By Edmond Y. Azadian
The title of this column is borrowed from Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, which takes place in the Caucasus. However, the hero of our time, Garo Paylan, has nothing in common with Lermontov’s protagonist, Pechorin, who is a self-doubting Byronic figure.
Incidentally, many Russian writers have been fascinated by the Caucasus, if not necessarily by the people living there. In addition to Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Haji Murad, is about Chechnya. But more notorious is Alexander Pushkin’s characterization of the Armenians in his Erzurum memoirs, predating Admiral Mark Bristol, stationed in Istanbul as US High Commissioner, undoing in his reports what US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau had been documenting about the Armenian Genocide.
Now, out of the blue, an Armenian hero has emerged in Turkey, in many ways contradicting the typical Istanbul Armenian, who through brutal experience has learned to be extremely cautious and conservative in word and deed. For Istanbul Armenians, for example, traditional Armenian political parties are toxic entities and they refuse to go near them.
Following the experience of the Genocide, their characters have been shaped by Kemalist rule, during which history textbooks spewed venom against Armenians. That character has also survived the punitive Wealth Tax period, the September 6 pogroms and constant police surveillance. Therefore, to survive or to live more comfortably, they have to sidestep their ethnic identity.
Garo Paylan shatters that mold as journalist Hrant Dink did before him, at his own peril. Ever since entering the Turkish parliament as part of the HDP party, Paylan has waged an unrelenting battle for human rights and Armenian rights. To be fair, all three ethnic Armenian members of Parliament, in the ranks of different political parties, have been uncompromising on Armenian issues.
One of Paylan’s battles was about the seizure of St. Giragos Armenian Church in the city of Sur, in Diyarbakir. He asked the prime minister the reason for the “immediate expropriation” of a total of “6,300 pieces of property.” He also requested clarification as to “whether the decision to expropriate them affects the Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean Churches.”
The reasons behind this inquiry were many. In a very short period, St. Giragos, after its renovation, had become an attractive and inspirational symbol for hidden Armenians in Turkey, who began to reclaim their roots. But in the broader picture, the government seems to entertain a secret plan of resettlement. As Diyarbakir has become a hotbed of Kurdish activism, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a wholesale war of extermination and resettlement. Many Syrian refugees have been brought to the area.
Prominent Turkish historian Taner Akçam is quoted in the New York Times as stating, “Solving ethnic and religious strife through demographic engineering is a policy of the Turkish government that goes back well over a century. The latest developments in Sur need to be viewed through this framework.”
Also, Erdogan seems to have learned Lenin’s strategy in reverse; one step forward and two steps backwards. After returning some of the confiscated properties to the Armenian community to gain kudos from the European Union, suddenly the policy has been reversed to confiscate other properties.
The next episode in Paylan’s crusade took place in the Turkish Parliament on April 21, where he waved pictures of 15 Armenian members of the Ottoman Parliament who were murdered in 1915. And then, he asked the government to retrieve their remains and give them proper burials, befitting their status.
While this act of defiance was taking place in full view of the cameras, the vicar of the Armenian Patriarchate, Bishop Aram Atesian, was peevishly reading Erdogan’s duplicitous statement at the church about “our common pain,” reaffirming the official policy of the government that if Armenians were killed during World War I, Turkey also suffered, therefore we are quits, as if Armenians were responsible for the casualties of war.
The last spectacle took place on May 2, in the Parliament again, when Paylan was attacked by AKP party members. The scene was awful. Erdogan’s partisans, dressed in suits and ties, emerged out of their chairs like wild animals to attack Paylan, while another member of the pro-Kurdish HDP Party, to which Paylan belongs, shouted, “You don’t belong in these lands. You have usurped and destroyed the civilizations of the Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians. You may kill me but I have to tell the truth.”
What they could not do on April 24, they did on May 2, with gusto. The scene had to be captioned: “Turkish democracy in action.”
The fight broke out in a parliamentary committee approving a draft legislation to lift the immunity of the HDP parliamentarians. In addition to the caption under the brawl in the parliament, it is worth adding the State Department comment to highlight the absurdity and irony of US policy. According to the US State Department spokesman John Kirby: “well, again, as a parliamentary democracy, Turkey has well established democratic procedures in place that will determine who has immunity and what circumstances that can be lifted and how it is going to be — how it’s going to be lifted.”
