“Nationalism is Waning Rapidly”. Interview With Etyen Mahçupyan

Ruin of an Armenian church Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photo: Alex Southgate. This image is subject to a Creative Commons license.

May 20, 2009
Abdullah Gül, the President of Turkey, went to Yerevan for a football match. Was this visit a real move towards reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey? What are the causes of this development?

Etyen Mahçupyan: Gül’s visit was a gesture, a symbolic step - one scripted in advance. Hence, this visit was an endorsement of sorts of a new policy by Turkey’s state bureaucracy. Then again, it opened the door and brought to the fore arrangements made prior to the visit. Yet, I do not see it as a great stride on the road towards a solution. There are no guarantees.

One has to consider the period of moral preparation both countries went through in recent years. Plus, for both sides, their relationship with the European Union is an important factor. Since 2004 Armenia has been part of the European Neighbourhood Policy and Turkey is a candidate for EU membership - both of which has turned the spotlight on neighbourly relations.

There is another very important factor: In recent years, Turkey has been trying to develop a new vision for its foreign policy. Now the emphasis is on dialogue and compromise with the intention of making Turkey a much more influential country in the region. I think, in that respect, the government has got it right. The crucial obstacle, though, is the closed border between the two countries. A Turkey that fails to open the border to Armenia will hardly be able to assume a more significant role in the region, nor be able to represent the Middle East and the Muslim world toward the West.

Gül’s visit, therefore, was consistent with Turkey's overall foreign policy. Over the last four or five years civil society on both sides of the border has become more interconnected; people have become more knowledgeable. Over the last five years, Turkey and Armenia have experienced a psychological normalisation with regard to their histories. This normalisation has brought about a certain relaxation.

Finally, there is a new political actor in Turkey - a bourgeoisie with Islamic sensibilities. This Islamic community wants to be part of a wider world. It is not dependent on Ankara or Istanbul and has few ties to the nationalistic ideals of the Republic of Turkey. Within this Islamic community normalisation has made most headway. Such developments and the policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have made a normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia possible. Yet, there are still many unsolved questions and obstacles to be overcome along the way.

How did the political parties in Turkey react to Abdullah Gül’s this?

Etyen Mahçupyan: Actually no one really opposed it. Some political parties, for example the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) probably considered taking a hostile stance. Yet little materialised. In this context, one fact must not be overlooked: Alparslan Türkeş, a former prominent leader of the MHP, made a great effort to normalise relations with Armenia. Thus, even the most hard-line nationalist party in Turkey has a background of improving Turkish-Armenian relations.

What were the demands of the main opposition parties - the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) - concerning the relations with Armenia? Are there any signs or clues of their agreeing to a reconciliation in the near future?

Etyen Mahçupyan: I think the manoeuvres of both the CHP and the MHP are meant to serve their domestic politicking. I do not think the CHP has any policy at all. Their concept of foreign policy is about opposition to the AKP with little in terms of a meaningful political or ideological basis. In Turkey there is a certain ambiguity concerning these issues - they are seen as something no one dares to delve too deeply into. Everyone knows these issues will be resolved over time. Yet when we get to the point where a resolution is within grasp, everyone scrambles for positions in order to separate themselves from the other political parties.

What is business people’s position on the opening of the border? The other day, I saw a story in the papers about someone who said he would shut down his business should the border be opened. Is this a serious concern?

Etyen Mahçupyan: I do not think such statements are taken very seriously even by those who utter them. Business people will welcome anything that helps business. An open border will significantly benefit the economy - especially in the areas close to the border. Of course, there will always be a few people who hold nationalism above business interests. When Italy deported Abdullah Öcalan, we publicly crushed Italian oranges. I believe this shows some kind of immaturity in Turkish public opinion - though such occurrences are getting more rare.

Who stands to gain from the opening of the border?

