How Far Can Symbolism Go?

By Edmond Y. Azadian

When the Nixon-Kissinger team resorted to their famous Ping-Pong diplomacy, they took a calculated risk. But the Ping-Pong game eventually helped China to stand on its feet and widen the chasm between Beijing and Moscow.

That was a symbolic political gamble that paid off handsome dividends for the US, as the sole surviving super power.

Since that Ping-Pong initiative, many attempts have been made to emulate it, but to no avail. One example was the football diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey. President Abdullah Gul attended a football game in Armenia and President Serge Sargisian reciprocated. These symbolic gestures were supposed to consummate the controversial Protocols, but no progress is yet in sight.

Turkey continued teasing Armenia and raising hopes that some rapprochement would be in the offing. Armenia never missed opportunities and always reciprocated in kind.

Today, we are at another stage of exchanging symbolic gestures; President Sargisian invited President Erdogan to visit the Tzitzernakabert monument on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. It was a huge gamble which has not received an answer yet.

After President Sargisian congratulated Erdogan on his election as president, Armenia received an invitation to attend the presidential inauguration in Ankara on August 28. It would have been wasted capital had Armenia’s president rushed to attend the inauguration and returned empty handed. Instead, it was decided wisely by Yerevan to dispatch Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and to participate on the foreign ministerial level among the more than 20 heads of state who are scheduled to attend the inauguration.

Recently, President Sargisian was asked if Turkey was planning to open the border and he replied that he did not have any news on that front. He also revealed that Mr. Nalbandian was instructed to bring a response from Mr. Erdogan, about whether he would be willing to accept Armenia’s invitation on the Genocide centennial.

President Sargisian is aware, like everyone else, that Turkey has publicly repeated several times that the border issue is contingent upon the resolution of the Karabagh conflict, adding another Gordian knot to the existing one.

In the interim, Turkey took some symbolic steps, mostly to dupe world public opinion, that the nation entertains some goodwill to resolve intractable problems. One was Erdogan’s condolence to the survivors of the Armenians “relocated” by the Ottoman rulers. Ahmet Davutoglu, the expected prime minister, tried to capitalize on Erdogan’s initiative by calling it a “historic” opportunity. Then came Mr. Davutoglu’s own theory of “common pain,” in a lengthy commentary in the Turkish Studies Quarterly.

But all these symbolic initiatives have not amounted to any concrete results.

Turkey is a rising power and on the way can afford to extend some symbolic initiatives to oil its political engine which is moving faster every day.

Erdogan’s election with 52 percent of the vote is not only a domestic coronation of his 12-year rule, but also recognition by the international community of Turkey’s role as a global player.

Erdogan’s unpolished and elemental political style is smoothed by his counterpart Davutoglu, the prime minister-designate, whose ambitions are boundless for his country. In 2010, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Davutoglu seventh on the list of 100 global thinkers as “the brains behind Turkey’s global reawakening.”

Davutoglu is determined to return Ottoman “glory” to Turkey and present it to the world as a model of “tolerant society” which can be even replicated in modern times. Turkey is winning also on the media front; a recent documentary on the Al Jazeera TV channel on the Armenian Genocide almost presented the victims as the perpetrators of that historic monstrosity. Only this week, another documentary on the same channel painted Ottoman rule in idyllic colors. Of course, Al Jazeera is funded and run by the emirate of Qatar, a Mickey Mouse country with a lion’s roar, in bed with Turkey in supporting ISIS and atrocious fundamentalist forces wreaking havoc in the Middle East.

Since Davutoglu assumed the post of foreign minister, Turkey has extended its tentacles globally; Turkish embassies have grown three times only in Africa and Ankara has become not only a supporter of Hamas in Gaza, but also the champion of the Uighurs in China, 22 million Sunni Muslims tucked along the Sino-Russian border.

Davutoglu’s “zero-problem with Turkey’s neighbors” policy has not yet reached its goal. Now, as the new prime minister, he is better positioned to pursue priorities such as Turkey’s accession to the EU and its consolidation as a world power. On the way, Ankara has to solve the Cyprus problem, pay lip service to the Genocide issue and reach out to the Arab public while dealing with Israel under the table.

Turkey has been conducting an independent policy, even as a NATO member, sometimes embarrassing its patron, the US. Therefore, it can afford to make some symbolic gestures to its weaker neighbors like Greece and Armenia. Those symbols have not and perhaps will not amount to any concrete and positive actions.