Friday, January 24, 2014

Meaningful Steps: A Roadmap for Turkey as 2015 Approaches

n a previous article about the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, I argued about the need to focus our limited resources to supporting independent academic research, to continue to reveal the truth and facts of 1915 and establish a “common body of knowledge” between Turks and Armenians. In this article, I will elaborate on the necessity to deliver those facts directly to the Turkish people; will outline some of the obstacles created by the denialist policies of the Turkish state; and finally, will provide a few suggestions for the Turkish state to consider by 2015.
Meaningful dialogue between two conflicting parties can only happen when both parties are aware of the facts and the truth. Even though the Turkish state has not allowed the truth of 1915 to come out until very recently, there are now clear signs that the taboos are finally being broken and that this “common body of knowledge” is emerging among Turkish opinion makers and ordinary citizens.
For four generations, Turkish citizens were brainwashed about the genocide by the state education system and the media. The Turkish people, however, can no longer be defined as a homogenous, uniform group. Clashes between the Turkish state and the sizable Kurdish/Alevi population, as well as the prosecution and punishment of the “deep state” leaders who ruled Turkey until a few years ago, have led some to question the state’s version of history regarding 1915. A few bright personalities/opinion makers in politics, academia, media, and literature have advocated for increased democratization, freedom of speech, and minority rights; moreover, they have acknowledged the truth about the genocide and demanded that the state do so as well. There is now a small but fast-increasing segment of the population that wants the state to face its past.
To date, there have been very few attempts for dialogue between the Armenian world and this liberalized segment of the Turkish population. Apart from the activities of the Hrant Dink Foundation based in Istanbul, the only contact has been through a few individuals in academia, film, media, music, and culture; and organizationally, by the Zoryan Institute in the academic field, by the Armenian NGO Civilitas through its recently opened office in Istanbul, and some recent political exchanges between Kurdish political parties and representatives of the ARF. Armenian academia, NGOs, and opinion makers should aim to establish direct contact with their Turkish counterparts to convey the truth through jointly organized conferences, seminars, TV programs, films, and translated publications.
Ordinary Turks, for example, should find out about the courageous Turkish officials who resisted the inhumane government decisions to annihilate the Armenian population in 1915. They should learn about the fate of the properties left behind by the annihilated Armenians, including hundreds of thousands of houses, fields, shops, warehouses, factories, mines, churches, and schools, all confiscated by the state, the Ittihat Terakki leaders, or local Muslim notables. They should understand that most of the Ataturk House Museums scattered all over Anatolia once belonged to deported or murdered Armenian citizens of the Ottoman state. They should be reminded that the very residence where the Turkish president sits today in Ankara was once owned by an Armenian family.
Of course, the Turkish state will continue to use all of its resources to prevent its citizens from finding out the truth. Notwithstanding the boasts of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that the archives are open and have nothing to hide, the reality is that the Ottoman archives are not entirely open and have gone through two major cleanups.
The first cleanup and destruction of files was back in 1918, when the Ittihat Terakki leaders escaped from Istanbul in a German warship to avoid prosecution as war criminals, carrying several trunkloads of documents with them. At the same time, the main planner of the Armenian deportations and massacres, Special Organization Chief Bahattin Shakir, also burned rooms full of documents related to their activities.
The second purging was in the 1990′s when the Ottoman archives were reorganized, translated into modern Turkish, and digitized. A team of diplomats, historians, retired ambassadors, and military officers sifted through millions of documents with the objective of eliminating any incriminating reference to the Armenians.
Recent WikiLeaks documents indicate that the Ottoman archival documents, initially estimated at 50 million records, numbered more like 200 million and therefore, the intended purge could not be carried out effectively. Clearly, several thousand documents escaped scrutiny and a few prominent Turkish scholars like Taner Akcam, Umit Kurt, and Ugur Ungor have been able to produce significant historic facts about the intended annihilation of the Armenians and the confiscation of their properties based only on these archives. Recently it was revealed that all researchers delving into the Armenian issue in the Ottoman archives were being tracked and monitored. If their work was deemed to be against the state version, there would be harassment and funding repercussions against them, as well as the institutions where they worked/studied. Meanwhile, Turkish researchers who produce/falsify/create documents minimizing Armenian losses are encouraged and rewarded. In 2005, Murat Bardakci, an investigative journalist, published Talat Pasha’s diary, revealing that Talat had kept detailed records about the numbers and destination of the deported Armenians. He had tallied the loss of Armenians at 972,000, but had also stated that the total missing could exceed 1.2 million due to unaccounted relocations.
During a recent TV talk show about history called “Rear Window of History,” Bardakci invited a history professor from Sakarya University, a state-sponsored “expert” on the Armenian issue. This expert announced that the archives show that the Ottoman government took all precautions to care for the 300,000 Armenians, who were temporarily deported only from the eastern war front; that only a few thousand died from illness; and that most of them returned home safely after the war. Bardakci confronted him by producing Talat Pasha’s diary and the numbers that Talat himself had quoted. The expert said he was only able to work with whatever is available in the state archives. He also announced that Turkish historians have now “proven” that all the genocide allegations are “fiction” based on American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s book, which, he said, was specifically produced as a propaganda tool to drum up support for the United States to enter the war. Even Bardakci found this expert’s comments embarrassing for Turkey, as it would result in more ridicule internationally and weaken Turkey’s hand further on the eve of 2015.
