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Food for Thought


Vicious Circle Of National Narratives - Özdem Sanberk

Each year, as the month of April approaches, Turkey enters into a vicious circle in her relations with the US and Armenia because of the genocide claims-just like every year before that. For many years, as April approached, intense discussions would take place about what action to take in order to tackle the upcoming political tension. Then, as soon as April was over, the issue would be forgotten and dropped from our agenda altogether-only to be remembered the following April. This year, however, things took a different turn. The new Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, together with his competent team, addressed the issue with utmost determination and great skill long before April in line with his “zero problems with neighbors” policy. As a result, he became the target of harsh criticism from both within the country and abroad. He didn’t give in and, through fine diplomacy, succeeded in having the by-now-famous known protocols signed between Ankara and Yerevan, starting the historical peace process between the two countries. We now see, however, that this did not prevent our relations with Washington and Yerevan falling victim to the same predestined vicious circle again this year.

The resolution once more on the agenda
The Genocide Resolution is once more tabled before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The arithmetic in the Committee suggests that the resolution will pass. In fact, it is not clear yet if the resolution will be sent to the General Assembly of the House of Representatives. However, if it does and if it is approved there as well, no doubt serious damage will be done to the Turkish-US relations, the Ankara-Yerevan peace process and the already fragile stability in the Caucasus.

Turkish – US relations may hit bottom
Even approval of the resolution by the Committee will signify strong pressure on Turkey, which clearly put forth her intent for peace. However, it is quite unclear if such pressure will be of any use. The absence of any progress by the Minsk Group and the ruling of the Armenian Contitutional Court already pose a threat to the peace process, which is quite vulnerable in itself. A possible approval of the resolution by the Committee will be an additional strain on the process. If the resolution reaches the House floor, popularity of the US in Turkey-already low despite combined efforts of Ankara and Washington in recent years-will certainly hit bottom again.

Atmosphere in the US Congress
However, given the existing balances in US domestic politics, it is unlikely that the above-mentioned concerns will guide the Congress members to contribute to a constructive outcome. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee is a member of the California House of Representatives. California is considered as the heart of the Armenian lobby. In the US, there are elections in November when one third of the Senate seats will be renewed. The overall political climate in the Congress is extremely tense due to debates over health insurance, economic crisis and other issues such as unemployment. The Congress members do not have any good news to share with the electrorate. In such an environment, submitting to the pressure from ethnic lobbies would seem like the easy way out for Congress members; as such it would not be surprising if many members, particularly the ones who received votes from lobbies, give in to such pressures. In any country, it is natural for domestic politics to have an impact on foreign relations. However, in the case of the American political system, domestic politics and lobbies play a decisive role in foreign policy.

Turkey’s policies in the region
Is it possible to be optimistic and expect the winds to change and the cards to be reshuffled at the last minute just like before? I find it rather unlikely and ultimately the matter will be left to the discretion of the US President. That is because the Jewish lobby will not be as willing to support Turkey as before. Moreover, various extremist Jewish circles are striving to make the Turkish-US relations as problematic as the US-Iran relations, mainly on grounds of Erdogan government’s policy of closer ties withIran and Syria. Although Turkey supports the initiatives led by the US to discourage Iran from developing nuclear arms, she is not in total agreement with the US with respect to Iran’s strategic aspirations in the region. In the midst of all these uncertainties, is it possible for Obama to remain silent if the Congress passes the resolution? If he does, will his behaviour be compatible with the definition of a “Model Partnership”? We shall find the answers to such questions soon.

What do Turks think?
There is very little doubt that the approval of the Genocide Resolution at the Congress will adversely affect the relations between the two countries, the repercussions of which will extend as far as to negatively influence NATO’s new global role. However, no one can really gauge the response of the Turkish public to such a development.

Isolation and radicalisation
It is certain that at a time of distrust in Turkey towards the EU, such a violent blow to Turkish – US relations will result in isolation and increased tension for Turkey, with some serious implications for the country’s domestic politics. It will also discourage people from supporting the government’s efforts in reforming the structural shortcomings of the political system, as well as strengthening the already existing radical tendencies.

Consequences as regards pluralistic mindset
For some time now, Turkish people have started to adopt an increasingly pluralistic view on the genocide question, contrary to the situation in Armenia and of course, that of the Armenian diaspora. While it is still not possible to voice diverse opinions on the alleged genocide issue in many parts of the world, we now see differering views being freely expressed on this subject in Turkey. We must bear in mind that the approval of the genocide resolution in the US Congress will have an adverse effect on the newly developing pluralistic mindset of the Turkish public. The perception of the majority of Turkish people is based on stories told by family members, friends and neighbours – the stories of the atrocities committed by the Armenian bands against Muslim Turks during World War I. These seem to be the exact counter-reflection of Armenians’ own stories of being uprooted from their homes and of massacres, violence and deportation. Again, unlike Americans (and Europeans), the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanians driven out of their homeland under the invasion of Armenia, thus becoming refugees in their own country, and the failure of the American and the European public in taking a stance against this injustice is very fresh in the Turkish people’s memories. Therefore, it is almost certain that the approval of the genocide resolution in the US Congress will instigate a sharp bitterness and indignation in certain segments of Turkish society in Anatolia as well as in the metropolises.

Given the anti-EU climate in Turkey in the face of the former’s unwillingness to accept Turkey’s full membership, such a step by the US Congress will bring about a similar feeling of alienation towards the US which will be very difficult to repair. It will also create a deep chasm between the two countries - a chasm that is exactly what the anti-Turkish extremist ethnic lobbies have been aspiring to for so long. This will also play into the hands of those who would like to see the erosion of trust in Turkish-US relations. The Turkish people will perceive the approval of the genocide resolution as a big concession given to Armenia, which denies Azerbaijanians the right to return home. It is obvious that it will pave the way for long-term negative consequences and political drawbacks both in Turkey and in the region. However, it should also be borne in mind that such a development will have complicated legal repurcussions, the cost of which may ultimately be paid by the Congress members who vote for the resolution. It is for this reason that the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s appeal to the Congress members to act in full awareness of their personal responsibilities is very appropriate.

Throughout history, every state, every nation has had its narrative. This is still the case. Sometimes narratives become the raison d’etre of nations. The Armenians’ genocide claims fall under this category. Thus, we can not expect that these claims will cease to exist. On the contrary, nations must learn to coexist in the awareness of each other’s narratives.

Public opinion
Yes, be them right or wrong, there are two sides to every story. It is never easy to see the other side– especially if you still use the conventional methods of diplomacy. Over the following decades, we need to embark on a comprehensive public opinion diplomacy utilising a wide variety of means from international TV channels to free discussions in international conferences, from articles published in the world press to books on sale in the bookstores of different countries, from movies to works of art and literature. This can only be achieved over a period of many years through better informed new generations. From today’s perspective, there is little hope for us to break free of the vicious circle of the Armenian genocide claims as long as the narratives of both nations, Armenians and Turks, continue to be manipulated and ethnic lobbies to play an important role in US politics.

*This article was written before the Committee discussed and voted for the proposed legislation.