ANKARA: Turkish-Armenian dialogue initiative by Harvard University

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Columnists

ALÝ H. ASLAN

Turkish-Armenian dialogue initiative by Harvard University

The positive developments with respect to diplomatic relations between
Turkey and Armenia have improved Turkey’s image and prestige in
Washington. The American nation and civil society are paying attention
and contributing to this process in their own ways.

We owe the success of the protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia
in Zurich to normalize bilateral relations to the `limousine
diplomacy’ conducted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who
exerted significant efforts to conclude the deals. The Obama
administration has also been working to come up with a solution to the
Nagorno-Karabakh deadlock, which might serve as an obstacle to
ratification of the protocols in the parliaments. US diplomatic
sources view the swift replacement of Matthew Bryza with Robert
Bradtke as co-chair of the Minsk Group as a sign of political will and
determination. Those who are aware that such appointments may take a
long time because of red tape in Congress appreciate it.

These all are just nice; however, I will talk about a noteworthy
initiative in the civil society universe. Harvard University recently
held a Turkish-Armenian workshop on Sept 18-20. Because I was a
participant, I had the opportunity to closely follow the process and
contribute to the efforts. Given the delicacy of the issue, I will not
disclose the names of the other participants, but I will share the
content (with the consent of the organizers) to make sure that the
relevant parties benefit from this experience.

Let me begin by introducing the organizers. Two senior experts from
the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative supervised the project: Dr. Eileen
Babbitt and Dr. Pamela Steiner. Both are world-renowned academics in
the field of international conflict resolution. I should also note
that Steiner is a granddaughter of Henry Morgenthau, who served as the
US ambassador to Turkey during the Armenian deportation.

Hugh O’Doherty, who has been involved in the Northern Ireland peace
process, also provided assistance for Steiner and Babbitt. Seventeen
Turks and Armenians (four of them as observers) came together upon
Harvard’s invitation.

Special attention was paid to make sure that the participant profile
was diverse; Turks and Armenians from their home countries as well as
members of the diaspora attended the meeting. Leading figures who had
proven influence or have the potential to do so in their respective
communities were chosen. The organizers initially held separate
sessions with the Armenians and the Turks. These talks were followed
by joint sessions. The goal was to make sure that the fears, concerns,
hopes and needs were analyzed from an academic perspective. This
would, of course, also provide the opportunity to the organizers to
glean some clues on the mental and emotional blueprints of the
participants which could eventually be used in conflict resolution.

An interesting part of the workshop was the `personal narrative’
section where the Armenians and Turks shared their views with respect
to each other; we witnessed during this endeavor that both
communities would be able to maintain strong dialogue provided that
they would be empathetic. Despite huge psychological, ideological and
political barriers, we were able to mingle with each other
easily. After all, aren’t we the children of same lands and
interacting cultures?

Meanwhile, I also observed that the visits held by the diaspora
Armenians to Turkey had a positive impact on addressing the
prejudices. I asked several American Armenian participants who had
toured their ancestral land whether they felt more at home in Turkey
or Armenia. All replied `Turkey.’ I think these sentiments should be
thoroughly analyzed and taken into consideration by the state and
civil society.

The Armenian genocide claims and the Turkish reaction vis-à-vis the
allegations are the thorniest elements that make a viable dialogue
even more difficult.

Armenians put emphasis on the psychological aspect of the recognition
of the `Armenian genocide’ by the Turkish state and nation; Turkish
participants referred to the psychological, legal and political
dimensions of the genocide claims and to the concerns over probable
repercussions of recognition. The Armenian participants briefly
responded to the question as to what their move would be if Turkey
were to recognize the genocide some day as follows: They agreed that
there would be no territorial demands, whereas nobody could promise
that compensation would not be obligated. It was interesting when a
participant from Armenia, through the end of the meeting, implied
half-jokingly that Turks would seem to `give anything’ if they set the
genocide allegations aside. I observed that some Armenian participants
hold that Armenians should focus on other issues instead of paying so
much attention to the genocide issue. For instance, one such
participant dedicated himself to the human r!

ights struggle in Turkey. Another one was working on cultural
exploration and cooperation.

As I noted at the meeting, these are two traumatized sister
communities and nations we are dealing with. The major trauma of the
Armenians was that they lost their native land after great tragedies
during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Turks were victimized by
the trauma caused by the collapse of the grandiose empire — thanks to
efforts from inside and abroad — they had created. Both nations still
suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rapprochement between
these communities is possible by abstention from negative political
initiatives that would provoke the deep-cut historical wounds. The
progress in the field of diplomacy is promising; however, the Harvard
workshop shows that there is much room for doing things on the civil
society front as well…

22.10.2009

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