If Erdogan really wants to prove that Turkey has nothing to hide, all he has to do is order the release of two sets of critical documents—the deportation books and the deeds. The first set of documents are the 33 dossiers of the Deportation and Liquidation Commissions formed in 1915-16 in various Ottoman Anatolian provinces. They recorded, listed, appraised, and held on to the assets of the deported Armenians for their eventual return, but also sold or distributed some of these assets to Muslim refugees. The whereabouts of these dossiers is a mystery, but it is speculated that they are still intact and kept in the prime ministry offices. The second set of documents contain the Ottoman land registry and property deeds records. In 2005, when the government attempted to comply with European Union (EU) modernization initiatives by translating and opening these records up to the public, it was prevented from doing so by a stern warning—dated Aug. 26, 2005—from the National Security Committee of the Turkish Armed Forces, which stated, “The Ottoman records kept at the Land Register and Cadaster Surveys General Directorate offices must be sealed and not available to the public, as they have the potential to be exploited by alleged genocide claims and property claims against the State Charitable Foundation assets. Opening them to general public use is against state interests.”
Recently, it came to light that a former prime minister had come close to taking a positive step toward resolving the Armenian issue. Being a very pragmatic politician, in the early 1990′s Turgut Ozal had sought to end Turkey’s denialist policy and had commissioned a study to quantify the amount of compensation owed to Armenians worldwide. It is reported that the study did come up with a monetary figure, but no further steps were taken, either because the cost would be exorbitant, or because Ozal mysteriously died in 1993. His sudden death is still a subject of speculation today, 20 years later; his body was recently exhumed and examined for the presence of poison. It is said that he was severely criticized by the military and the deep state, not only for this Armenian episode, but more critically, for his desire to end the separatist Kurdish issue by giving concessions.
Based on the feedback and comments my past articles have garnered, there seems to be a significantly wide readership in Turkey, even within their government circles. A recurring theme I hear is that the present government, unlike the previous ones, has taken many positive steps toward Armenians, but that there has been no acknowledgement or reciprocating goodwill from the Armenian side. The positive examples often cited include the restoration of the Akhtamar Holy Cross Church (note that the church is still known as the Akdamar Museum in Turkey); the return of several confiscated properties belonging to the Armenian church and charitable foundations (note that these returns are still less than 10 percent of the properties seized after the 1930′s, and include none from before 1915, and no private properties); and increased freedom of speech, with the utterance of the term “Armenian Genocide” no longer a punishable offense (note that people like Hrant Dink can still get killed for saying that term, and that his real murderers remain hidden). I do acknowledge that these are positive steps in the right direction, but they are only a few steps in a very long journey.
Perhaps the journey cannot be completed by 2015, but several concrete and specific steps must be taken by Turkey in order to achieve some credibility and respectability. Instead of diversionary tactical steps, like Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s recent visit to Armenia, which achieved nothing, I humbly offer a few suggestions for consideration by my Turkish government acquaintances:
1. Open the border with Armenia without any preconditions. Rename the Alican border-crossing the Hrant Dink Gate, in honor of the heroic advocate for dialogue.
2. Grant citizenship to all living descendants of the deported Ottoman-Armenian citizens.
3. Clean up the textbooks at all levels of the educational system by eliminating the falsifications, hatemongering, and discrimination toward the Armenians (and other minorities).
4. Initiate a state program by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to restore the more than 2,000 destroyed or deteriorating Armenian monasteries and churches, and return them to their rightful owner, the Armenian Church (Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate).
5. Offer a symbolic but meaningful apology to the Armenian people for all the crimes of 1915, by returning Mount Ararat and Ani to Armenia, perhaps as part of a territorial exchange based on equivalent land area.
6. Open up to the public the afore-mentioned documents related to the deportation/liquidation records and the Ottoman property deeds related to the deported Armenians.
7. Allow the compensation cases by descendants of Ottoman-Armenian citizens to proceed in Turkish and international courts.
8. Offer free transit and duty-free port facilities for Armenia at a Black Sea city such as Trabzon and Rize, as partial compensation for the economic losses of Ottoman-Armenian citizens.
Turkish acquaintances in government circles complain that the Armenians’ insistence on using the word “genocide” is a barrier to any progress toward dialogue about 1915. None of the suggestions above refer to that word, and all of them are doable by 2015, if there really is goodwill.
Once there is knowledge of the facts, followed by dialogue about the truth of 1915, among the Turkish opinion makers and ordinary citizens, the far-reaching result would be the creation of voters aware of the truth. Knowledgeable voters would then vote-in knowledgeable parliamentary members and eventually governments, which would set policies and decisions according to the voters’ preferences. I suggest that decisions taken in the Turkish Parliament respecting the truth of 1915 will be far more effective than any decision taken in the parliaments of third-party states.

Vatan daily newspaper, Sept. 12, 2011, “Bavul dolusu Ermeni belgesi kacirildi” (Trunkloads of Armenian documents were taken out).
Zaman daily newspaper, April 24, 2012, “Ozal Yasasaydi Ermeni Sorununu Cozecekti” (If Ozal had lived, he would have solved the Armenian issue).
Internethaber news online, Dec. 12, 2013, “Turkiye’de skandal: Ermeni meselesini calisan ogrenciler fislendi” (Scandal in Turkey: Students researching the Armenian issue are being monitored).
Murat Bardakci, Talat Pasanin Evrak-i Metrukesi (Talat Pasha’s Black Book), 2005, Everest Yayinlari (Everest Publishing House).

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