38 e same concerns were present in the last progress report
made public on November 6, 2007.39 Moreover, the report stressed that the gov-
ernment was not persistent enough to prevent the increasing attacks and individ-
ual crimes against non-Muslim citizens and their places of worship. is concern
was reected in a circular on the freedom of religion of non-Muslim Turkish
citizens issued by the Ministry of Interior on June 19, 2007.40 e report further
107
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
elaborated the fact that religious groups continued to face problems such as lack
of legal personality, restricted property rights, problems with the management of
their foundations and with recovering property by judicial means.41 Turkey also
fails to cooperate closely with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minori-
ties (HCNM), and has not signed the Council of Europe Framework Convention
for the Protection of National Minorities or the European Charter for Regional
or Minority Languages. As regards to the last charter, Turkish authorities have
repeatedly stated that “the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages”
opposes Articles 3 and 42 of the Turkish Constitution, which regulates the status
of the Turkish language and the provision that only Turkish can be taught in edu-
cational institutions.42
e Armenian community is struggling hard to preserve its inherited values,
resources and assets. However, the history of the republican decades has proved
that without governmental assistance the Armenian religious community is not
capable of doing much. It certainly requires the heavy hand of a strong state to
solve its problems rather than face new ones. One of the possible solutions for
making the lives of the Armenian communities better is to use the advantages of
the new laws, which were adopted as part of the EU harmonization packages. For
instance, the revised laws on associations, assembly and demonstration and the
Council on Minority Aairs can be a fertile ground for reaching out and making
Turkish society at large aware of minority concerns and expectations. e interna-
tional community and those which signed the Lausanne Treaty need to be assert-
ively engaged with a clear mission to help the Armenian community improve its
legal status and be a part of the larger social and political mosaic that the West
urges Turkey to have.
e relationship between the AK Party and the Armenian community has
revealed that in matters of necessity the Armenian community can act in partial
unison and if necessary act consistently. It just needs attention and stimulus to be
encouraged and be active as a part of Turkish society, as the emerging peripheral
forces of Turkey are all striving to be. Corollary to that, some suggest to strengthen
the Armenian identity through multiple channels and routines. Nowadays, there
are voices in Turkey that argue for the worldwide movement of a politics of dier-
ence. But the latter, which is seen as a potent force in mobilizing members of groups
that feel socially, culturally and politically marginalized by mainstream society,43
is possible only if there is both a legal framework and the necessary socio-political
surrounding to make their demands heard. Some observers claim that conscious-
ness raising and group solidarity are important requirements to conduct political
108
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
action,44 a statement which, although
applicable in other instances, is more
than imperfect for the Turkish case in
general and for the Armenian case in
particular. Rather, interculturalism, as a
neutral description of a process that is
inherent in multiethnic, multi-confes-
sional and democratic societies, could
inform a new kind of politics of alliance
where dierences are acknowledged as
important and vital to one’s own social
and political experience and identity, even as empathy and connections to other
are formed.45 is summation by Lehring is by no means an innovation in Turkey
as many people and high-ranking politicians share the view of having an authen-
tic pluralist society where everybody’s voice should be heard and respected.
It is safe to claim that between 2002 and 2007 there were a period of melt-down
between the Armenian community in Turkey and the ruling AK Party. Arme-
nians in general hoped for security assurances from the AK Party and sought
to benet from radical systemic reforms. In turn, the AK Party strived to build
a wide coalition of peripheral forces and movements in order to substantiate its
reform-oriented agenda. In a word, it was a period of interest convergence. In this
paper I have tried to give a systematic shape to the existing discourse revolving
around the policy of the AK Party toward one dimension of the minority politics.
Starting from 2002 there was a slowly growing trust between the AK Party and the
Armenian community, which was based on shared interests and ambitions. e
AK Party’s drive to engage the Armenian community in its large-scale reforma-
tion context was unprecedented, despite the contradictory and limited results. But
even if the AK Party possessed the necessary leverage to solve the problems, there
were more elitist, Kemalist hindrances than intra-party reactions.46 is is not to
suggest that the AK Party had no problems with the Armenians; the majority of
the problems did exist but it was important that the AK Party was willing at least
to include the concerned Armenian voices.
e AK Party is still widely hailed as a party of “sensitive issues.” Hence, nowa-
days the AK Party is positioned to embrace manageable challenges. In the aer-
math of ideological and political confrontation the AK Party still holds power
with a hope to generate greater condence and determination. e AK Party’s
emphasis on interplay with dierent identities is absolutely crucial to overcoming
109
Armenians in general hoped for
security assurances from the
AK Party and sought to benet
from radical systemic reforms.
