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Erdoğan’s Akhtamar gambit: Will it pay off ?

Tuesday 10 April 2007, by Ara Sarafian

Source : Today’s Zaman

Akhtamar Island will be opened tomorrow as a museum. The program of renovation on the island has generated a great deal of interest in recent months, with two key questions surrounding the issue :

1) Did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan adopt this project as a cynical smokescreen to project a positive Turkish image abroad regarding the Armenian issue, or did he have a more honorable intention?

2) Are Armenians refusing to give credit to Prime Minister Erdoğan over the Akhtamar issue because of real concerns about Turkish intentions, or are they doing so in order to push what they consider their current political advantage regarding the passage of a US Congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide of 1915?

Certainly Prime Minister Erdoğan is playing the ambiguity of his position quite well. He is allowing Turkish nationalists to declare the Akhtamar project a symbol of Turkish tolerance of minority institutions from Seljuk to modern Turks. Only a few weeks ago Yusuf Halaçoğlu, the head of the Turkish Historical Society, said that Akhtamar proved how well Turks have always treated Christian minorities and their institutions under Turkish rule, unlike the Balkan Christians who destroyed the Mostar bridge only a decade ago. Turkish parliamentarians have also been brandishing the Akhtamar issue in Washington, D.C. to argue that there never was an Armenian genocide and that modern Turkey has been protective of Armenians and their heritage.

The assertions by the head of the Turkish Historical Society in Turkey and Turkish parliamentarians in Washington have played into the hands of Armenian skeptics and nationalists. The latter have simply argued that not only were Armenians killed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, but that their material heritage was then desecrated and destroyed in modern Turkey, right up until the present day. This has not been a difficult assertion to sustain. I have visited many famous locations in different parts of Turkey. Practically all the ancient Armenian monasteries that were functioning in 1915 have been destroyed, with a handful still standing in the final stages of complete collapse and destruction.
However, despite these ambiguities, it is important to give credit to Prime Minister Erdoğan as a politician and a peacemaker.

Until recently the official Turkish histories of the Van basin simply presented the Armenians as cutthroats who murdered Muslims (i.e., mainly Kurds) in 1915. The museum of Van, for example, mentioned Armenians only in a special section dedicated to the genocide of Muslims by Armenians in 1915. There was no mention of a past Armenian civilization in this region. When I last visited Van Museum last October, the whole museum was empty. The official reason for the closure was that the museum was being renovated. The unofficial reason on the street was that the civilian authorities wanted to remove the anti-Armenian exhibit, while the nationalists (i.e. the army) wanted it to remain. So the whole museum was closed for renovation. If the word on the street is true, the empty museum represents a microcosm of Turkish politics today, as the country muddles through a difficult process of openness and democratization.

Substantial steps towards reconciliation

No doubt even this increasing openness will be decried by some diaspora Armenians as a Turkish ploy to deceive the world, but actions will speak louder than words. The prime minister and his advisers have taken a substantial step towards reconciliation. They have broken with the denial of the past, adopted a new opening to Armenians, and presented Armenians with a peace offering with the renovated Sourp Khach church on Akhtamar Island. The Erdoğan government discussed, prior to March 14, the opening of the Alican frontier gate for two days to let visitors enter Turkey from Armenia by bus or to fly directly to Van, while the General Staff wanted them to arrive only via İstanbul. The fact that the General Staff won is enough to demonstrate how hard the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) tried and how difficult Erdoğan’s position has been in this double-election year.

Perhaps most remarkably, Prime Minister Erdoğan has taken these steps while remaining popular and on course as a Turkish leader.
Now if he is able to take the next logical step and allow the protection of other Armenian architectural treasures in Turkey he will buttress his position as a peacemaker and will win support from significant sections of the Armenian diaspora, if not the Republic of Armenia itself. He should not be allowed to fail.

- Ara Sarafian is an archival scholar and the director of the Gomidas Institute. For more information about the Gomidas Institute visit www.gomidas.org

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