Turkish-Armenian Traumas

October 12, 2009

As we have once again witnessed over the weekend, Turkey and Armenia are two traumatized nations. Reconciliation between these two nations will be much more difficult than a crisis-prone signature ceremony.

To be sure, liberal intellectuals from Turkey and Armenia will continue to communicate in English and manage to distance themselves from ethnic nationalism. But ordinary Turks and Armenians do not have such luxury. There is also the crucial factor of the Armenian diaspora. The diaspora will always be more intransigent than Armenia itself.

In order to fully understand the roots of the drama that unfolded in Zurich, we need to understand the Turkish and Armenian psyche. We also need to ask what brings these two peoples to the negotiating table. Let’s start with the Turkish psyche. Turks have lost an empire in an agonizingly slow fashion. For 200 years, Ottomans lost war after war to more modern Western enemies. The unraveling was even more traumatizing inside the empire. Unable to understand the power of ethnic nationalism, the ruling elite came to hate and distrust ethnic minorities. The empire was at a loss as internal nationalisms led to separatism. Finally, Turkish nationalism emerged as the last nationalism of the empire, in reaction to all previous nationalisms. And it emerged with a vengeance. Its main objective was to save what was left of the empire.

Armenians, like Turks, were also latecomers to nationalism. They wanted their own state just like the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians. But they were a century too late. It was only a matter of time before Turkish nationalism and such Armenian national aspirations were to confront each other. What followed is tragic. Armenian nationalism begot Turkish wrath. More than a million Armenians were wiped out from their territories. The majority were massacred during deportations.

Once the empire was gone, Turkey embarked on the most radical Westernization program the Islamic world ever witnessed. Yet, a century later, Turks are still not accepted as European by the Europeans. They suffer from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West and a superiority complex vis-à-vis the Arab world. They are torn between Islam and secularism, tradition and modernity, Europe and the Middle East. Turks are still traumatized by their identity and history. They still fear minorities and distrust the West they want to emulate.

And Armenians are of course still angry. Millions of Armenians across the world have their origins in Anatolia. They compare their tragedy to the Holocaust. They want justice. Some want revenge. To make things worse, there is also an Azeri dimension to this trauma, centered in Nagorno-Karabakh. Any potential Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, which would be complicated enough with the ghosts of the past, is now shadowed by the politics of Azerbaijan, itself a traumatized nation because of defeat in Karabakh.

Let’s now try to understand what drives the rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. What fuels the reconciliation process despite such mutual traumas? As far as Turkey is concerned, the real reason seems to be the need to avoid a major crisis with the United States. Yes, it is certainly true that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been pursuing a “zero problem” policy with neighbors. That helps. But it is not a coincidence that there is a new sense of urgency to the talks this year, after the arrival of Barack Obama to the White House. Obama, no ordinary politician, has committed himself to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. Turks don’t want a new crisis with Washington. They are doing their best with these talks to give Obama a face-saving reward to keep genocide recognition at bay.

What about Armenia? Why are they willing to come to the table? Most surprisingly, why are they willing to accept the Turkish terms for a history commission to investigate what happened in 1915? The current leadership of the Armenian state is from Karabakh. They are Eastern Armenians who are less traumatized than the Western Armenians wiped out in 1915. They have also won the war in Karabakh and thus can afford to be more pragmatic. But perhaps most important is the fact that Armenia wants to have options other than Russia. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 changed regional dynamics in the Caucasus. Armenia now wants to have Western options. And this Western option requires a degree of normalization with Turkey in order to open the western borders of the country. At the end of the day, the Armenian and Turkish trauma will probably endure. But external conditions will help to alleviate the weight of history.