In turn, the AK Party strived to
build a wide coalition of
peripheral forces and movements
in order to substantiate its
reform-oriented agenda
VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN
the psychological barriers on the dierent levels of state bureaucracy. e success-
ful completion of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process will enhance the
prole of the Armenian community and the latter will substantially benet from
that progression.
Endnotes
1. Tessa Hofmann, Armenians in Turkey Today: A Critical Assessment of the Situation of the
Armenian Minority in the Turkish Republic (e EU Oce of Armenian Associations of Europe,
Belgium, October 2002).
2. Ahmet İçduygu and Özlem Kaygusuz, “e Politics of Citizenship by Drawing Borders:
Foreign Policy and the Construction of National Citizenship Identity in Turkey,Middle Eastern
Studies, Vol. 40, No. 6 (2004), p. 27.
3. Ibid 29.
4. Ali Soner, “e Justice and Development Party’s policies towards non-Muslim minorities in
Turkey,Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2010), pp. 24-25.
5. Hakan Yavuz describes the Kemalists’ self-perception as “white Turks” and Islamists’ and
peripheral forces’ as “black Turks.” Hakan Yavuz, “Cleansing Islam from the Public Sphere,Journal
of International Aairs, Vol. 54, No. 1, (2000); Hakan Yavuz, “Turkey’s Fault Lines and the Crisis of
Kemalism,Current History, Vol. 99, No. 633, (2000).
6. Gabriel Goltz, “e non-Muslim Minorities and Reform in Turkey,” Hans-Lukas Kieser (ed.),
Turkey beyond Nationalism: Towards Post-nationalist Identities, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris
& Co. Ltd, 2006), p. 181.
7. İhsan Dağı, “Justice and Development Party: Identity, Politics, and Human Rights Discourse
in the Search for Security and legitimacy,Hakan Yavuz (ed.), e Emergence of a New Turkey:
Democracy and the AK Party (Salt Lake City: e University of Utah Press, 2006), p. 103.
8. Ibid 89.
9. Goltz, “e non-Muslim Minorities and Reform in Turkey”, p. 179.
10. Soner, “e Justice and Development Party’s Policies towards non-Muslim Minorities in
Turkey”, p. 27.
11. Goltz, “e non-Muslim Minorities and Reform in Turkey,” p. 175.
12. Homan, “Armenians in Turkey Today,” p. 23.
13. Günter Seufert, “Religion: Nation-building Instrument of the State or Factor of Civil
Society? e AK Party between state- and society-centered religious politics,” Hans-Lukas Kieser
(ed.), Turkey beyond Nationalism: Towards Post-nationalist Identities, ed., (London and New York:
I.B. Tauris & Co. ltd,, 2006 ), p. 145.
14. Ibid 146.
15. Deborah Sontag, “e Erdoğan Experiment, e New York Times, May 11, 2003.
16. Interview with Hrant Dink, İstanbul, August 20, 2004.
17. Markar Esayan, “Do not let citizenship remain on paper”, http://www.norzartonk.org/en/?p=
10; “Türkiye’de Azınlık Olmak” Anketi Sonuçları, http://www.norzartonk.org/en/?p=33, p. 29.
18. Interview with an Armenian intellectual, İstanbul, May 5, 2005.
19. “e Armenian community of Istanbul: Confronting new challenges and old realities,” inter-
view with Pakrat Estukyan, http://www.norzartonk.org/en/?p=77.
110
e Armenian Community and the AK Party: Finding Trust under the Crescent
20. “Hrant Dink and the Culprits of His Murder”, Turkish Daily News, January 25, 2007.
21. Interview with Hrant Dink, İstanbul, August 2004.
22. Sultan Tepe, “A Pro-Islamic Party? Promises and Limits of Turkey’s Justice and Development
Party,” Hakan Yavuz (ed.), e Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Party, (Salt Lake
City: e University of Utah Press, 2006), p. 123.
23. Tepe, “A Pro-Islamic party”, p. 114.
24. “Türkiye’de Azınlık Olmak” Anketi Sonuçları, http://www.norzartonk.org/en/?p=33, pp.
24-25.
25. Ayşegül Komsuoğlu, “Findings of a Field Survey on Turkey’s Armenians: Notes on eir
Political Prole.in Groups, Ideologies and Discourses: Glimpses of the Turkish Speaking World ed.
