[lg policy] Turkey: Ethnic Armenians Look for Political Voice

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 19 17:12:56 UTC 2011

Turkey: Ethnic Armenians Look for Political Voice
Submitted by k_kumkova on June 14, 2011 - 12:05pm

June 14, 2011 - 12:02pm

Turkey’s parliamentary campaign debate about the government’s
treatment of ethnic minorities prompted hope among the country’s
ethnic Armenians, its largest non-Muslim minority, that greater
tolerance could be in the wind. But as Turkish-Armenians take stock of
their situation post-election, a mood of caution still prevails.

Only some 300,000 ethnic Armenians are believed to have remained in
Turkey after the 1915-1918 massacres of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman
Turks. Today, most members of Turkey’s estimated 50,000-strong ethnic
Armenian community reside in Istanbul; a tiny minority of ethnic
Armenians, who converted to Islam, live in the regions of Tunceli and

Diaspora Armenians may think first of genocide recognition when Turkey
comes to mind, but for those Armenians who live in Turkey, another
issue carries equal importance – seeing an ethnic Armenian elected to
Turkey’s parliament.

With a nose out for votes, two opposition parties – the Kemalist
Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the National Movement Party (MHP)
– earlier had planned to include two ethnic Armenians among their
candidates in Turkey’s June 12 parliamentary elections. An uptick in
nationalist rhetoric, however, prompted them to abandon such plans,
some observers say.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) performed a similar
about-face with wealthy Turkish-Armenian businessman Bedros Sirinoglu.
In 2007, the AKP had been the primary choice for Turkish-Armenian
voters who hoped that the party would carry through legal reforms that
would allow the return of property confiscated from ethnic Armenians,
said Margar Yesaian, a columnist for the Taraf daily newspaper.

Turkey and Armenia’s failed attempt to patch up the past, though,
prompted many ethnic Armenian voters to change their loyalties,
commented Marmara University’s Pagrat Merinoglu, an ethnic Armenian
professor of computer engineering. “Erdoğan’s government broke all our
hopes for the reconciliation process,” Merinoglu said.

Instead, “[t]his time, Armenians have placed their faith in
independent candidates who declared their willingness to support
ethnic minorities,” said Aris Nalci, an editor at Agos, an
Istanbul-based Armenian newspaper.

Two days after the vote, whether that faith will be justified remains
unclear. Some observers, though, say that the lack of an ethnic
Armenian parliamentary deputy only feeds the Turkish-Armenian
community’s feelings of isolation.

“The main issue for Armenians here has always been and still is the
fact that they are not viewed as rightful citizens of the Turkish
state,” said Ozge Genc, a manager of the Turkish Economic and Social
Studies Foundation’s Democratization Program. “And Armenians are often
treated with greater distrust than all other Christian minorities

Armenians in Turkey are often portrayed as traitors who committed
atrocities against Turks during World War I and sided with Russia
against the Ottoman Empire. As a result, many ethnic Armenians have
taken Turkish surnames and say that they avoid speaking Armenian in
the streets. That wariness extends to politics and the Turkish civil
service, Genc continued. “They have to go through a security check,
and, as a result, Armenians . . . are not represented in the political
field and public sectors.”

That trend has slowly begun to change. Non-Muslims have been allowed
to hold official posts in Turkey since 1965. Fearing discrimination,
few ethnic Armenians, though, have applied for such jobs. A marked
exception occurred this March when Turkey’s Secretariat-General for
European Affairs offered an advisor post to an ethnic Armenian; the
offer made headlines in Turkish media.

Later that month, Ankara appointed Turkish-Armenian economist Daron
Acemoglu, a two-time Nobel Prize nominee, as its ambassador to France.

Breaking the Armenian community’s tradition of silence has been a
challenge, but the 2007 murder of ethnic Armenian journalist and Agos
Editor-in-Chief Hrant Dink proved a turning point, noted Professor
Arus Yumul, the Turkish-Armenian head of the sociology department at
Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University. “It’s as if Hrant Dink’s death woke us
up and made us remember our identity and not be afraid of being
Armenian,” he said.

An ongoing trend of mixed marriages has contributed to that process. A
decade or two ago, marrying an ethnic Turk would have been considered
shameful for an ethnic Armenian, Yumul said. “Now, it is viewed almost
as something normal. There is no confrontation on this issue, which
means that the next generation will be more of a hybrid, and will be
able to chose its ethnicity.”

Meanwhile, some signs indicate that many Turks, too, are taking a
fresh look at relations with Armenians. Thousands of ethnic Turks took
to the streets to protest the death of Hrant Dink, and protests and
other events were staged in Istanbul this April to commemorate the
deaths of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the
World-War-I-era massacres.

But the process of reconciliation is far from smooth. Silva
Kuyumcuian, the principal of Getronagan, Istanbul’s oldest Armenian
lyceum, charges that the Turkish government uses ethnic Turkish deputy
principals to ensure that Armenian history is not taught and that more
Armenian language classes are not offered in Turkey’s 16 Armenian

“Of course, we are very cautious, and, for now, that’s the only right
policy since we are trying to survive and not lose our students,”
Kuyumcuian said.

But rather than silence and caution, some argue that the ethnic
Armenian community’s best hope for the future lies in Turkey’s ongoing
attempts to build political pluralism. “[O]nly that way can
minorities’ problems be solved…,” said Taraf columnist Margar Yesaian.
“A step toward democratization has been made, so we hope for more


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