Ankara appears to be sticking to long-standing preconditions for normalizing Turkey's historically strained relationship with Armenia, despite domestic appeals that followed the assassination of a renowned Turkish-Armenian journalist.
Senior Turkish and Armenian diplomats held rare talks in Istanbul in late January amid hopes for a rapprochement between the two neighboring states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Kirakossian's talks with Turkish officials reportedly failed to make any progress, though.
"Differences in the parties' positions on the discussed issues remain," Vladimir Karapetian, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, said in a January 26 statement about the meeting. He indicated that Turkey continues to oppose an unconditional establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of its border with Armenia.
Prior to the bilateral meeting, Kirakossian attended the high-profile funeral of Hrant Dink, the ethnic Armenian editor of the bilingual Agos weekly whose January 19 killing sparked outrage both inside Turkey and far beyond its borders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 as a gesture of support for Azerbaijan, its closest Turkic ally, which remains locked in a bitter dispute with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Successive Turkish governments have conditioned the lifting of the economic blockade on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani districts bordering Karabakh, and an end to the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkish leaders haven't changed their position despite pressure from the United States and the European Union. Many officials in Washington and Brussels believe that a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement would significantly boost stability in the volatile South Caucasus. In late January, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul effectively ruled out any policy shift, saying that Armenia should first "review its negative feelings against us, and should not make unjust demands."
The Armenian drive for genocide recognition, meanwhile, appears to be gaining momentum. Influential Armenian lobby groups in the United States are pressing for the US House of Representatives to adopt a genocide recognition resolution. One of them, the Armenian National Committee of America, characterized Dink's January 19 shooting as a "wake-up call to the United States and the entire international community to unite together in ending forever the Turkish government's denial of the Armenian Genocide." A group of US lawmakers introduced a new recognition bill on January 30.
On the grassroots level, Turkish-Armenian dialogue may be easier to foster in the aftermath of Dink's fatal shooting. The universal condemnation of the crime provided a rare moment of emotional unity between many Turks and Armenians. The latter were astounded by television pictures of thousands of ordinary Turks marching in the funeral procession for the slain editor and carrying banners that read, "We are all Armenians!" The images defied the negative Armenian stereotypes about Turks, prompting hopes to rise among many Armenians, in Armenia proper and living abroad, that the images reflected Turkey's greater willingness to confront contentious questions of the past.
Yektan Turkyilmaz, a US-based Turkish scholar, said Turkish society will now be "at least slightly more sympathetic" to the Armenians, but cautioned against excessive expectations. Some Turkey-watchers in Armenia, meanwhile, remain skeptical, saying that the vast majority of Turks continue to trust their leaders' assertion that Ottoman Armenians died in much smaller numbers and as a result of internal strife, rather than from a premeditated government effort. "I don't think Turkish public opinion has changed since that murder," said Ruben Safrastian, director of the Yerevan-based Institute of Oriental Studies.
The final years of the Ottoman Empire, until recently a taboo subject, are being increasingly discussed in Turkey, with a growing number of local scholars and intellectuals openly questioning the official version of events. Some of them, including Dink and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted under a controversial article of the Turkish criminal code that makes it a crime to "insult Turkishness." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to Turkyilmaz, other dissenters are increasingly worried about becoming the next target of ultranationalist militants. "The anxiety and horror that the killing of Mr. Dink has caused among Turkish intellectuals is very deep," he said. "But the struggle will continue as we want to see our country become freer, more democratic and more peaceful. Turkey has a very deeply-rooted tradition of opposition, and I believe that it will eventually prevail."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.