When Üfük Özden, a translator from Istanbul, visited Armenia last year, it was with some trepidation. But when a taxi driver in Yerevan asked him where he was from, he screwed up his courage and acknowledged that he was Turkish.
“I clearly remember his face getting dark for a brief moment,” Özden told EurasiaNet.org. “But he was still helpful and gave me some directions to find the art gallery that I was looking for.” On his way out of the country, the officer at immigration, seeing that he was from Turkey, asked him if he was a member of ISIS. “But I think he was merely joking.”
Turkey holds a huge place in the Armenian imagination, mainly as the perpetrator of the 1915 genocide that devastated the Armenian people, and which the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge.
But until recently, Armenians have had very little contact with real Turks, their border closed first by Soviet-NATO rivalry during the Cold War, and then by Turkish support for Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. As a result, for generations of Armenians, Turkey has remained largely an abstract enemy.
Over the last several years, though, that has started to change. In 2009, the two countries worked out diplomatic protocols aimed at reestablishing relations, and although that effort ultimately collapsed, it nevertheless set the stage for a reassessment of Turks in Armenian eyes.
“The process itself [of negotiating the protocols] changed Armenia, it changed discourses in Armenia about Turkey,” said Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute, a Yerevan think tank. “Ten years ago, if you would ask someone on the streets of Yerevan about Turkey, they would talk to you about Talat Pasha [the architect of the mass killings], the genocide, 1915. Turkey was something from the past. Real Turkey didn’t exist on their mental map. Now they can tell you bad things, but about modern Turkey.”
And increasingly, the things Armenians say about Turkey are not all bad. According to polls from the Caucasus Research Resource Center – Armenia, attitudes towards Turks have changed in Armenia. In 2010, 34 percent of Armenians thought that Turks’ attitudes toward them were “absolutely negative.” By 2015, that figure had dropped to 19 percent. The proportion of Armenians who thought Turks’ attitudes were “rather positive” increased from 15 to 29 percent.
“Armenians travel to Turkey for vacation and it seems they do not experience any discrimination. So we also need to be more hospitable to Turks,” said Janna, a Yerevan woman who asked that her last name not be used. “All the same, a policy of denial will always divide our nations.”
In addition to the 2009 diplomatic effort, another turning point in Armenians’ perceptions of Turkey was the 2007 murder of Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. The murder prompted an unprecedented expression of sympathy among Turks for Armenians, which was viewed with interest and surprise in Armenia. The years since then have seen increasing people-to-people contacts between the two sides, including many organized by an Istanbul-based foundation set up in Dink’s name after his death.
“There is already a positive change in attitude in terms of border not opening physically, but physiologically minds have opened,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan think tank Regional Studies Center, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “Starting with the death of Hrant Dink, [and] to the protocols process, we do see people-to-people [contact contributing] to a positive environment, where seeing Turkish tourists here, Turkish spoken on the streets of Yerevan is no longer anything new, nor is it emotional.”
About 11 thousand Turks visit Armenia every year, of which 7-8 thousand are tourists. A large number are ethnic Armenians, but the majority are ethnic Turks, said Mekhak Apresyan, the first vice president of Armenia’s State Tourism Committee. “This shows a greater interest in discovering Armenia,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Özden, the translator from Istanbul, said that other than his couple of awkward encounters, he had overwhelmingly positive impressions from Armenia, from the people to the wine. Another Turkish tourist, Firat Demir, visited Armenia recently and told EurasiaNet.org that “I had some concerns before going there, but everything was fine. I want to visit again.”
Nevertheless, other Turks also report uncomfortable encounters in Armenia.
One student from Istanbul, Dilara, visited Yerevan in 2015 with her boyfriend, also Turkish. (She asked that her last name not be used). Their first evening, four police officers came to their Airbnb apartment, apparently to check out a gas leak in the building. On finding out the two were Turks, they called more policemen to the apartment, who ransacked through all their possessions, then took them to a police station in an unmarked car. There, they were interrogated, including on why they were in Armenia rather than Azerbaijan and whether they recognized the genocide.
Eventually their Airbnb host arrived at the police station, reproached the police for treating them rudely, and took them back home. The host advised them to avoid speaking Turkish in the street, and acknowledged that the cleaning lady for the apartment had not wanted to meet any Turks and had agreed to do the cleaning only on the condition that she would not run into them. Later the couple was harangued by an Indian student studying in Armenia about Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “I was ready to deal with the genocide issue, but not Erdoğan,” she said.
“I always feel sad when coming back to Istanbul, I feel desperate and depressed by the fact that I have to come back,” Dilara told EurasiaNet.org. “The only time I was happy to return was at the end of this trip. I just wanted to be home. I think I would never ever go to Armenia again. But I would never tell people that they shouldn’t. My experience was a little bit extreme and I’m aware of that.”
In spite of the recent thaw, most public discussion in Armenia still does not differentiate between Turks and the Turkish state. And Armenian textbooks continue to propagate unflattering images of Turks. A recent study found that Armenian textbooks promulgated “an essentialist view of Armenia and Armenians with a major accent on victimhood, and on Turks as perpetual oppressors.” It noted that in one eight-grade history textbook, it was written that Sultan Abdul Hamid “decided to solve the Armenian question in the Turkish manner – through massacres.”
The last 10 years have seen real changes in Armenians’ attitude toward Turks, but there is a limit, said Gohar Martirosyan, an Armenian journalist who covers Armenia-Turkey relations.
“The developments that started 10 years ago allowed Turks to learn their true history, and though the ‘G-word’ is still a taboo, they started to use words like ‘mass killings,’” Martirosyan said. “This is the first step, but this alone helped the Armenians to soften their attitude toward Turks. But I think if the number of Turkish tourists would increase a lot, problems may arise, since there is still an entrenched image of them as an enemy.”
“Still, mutual visits are important for communication, and without them it would be impossible to ever resolve our problems,” Martirosyan said.