Calling 1915 inhumane helps Turkey, Armenia

Samson Özararat, a key figure behind the scenes on reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Armenia, said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s statement calling 1915 deportation of Armenians inhumane was very important. But he argued Armenia has lost confidence in Turkey, following the failure to approve the protocols that would lead to normalization, due to what he said was a change in Ankara’s policy.

An Armenian from Turkey’s central Anatolian province of Konya, Özararat has been one of the key figures in every effort to move Turkey and Armenia closer in the last 20 years.

Born as a Turkish Armenian, he was expelled from Turkish citizenship. Thereafter, he became Armenia’s representative in the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation’s (BSEC) Istanbul headquarters.

Özararat, who is now a French citizen and lives in the French city of Nice, received a call from the Turkish Foreign Ministry two weeks ago. He was invited to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s plane to accompany him on a trip to Yerevan. The official reason for Davutoğlu’s visit was to attend the BSEC summit. However, Ankara was actually trying to test the ground to see whether there was room for maneuvers to re-generate a new process to normalize ties with Armenia.

Özararat said he tried to initiate occasions for dialogue between the two countries in the past. “When there are no relations between two countries, people like me become helpful in providing back channels of communication. Actually no one or country has given me a duty. I have friends and a good network in both countries that I try to mobilize my relations with them in a positive manner to start up dialogue. I believe every opportunity has to be seized to bring people together. And I try to initiate such occasions,” he said.

He emphasized four milestones in bringing the countries together. “We have come a long way in discussing the conflict. However, the barriers that put us apart tend to shift as the world changes. In the past, there was this nationalist approach that was dominating the political arena due to fabricated fears from Communism. Then came the time when fears around ‘Armenia will claim land (from Turkey)’ were pumped. Despite all these, there have been milestones in bringing the two countries together.

The first one is the meeting between the Turkish far-right nationalist leader Alparslan Türkeş and the then Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Another is the conference that was planned, but could not be held at Boğaziçi University. Another is the apology campaign. Another is the football diplomacy.

(Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Turkish President Abdullah Gül exchanging visits.) These were all steps that melted the ice somehow.”

Özararat said Davutoğlu’s statements on the way to Yerevan were very important. Davutoğlu said the forced deportation of Armenians during Ottoman rule was unacceptable and inhumane. “Maybe it sounds quite normal to hear this today. I knew Davutoğlu’s views on 1915 before from our personal conversations. However, we have never heard similar things from an official until this day. The fact that he stated these views publicly as the Turkish foreign minister is a huge step, I believe. It is a part of history now,” he said.

Özararat said Armenia lost confidence in Turkey since 2009. “In the past, the nationalist rhetoric was the barrier. Today, it is the economic and diplomatic balances. Azerbaijan is one of the major sources of Turkish energy needs. Moreover, Turkey understandably has to consider the interests of Turkish businessmen who invest in Azerbaijan. These are the reasons why Prime Minister Erdoğan had to change the policy on May 13, 2009 which he declared during his speech at the Azerbaijan Parliament.

Since that day, Armenia’s trust in Turkey was broken. Honestly, prior to Davutoğlu’s trip to Yerevan this time I could not find a single person in Armenia who favored a new start for bilateral talks. Not a single person from the government or opposition parties. Trust is gone,” Özararat said, adding the most important thing still is to keep the communication channels open. “First and foremost, one has to stop saying ‘nothing happened in the past.’ Thank god, this approach has been somehow left behind in Turkey. Getting rid of this rhetoric is part of the cure. Now we can look for ways and occasions to create empathy from both sides. If one day, the memorial in Yerevan could be visited…In the end, that monument is the symbolic grave for one and a half million Ottoman Armenians. Why would a Turkish official not visit that monument one day? Turkey’s top officials have been offering to give me my Turkish citizenship back,” he said. “My dream is to get the citizenship of both Turkey and Armenia on the same day after normalization of relations between two countries. Maybe it sounds like a fantasy today. But I say what if it happens…”

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