ISTANBUL, Turkey — The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs met yesterday to answer the question of whether or not the mass killings of Armenians during and after the first world war by forces of the Ottoman Empire was genocide. After more than three hours of debate, they had their answer.
The approval of the resolution, which calls on President Barack Obama to “characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide”, has set off waves of unrest in Turkey, who immediately recalled their ambassador in Washington.
Which leads to the other question facing the U.S. congressional committee when it voted yesterday: Which is more important, the past or the present? The vote took place at a sensitive time for Turkey’s relations with Armenia, and many worry that it’s passage will jeopardize historic efforts to create normal diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia
Last October the two countries signed protocols to set up relations, open their common border — closed since 1993 — and begin addressing the painful disputes that divide them. Now, however, the protocols must be ratified by both countries' parliaments, a process that has become so entrenched in mutual accusation and distrust that the deal is under growing threat of collapse.
With the leadership of the two countries busy blaming each other, and government spokesmen being, well, government spokesmen, GlobalPost went to the streets to find out how Turks are reacting to the likely breakdown in this landmark reconciliation.
Cem Uzan, a 19-year old business student, calls himself “very frustrated, maybe even cynical.”
“The problem is very simple,” Uzan explains, the steam from a cup of chai fogging up his glasses as we sit at an outdoor cafe on Istanbul’s famed Istiklal Cadessi on a recent cold Istanbul evening. “If the Armenians are really committed to opening up their border for trade, they have to follow international law and pull their troops from [Nagorno] Karabakh.”
While the protocols don’t explicitly mention Nagorno Karabakh, the issue has been a constant shadow over the process of reconciliation. In 1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan after Armenian forces wrested the mainly ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh from Baku's control. The conflict — which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives — remains unresolved despite years of international mediation.
On Wednesday, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev added to concerns for the deal when he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he was confident Turkey wouldn't ratify the agreement until Armenia has returned Azeri territory that it occupies, including the mainly ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Bengi Aydin, a teacher who was passing by one of the many fish stands on the colorful Balik Pazari, thinks that Turkey has to take some responsibility for their part in weakening the deal with Armenia.
“They have been throwing obstacles after obstacles, warning Armenia not to dream about passage of these protocols in the Turkish Parliament unless Armenia hands over [Nagorno] Karabakh to Azerbaijan,” she says.
Aydin says she supports Turkey’s initial efforts to reconcile but doesn’t think their leadership has the political will to carry the protocols through Parliament.
“If [Prime Minister] Erdogan wanted the protocols to be realized, he would push his party to do so,” she says. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hold the majority in Turkey’s Parliament.
In a dark bar in the Tunel district of Istanbul, above the sound of loud jazz, Zeynep Ozkaya argues that issues related to Armenia and Armenians are still so sensitive here that many of Erdogan’s own deputies could vote against the protocols – even if the Prime Minister stands behind them. In the past year, Erdogan’s approval rating has slipped from 47 percent to 32 percent.
“The problem with the way Turkey has handled this situation is that it wasn’t well thought out,” says Ozkaya. “If the government didn’t know that they could get the protocols ratified, why did they sign them?”
Her friend, Mesut Selcuk, disagrees.
“It’s not hard to understand why Erdogan initiated the process,” he says. “He wanted to stop Obama from calling what happened to Armenians in Turkey genocide.”
The approval of the genocide resolution by the Washington panel is, for many Turks, the closest they have come yet to the nightmare scenario of a full vote in the House of Representatives – a situation the Obama administration may still be able to prevent.
For years, Obama called the massacres of Armenians that occurred as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1915 "genocide" and promised to recognize it as such if elected president. Now in the position to do just that, Obama has studiously avoided using the g-word, choosing to continuing positive relations with Turkey — America’s closest Muslim ally — over historical fidelity.
Normalizing ties between Turkey and Armenia would be a historic step towards ending decades of hostility, but with so many firebrand issues, it will take a serious commitment to make repair the damage already done to the accords.
“We can’t erase 100 years of bitterness right away,” says Aydin. “But
I hope our leaders will find the will to keep looking for a solution.”