Etyen Mahçupyan: There are various levels here. On the one hand, there are people on both sides who are engaged in local trade. They will be able to profit from an increase in customers, goods, and resources. Plus: Once the border is opened, these people will be able to get together and have easier access to international financial resources. On the other hand, there may be projects that address the Caucasus as a whole. These, I think, would also have a good chance to procure funds. For example: Projects which address Georgia’s, Azerbaijan’s, and Eastern Turkey’s energy supply, or their shared flora and wildlife, or their cultural interconnections would be able to obtain funds from the World Bank or other such organisations.
With Barack Obama as president, the US is more likely to support projects of this nature in a big way. Every project in Armenia / Turkey will inevitably be regarded as part of a more general political normalisation, one that could turn the Caucasus and the Middle East into a region of peace and stability. As these projects evolve, borders will eventually disappear altogether. This is what globalisation is all about and the world is quite ready for this.
The region may thrive in a way far surpassing our present anticipations. The region has a lot to attract tourists. If normalisation takes place the hitherto undiscovered Caucasus may soon become one of the hottest travel destinations in the world.

Many intellectuals observe a rise of nationalism. Yet there was little opposition against Abdullah Gül's visit to Yerevan or a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. How is this to be explained? How deep-rooted is nationalism and what impact will it have on relations between the two countries?

Etyen Mahçupyan: Nationalism is one of the principal axes on which this republic was built. Yet, as an ideology, it has always been superficial. It has no theory. A few people gave it some thought and wrote about it in the 1940s and 1950s - but not since. The way I see it, nationalism is waning rapidly. It may seem to be expanding due to its superficiality but it is also regressing. So, it may be more visible to us in certain settings but that visibility is only skin-deep. Nationalism is a loosely used idiom; it is like a card that everyone flashes at times in order to propagate certain interest or concerns. In Turkey, in a sense, everyone is a nationalist, but no one holds a nationalist position that is profound enough to do justice to nationalism. It is like when you talk to a person and he pays lip service to nationalism but when you ask him to join a nationalist demonstration taking place around the corner, he comes up with an excuse about how busy he is. In other words, nationalist rhetoric is rather strong in Turkey. But when it comes to practicing it, when it comes to real life choices you discover that it is only so much hot air.

When we look into Turkish-Armenian relations in, say, 1915, we will find a great deal of nationalism. As we get closer to the present, though, to the opening of the border - and if we are able to dissociate ourselves from history - we will see that nationalism vanishes into thin air. The primary concern of nationalism in Turkey is to preserve the Turkish identity. So if the Turkish identity is threatened in any way, it grows ill at ease, it becomes alert. But if it is not threatened, nationalism just floats around as a superficial, folkloric idiom.

There has been mention of some reaction in Azerbaijan against the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border. What would be the impact of that in Turkey?

Etyen Mahçupyan: I do not think the impact would be very great. Azerbaijan, too, is a country where the nationalist idiom, that very superficial idiom, is much used. It is easy to produce and expand this nationalist rhetoric via Azerbaijan. It was the same with Cyprus. I mean, if there is a conflict, hostility somewhere, you can produce a nationalist rhetoric via an entity that is close to you. But if you were to ask in Turkey what the Azeri's have gone through, what happened to them, I do not think anyone cares. Turkey does not care about the Cypriots, either. It does not care about the Azeris. In reality, Turkey, I mean Turkish society, is a rather thick-skinned. It is too engrossed in itself, too pragmatic; it wants to integrate with the world, wants to "make it”; Turkish society is self-seeking and somewhat averse to principled approaches.

Last year a group of intellectuals started a campaign to apologise for what happened in 1915. Does this campaign reflect a deeper change in Turkish society regarding the tragedy of 1915? What kind of public reaction did it draw?

