Turkish Divisions and the Armenian Question

By Raffi Bedrosyan

Like a cell dividing itself into two, then each new cell further dividing itself into two, Turkey keeps being divided. Divisions always existed but remained mostly suppressed, but now they are emerging. In this article, I would like to outline the old and new divisions in Turkey and the divided Turks’ perception of us the Armenians.

Ever since the founding of the republic in 1923, Turkey was governed by a secular, Kemalist and nationalist ideology, with the single-minded objective of creating and maintaining a single-nation state. Regardless of which party was in power, leftist or rightist, the deep state dominated by the armed forces, big business, big state bureaucracy, media and academia, directed all the affairs behind the scenes. The deep state leaders and their backers emerged as the elite of the society, aptly named as the nationalist White Turks, who basically inherited and further developed a state built on the economic foundations of plundered and confiscated Armenian and Greek wealth and assets. The masses in Anatolia were mainly utilized as free bodies for the military elite, as cheap labor for the industrial elite, or remembered only at election time to vote for the political elite. The pious Sunni Moslem majority in Anatolia was condescended to by the White Turks and defined by the term “takunyali” or clog wearers. The disappearance of the Armenians and Greeks from these lands was fiercely denied. The existence of other ethnic people in Turkey, such as Kurds, was also continuously denied. “Turkey is only for Turks” was their motto; accordingly, since Armenians and Greeks were already wiped out, all the other ethnic groups were told that they are now Turks, or else.

The supremacy of the White Turks ended in 2003, with the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his moderately Islamic party. Despite all attempts of the deep state to topple him, he outmaneuvered the White Turks, thanks to the religious Sunni Moslem masses of Anatolia and the recent arrival of underprivileged masses from Anatolia to the big cities. The provincial and religious Turks quickly secured and strengthened their grip on power. Influential fundamentalist religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who had had to leave Turkey during the previous nationalist secular regimes, cooperated with Erdogan and his followers, quickly filled the cadres of bureaucracy, including key posts in the police, security, judiciary and academia. Based on charges of attempted coup d’etat against the government, hundreds of deep state leaders and elite White Turks in the military, media and academia were arrested and jailed. Although less intolerant toward minorities than the White Turks, the attitude of the new leaders toward the minorities and the Kurds did not change much. Many White Turks started leaving the country.

The alliance and cooperation of Erdogan and Gulen ended in late 2013, when Erdogan felt secure enough to discard Gulen, and decided to shut down the numerous supplementary educational facilities controlled by Gulen. As the education system in the state high schools is not sufficient to secure admission to state universities, most parents in Turkey depended on these facilities for the advancement of their children. These facilities were used as a power base by Gulen, a major source of income as well as recruitment for new followers. Soon after Erdogan announced the intention to close these facilities, state prosecutors and police controlled by Gulen revealed uncovering a major corruption scandal against four of Erdogan’s ministers, involving hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes, with all the juicy details of money counting machines and millions stashed in shoe boxes in ministers’ homes. Erdogan counter attacked by swiftly removing, replacing and firing thousands of state prosecutors, judges and police officers deemed to be followers of the Gulen movement. In the last few weeks, at least ten taped telephone conversations were leaked on the internet involving Erdogan, where Erdogan directs his son to get rid of hundreds of millions of cash in Euro and dollars from the family homes, orders several businessmen to pay $100 million each toward buying a media empire that he wants controlled, demands another media owner to fire several journalists, decides how much certain contractors must pay in bribes or properties in return for getting large contracts involving construction of airports and bridges. In the western world, even a hint of attempted bribery or corruption may be sufficient to bring down governments, but in Turkey, Erdogan carries on, dismissing the evidence as plots hatched by his one-time ally and now-mortal-enemy Gulen, as well as other virtual enemies such as “parallel states” within Turkey, and predictably, external enemies such as Israel, US, EU and the “interest lobby” jealous of the fast growth of Turkey. Erdogan’s latest move is to try to win back the nationalists who were charged and jailed for attempting to topple his own government; as a result, most of the jailed deep state leaders are immediately released this week, including the former army Chief of Staff and other commanders, the intelligence spy and one of the masterminds of the Hrant Dink assassination, the racist lawyer who hounded Dink for “insulting Turkishness,” the politician who was charged for stating  “the Armenian Genocide is a lie” in Switzerland but the European Court of Human rights had recently sided with him in the name of freedom of speech, the murderers of a German and two Turkish Protestant missionaries in Malatya, several ultra nationalist/racist journalists, and an organized crime leader who arranged contract killings of anti-nationalists and Kurds. It seems that the stage is set for a potential settling of accounts.

While these divisions took place among the Turks of Turkey, the Kurds of Turkey made major advances toward their goals of greater autonomy, language rights and self-determination, a struggle on going since the 1980s first as a guerilla movement and from the 2000s on as an emerging political movement. The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan imposed his will on Erdogan, who conceded to start peace talks with him in exchange for a ceasefire.

Even though these four major divisions within Turkey keep fighting and plotting against one another, they come together and close ranks when it comes to the Armenian issue, past and present. The Turks themselves categorize Armenians into three distinct groups, in a completely misguided manner — the Good, the Bad and the Poor. The small Armenian community remaining in Turkey is the “Good,” easily controllable, not a threat anymore, with neighborly memories of shared dolma or topik.  But these Armenians in Turkey are “Good” as long as they don’t demand much about the past or present, like Hrant Dink dared.  The Diaspora is the “Bad, the evil presence in every country poisoning the locals against Turks and Turkey, spreading lies about the ‘alleged’ genocide of 1915. Finally, the Armenians of Armenia are the “Poor,” who leave their country and come to Turkey to find bread. The Kurds relatively have more empathy toward the Armenians; however, it is more a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Although Ocalan came close to acknowledging the genocide, he has empathy only for the “Good” Armenians in Turkey and he continues defining the Diaspora as part of the external lobby threat against both Turks and Kurds. While the Kurds acknowledge the sufferings of the Armenians in 1915, they see themselves only as manipulated tools of the Turks and cannot bring themselves to acknowledge their active role in the Genocide, nor open the subject of returning the vast properties seized from the Armenians, barring a few exceptions.

Armenians who believe in meaningful dialogue with the peoples of Turkey, now face the additional challenge of choosing one or more of these groups at the expense of alienating the others, and on the eve of the centennial in 2015, the prospect of any productive results becomes dimmer by the day. But dialogue does continue, with the help of various civil society organizations, intellectuals, and more significantly, through the facilitation of the new emerging force of Islamized Armenians of Turkey.  Dialogue must and will continue until all four groups in Turkey start to see that all Armenians, whether in Turkey, Diaspora or Armenia, whether good, bad or poor, are all equally impacted by the genocide and equally demand acknowledgment and restitution.

(Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. He has donated concert and CD proceedings to infrastructure projects in Armenia and Karabagh, in which he has also participated as an engineer. He helped organize the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church and the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. He gave the first piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.)