After German Chancellor Angela Merkel kowtowed to Erdogan, bribing him with six billion euros to take back Syrian refugees and resume accession negotiations with the European Union, it seems it is now Foggy Bottom’s turn to bow before the Turkish tyrants.
The attack on Paylan was a burst of ethnic hatred.
“It is crystal clear that they were targeting me,” said Paylan after the brawl. “Many MPs attacked me in a planned manner. I was targeted and got kicked and punched around 100 times in 20-30 seconds. Afterwards, they spoke racist words and hate speech against me. At this point, we can talk about the fact that I am Armenian, because the speeches are hate speeches directly related to my Armenian identity. What they can’t digest is this: A person of Armenian identity reveals their lies and stands upright. They want to see Armenians obeying them. I, as an Armenian, putting up a fight for rights, have been targeted and subjected to a lynching attempt.”
Garo Paylan, Selahattin Demirtas and the entire HDP Parliamentary faction symbolize the hurdle to Erdogan’s brutal march towards absolute power. Therefore, he has been engaged in a two-pronged battle; the first one is a campaign of atrocious proportions against the Kurdish population, through mass murder and mass resettlement. The other dimension of his policy is legislative action to deny parliamentary immunity for any legislator who is deemed to have defied his authority.
On May 9, Amberin Zaman, a respected journalist in the West, wrote, “In recent months, Washington has been bending over backwards to accommodate Turkey. … Washington has said little if anything about the gross human rights violations opposition lawmakers insist were committed by Turkish security forces as they flush out PKK militants embedded in neighborhoods in the mainly Kurdish towns and cities in southeast Turkey.”
This carnage repeats the scenario of Rwanda where genocide was being perpetrated and President Clinton looked the other way, only to apologize to the victims’ families in Kigali after he was out of office. It looks like Mr. Obama will be on the same trail of political expediency.
On his way to absolute power, Mr. Erdogan ousted even his staunchest ally, Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu. Referring to that political maneuver, Metin Guncan writers: “There was also the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who Mustafa Akyol describes as ending up being a ‘slight nuisance’ for Erdogan’s bid for absolute power.” Akyol writes, “The only way Davutoglu ‘betrayed’ Erdogan was that he tried to be relatively moderate and less authoritarian.”
Incidentally, Davutoglu was the architect of Ankara’s Syria policy, which has become an absolute debacle.
Now that the next prime minister designate has become Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, the stage is set for a dynastic sultanate.
The next stage of Erdogan’s march to power is the reshaping of the parliament, which will lift the immunity of the opposition members to put them in jails and take over the vacated seats by his own party members. Eyyup Doru, the HDP representative in Europe, warned that this move could lead to a civil war. The move will deny the representation of Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis, Alevis and other Christians in the parliament — a representation which was hailed in the EU as Turkey’s “democratic progress.”
“The plenary session will handle the issue on the 16th of June. If passed, 46 (out of 59) HDP deputies will lose their immunity and will be imprisoned. If this happens, the already intense conflict in the Kurdish region of Turkey will further escalate into a civil war that will cause the displacement of millions,” Doru warned.
Erdogan has extended the concept of terrorism to include academics, journalists, independent statesmen, in short, whoever opposes his ascendance to the throne of the sultan.
In an obvious violation of its own values, the US Administration is buying Erdogan’s version of “terrorists” and depending on “Turkey’s own democratic procedures” to see the purges carried out in Ankara.
The West created a monster and now is forced to play by its brutal rules.
Paylan, Demirtas and their colleagues are ready to face punitive measures. That is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. It may sound ironic that after being openly attacked in the parliament, jail could be a safer place for Paylan. Had Hrant Dink been jailed, perhaps he would be alive today.
Garo will stand tall in prison and out of prison like Nelson Mandela did.
He will stand tall for the 15 Armenian parliamentarians in the Ottoman era. He will stand tall for all the dead and the living because he truly is the hero of our time.