Researchers reflect on Turkish- Armenian civil society activities

Researchers reflect on Turkish- Armenian civil society activities

Researchers who studied civil society initiatives between Turkey and Armenia note that on April 24, 2010, several hundred intellectuals, for the first time in Turkey, organized a commemoration of the Armenian victims of 1915. (PHOTO SUNDAY’S ZAMAN, Selahattin Sevi)

February 05, 2012, Sunday/ 12:57:00/ YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN

Civil society initiatives between Turkey and Armenia have flourished during the last decade and a half, and researchers are shedding light in a new study on whether or not these initiatives have been effective.

In their introduction to the study, researchers Esra Çuhadar and Burcu Gültekin Punsmann noted the Armenian-Turkish conflict is different from other conflicts because there is no violence at the moment, although the past is a violent one.

“Unlike in other peace-building contexts, preventing or ending violence is not an issue. It is more about healing a broken relationship, rebuilding trust and coming to terms with the past, while also building positive and constructive relations between the two neighboring states,” the researchers stated in the study, “Reflecting on the Two Decades of Bridging the Divide: Taking Stock of Turkish-Armenian Civil Society Activities,” published by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV). The study was conducted with the support of the German Marshall Fund’s Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.

As their driving questions, the researchers asked: “What can citizens and civil societies do to positively contribute to this process? How can they do better? Can we empower them in a way that they become a positive driving force for their governments to make peace?”

The researchers first compiled a detailed inventory of all civil society efforts carried out from 1995 to 2011. Then, they selected a handful of these projects, especially ongoing ones, in order to do an in-depth study and explore dynamics on the ground. The researchers conducted two field trips, one to Yerevan in 2010 and another to İstanbul in 2011, where they interviewed about 25 civil society activists.

During the third stage of the project, they gathered in Ankara in July 2011 a smaller group of Armenian and Turkish practitioners from Armenia, Turkey and the Armenian diaspora in order to have them further discuss and elaborate on some of the themes identified.

“There have been some civil society initiatives that have been connected to politics, and there have been some that have not been,” said Gültekin Punsmann.

The study identified the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC), a private sector-driven initiative, as the first initiative to open a track-two channel, or an unofficial diplomacy channel. TABDC was co-founded in 1997 in Turkey and Armenia to foster creation of trade links between the two countries, and TABDC played a significant role in the shipment of earthquake aid from Armenia to Turkey in 1999.

According to the study, civil society activities between Turkey and Armenia showed a sharp increase in 2001-2003, as this period coincided with a large grant scheme funded by the US government. The Turkish American Reconciliation Commission (TARC) was a high-profile initiative during those years, and more than a dozen track-two diplomacy projects between the two countries were implemented.

Then, another sudden upturn occurred in 2005 with the renewal of activism at the official level, as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian created the impression of dialogue.

“A new momentum was indeed launched by two public proposals -- one Turkish and one Armenian. Prime Minister Erdoğan, in his letter to President Kocharian, called for the creation of a joint commission to study the historical developments and events of 1915. This was accompanied by President Kocharian’s proposal for an inter-governmental commission to meet and discuss all outstanding issues between the two countries, with the aim of resolving them. These would have to be sustained by practical steps aiming at the full normalization of bilateral relations,” the study noted.

The final steep surge in civil society initiatives occurred in 2008, during the most publicized period, featuring football diplomacy marked by the last negotiation initiative that led to the signing of two protocols between Turkey and Armenia to normalize their relations and open borders.

“Although there was another decline in 2009, most likely due to the stumbling protocols, compared to the 1990s, the initiatives were still at a historic high in 2010,” the study stated.

In addition, the study noted that Turkish interest in Armenia and Armenians increases in the spring, as there are activities that aim to prevent the president of the United States from qualifying the massacres of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire as genocide in his annual White House statement. On the other hand, during the same period, Armenian activists mobilize for the opposite purpose.

“Armenian and Turkish diaspora organizations based in the US engage in a frontal opposition. The period between mid-March and the end of April is therefore the least favorable time for any Turkish-Armenian initiative aiming at normalization or reconciliation,” the study stated.

When it comes to who carries out most of these civil society projects, the study stated that most of the projects so far have been carried out by grassroots-level participants, such as youth, artists and civil society activists.

“In other conflicts too, it is quite common to see grassroots-level initiatives more frequently than elite-level initiatives. This may be for several reasons, but one is that a larger pool to draw from is available at the grassroots level. Secondly, the inter-communal aspect of some conflicts, like the Turkish-Armenian conflict, requires close attention to the grassroots level,” Gültekin Punsmann said.

However, one deficiency she pointed out in those initiatives is that most projects target a group of people who are already convinced of the need to develop Turkish-Armenian relations and have a keen interest in discussing the issue. In that regard, the study stated that new projects should go beyond this and include those groups that have not been included before, such as women, nationalist and conservative youth, and young entrepreneurs.

At the end, the study suggested the Turkish-Armenian peace-building process in coming years should adopt a strategy that aims to build and strengthen relationships; build the capacity of civil society and organizations to better address the conflict; and create institutions or processes to constructively address the conflict.

The priority activity of civil society has been relationship-building so far, however, very little is known about their effectiveness.

Do they change attitudes? Do they improve relations? There needs to be systematic assessments required by donors concerning relationship-focused initiatives, the researchers pointed out.

Gültekin Punsmann said TEPAV will have civil society initiatives involving Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in addition, it will have more initiatives to solve trade problems between Turkey and Armenia.

Study suggests activities for Turkish, Armenian civil society

TEPAV researchers recommended a series of activities for the civil society actors from both Turkey and Armenia:

Build cross-border professional partnerships through practical projects because they are more likely to involve mainstream actors. Cooperation on trans-boundary issues, such as environmental protection and public health, presents new possibilities for professional-level cooperation.

Establish information channels between the two societies; these information channels need to be not only free of prejudice but also strengthened and institutionalized.

Establish a new high-level track-two process to jump start the frozen negotiations: Aside from TARC, the researchers haven’t come across a similar initiative. Now that the track-one level is stuck, it is the right time to start a TARC-like high-level track two.

Assist in the rediscovery of the common past and shared memory with Turkish-Armenian cross-border initiatives. Even the most technical ones allow a re-reading of the past that binds peoples of the region together. Furthermore, unraveling the shared memory and the common past before 1915 will create a new cognitive space for the two societies, which hold extremely polarized views at the moment.

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