Christoph Herzog Barbara (Würzburg: Ergon verlag würzburg in kommission, Pusch Istanbuler
texte und studien, Herausgegeben vom orient-institut, Istanbul, Vol. 10, 2008), p. 53.
26. Ibid 55.
27. Esayan, http://www.norzartonk.org/en/?p=10.
28. Yigal Schleifer, “Turkey: Religious Minorities Watch Closely as Election Day Approaches,
http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav071907a.shtml
29. Homan, “Armenians in Turkey,” p. 28.
30. Interview with an Armenian journalist, İstanbul, September 17, 2007.
31. Interview with a member of the Armenian community, İstanbul, September 20, 2007.
32. Interview with a member of the Armenian community, İstanbul, September 18, 2007.
33. Schleifer, “Religious Minorities Watch Closely as Election Day Approaches.
34. Schleifer, “Turkey Religious Minorities Watch Closely as Election Day Approaches,”; Cengiz
Çandar, “Turkey’s Christians like AK Party despite Islamist past,Turkish Daily News, June 21, 2007.
35. Vercihan Ziioğlu, “Community support cannot be taken for granted, says Şişli’s Armenian
Deputy Mayor”, Turkish Daily News, www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/article.php?enewsid=76347
36. “e Armenian community is pleased with the election results,http://www.armtown.com/
news/am/pan/20070726/23097.
37. Tamar Nalcı, “Nor Zartonk Survey discussed,” http://www.norzartonk.org/en/?p=14.
38. Ocial Journal of the European Communities, L 145/44 EN, June 12, 2003.
39. Commission Sta Working Document, Turkey 2007 Progress Report, Commission of the
European Communities accompanying the Communication from the Commission to the European
Parliament and the Council - Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2007-2008 Brussels, Nov.
6, 2007, sec(2007) 1436 {com(2007) 663 nal}, pp. 11-24.
40. Ibid 16.
41. Ibid 17.
42. “Turkey Criticized for not Signing Charter on Minority Languages,Today’s Zaman, June
23, 2010.
43. Gary Lehring, “Identity politics,” Mary Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan (eds.), Encyclope-
dia of Government and Politics, 2nd ed., (London and New York: Routledge, Vol. 1, 2004), p. 576.
44. Ibid 577.
45. Ibid 584.
46. It is also true that within the AK Party there were anti-Armenian nationalistic voices (like
Cemil Çiçek), but those trends were primarily voiced in connection with the Genocide.
111
... Considering the results obtained in the study, it is rhought that some deductions could be reached regarding citizenship policies in Turkey. After all, when the literature concerning the issue in question is analyzed as a whole, the opinions and expectations about citizenship and citizenship education policies practiced in Turkey as far as Armenians were not found to have been sufficiently expressed by the participants in researches that partially touch on the aspect of citizenship (Komşuoğlu, 2007;Matevosyan, 2010;Metin, 2007;Muratyan, 2011;Örs, 2010;Tansel, 2009;Yeşiltepe, 2008). 5 ...
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The problematical notion of the ‘Armenian question’ has become a political and linguistic tool for the official genocide denial ever since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, and has come to stand for the controversy that exists around the denial and recognition of the Armenian Genocide at both national and international levels. This research explores how the ‘Armenian question’ in Turkey opens up a discursive space in which various forms of Turkish nationalism are constructed and reproduced, and addresses multifaceted narratives from members of the Armenian community. By employing this term I aim to challenge the attempt to decontextualize collective acts of violence against Armenians, restricting them to the period of the Ottoman Empire, and indicate how this issue goes far beyond the politics of genocide. The objective of my research is to point out particular production and consumption phases of the Armenian question in Turkey. The production side focuses on three national newspapers in order to unveil overlapping and divergent discursive strategies in their coverage of three recent incidents, namely the assassination of Hrant Dink, the murder of Sevag Balıkçı, and the public protest against the Khojaly Massacre. In contrast, the consumption side embraces the perceptions and experiences of particular members of the Armenian community in Istanbul with respect to past and present occurrences. This research thus uncovers consistencies and contradictions between news discourse and the responses of the Armenian interviewees concerning three particular events and sheds light on the asymmetrical production and consumption patterns of the Armenian question in Turkey. Drawing on data from both a critical discourse analysis of three cases in three Turkish national newspapers and forty-five semi-structured interviews with Armenians, this qualitative study seeks to contribute to the growing body of research on the Armenian question and Turkish nationalism.
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