Etyen Mahçupyan: A change did occur during the last decade. We saw more debate concerning the events of 1915. Four or five years ago, TV channels began to broadcast a host of programmes about whether or not an Armenian genocide really took place, about forced emigration, and what really happened in the past. Not a single such programme was broadcast this year. This shows that the public has become saturated with information and has reached a conclusion. This conclusion is not about whether the forced emigration of the Armenians was genocide or not; rather, the conclusion is that what the state had been saying so far had not been true. Today many people think that in the past events took place that were undesirable and inappropriate, and they wish they would not have happened.
Dissident web sites cropped up saying, we are not apologising, and it is the Armenians who should apologise... But they remained rather marginal and the great majority took this campaign as a normal development, as something that was all right, and did not see it as such a momentous incident requiring them to react positively or negatively.
This tells us that the normalisation currently under way between Armenia and Turkey has been gradually developing over the last ten years. In fact, when you travel through Anatolia today, you can see the relaxation. People in Anatolia can talk about 1915, the Armenians, those that lost their lives, those that left, those that had been sent away, those that were killed and so forth without the tension of former times. The psychological groundwork has been laid. In Turkey the apology campaign did not have a big impact; it was abroad that it made more of an impression. Then again, it was not received very badly in Turkey, either.

There is increasing dialogue between journalists and academics in both countries. How do you perceive of this dialogue? Will it contribute to greater understanding?
Etyen Mahçupyan: These developments are very important. Interaction and collaboration are crucial. Some of the cultural activities underway are great - all these efforts being put into music, theatre, painting, and the like. Such activities carry normalisation into everyday life and enable people to become better at what they are doing. And it is not only the producers of art - their products radiate into the surrounding world. Thousands come to a concert, hundreds go to an exhibition. The message is getting disseminated spontaneously like an underground stream that flows quietly.
I think the relations on the level of governmental, the political relations, will always lag behind such developments. In the sphere of politics there are different obstacles at play, and it is always hard for nation states to build real relationships. The concept of a nation state will not allow an ethical look on "the other”. Personally, I do not believe this issue can be resolved by or thanks to states and governments. It will be up to ordinary people, people who can get together and manage to be creative, to resolve it.

You are working for the Hrant Dink Foundation. What are the foundation's fields of operation and what are your plans for the future?

Etyen Mahçupyan: In a way, the foundation is working on things that Hrant always worked on and would want to work on, were he alive. One of these is the relationship between Turks and Armenians - and hence the relationship between Turkey and Armenia. It is very important to us that the border is opened and that bilateral networks come into being. Of course, we cannot do anything about the opening of the border but significant things can be done about joint efforts between Turks and Armenians.
Our second endeavour is about history, about understanding history, presenting it correctly, and underscoring the fact that it is a common history. Ultimately, it is the history of Anatolia we are talking about. Not the history of the Turks or the Armenians but the history of Anatolia. This way, it will be possible to understand the history of Anatolia, to own up to the history of Anatolia, and to empower the culture of Anatolia to live on. To achieve that we focus on specific events ... for instance, we held a symposium last year that focused on the incidents of 1909 in Adana.

This year we are going to do it again, in a bigger way. Again, Adana and the incidents of 1909 will be at the centre but we will be looking into the general economy of that locality in those years, the relationships between individuals and communities, how the ties between politics and society worked, and so on. Of course, we will also be talking about the music and the culture created in those times, how the pain was experienced in the aftermath of the 1909 massacre, including the political, social, and other aspects.
A third area is to do with children: We are conducting projects to bring together the children of Anatolia with other children - with no discrimination as to age, ethnicity, religion, etc. Of course, against the background of current developments, projects involving children in Armenia and Turkey will have some degree of priority. These are our three main areas of activity. There is more, such as freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and human rights which will always be important to us. Currently we are in the process of a European Union tender concerning the rhetoric of hatred in the media. A survey and a report will be forthcoming on that.

We are constantly trying to come up with new approaches, too. An example is a project for grandchildren to remember their grandparents. The intention is to revitalise the relationship between generations and identities. After all, everyone's a grandchild, everyone has or has had grandparents. So, the idea is whether we can overcome this alienation, this mutual "othering”, by talking about our ancestors, two generations ago.

Etyen Mahçupyan is a Turkish-Armenian journalist and writer. Since 2007 he has been the editor-in-chief of Agos, the Armenian community's weekly newspaper.