Capturing the Mountain: A Turkish-Armenian Dialogue Project
For the better part of a century, Turkey and Armenia have experienced tense relations. The main stressor dates back to 1915 when, as a wartime measure, the Young Turks - who had recently risen to power in Turkey – ordered the mass relocation of Armenian Christians, particularly away from the large home base in northeastern corner of the Ottoman Empire near Russia. Turkey had allied with Germany in 1914 to aid in the war efforts, but when Turkey attacked Baku in an eastward campaign some Armenian Christian citizens joined forces with Russia and pushed back against the Ottoman forces. Thus, the Young Turks came to the conclusion that the Armenian population was a fifth column, or a threat to the state, and dealt with the situation in a very brutal manner. In total, the Young Turks relocated roughly 1.5 million Armenians and a great deal died.
Many scholars have deemed this tragedy the first modern genocide. Tukey denies that the event can be considered a genocide, however Armenia claims that it was and so demand reparations from the Turkish government. This conflict of interest has been a large part of the estrangement between the two countries in the past century, and only within the past five years or so have significant strides been made toward normalizing relations. Most notably, in 2014 Turkey’s president RecepTayyip Erdogan offered official condolences to the Armenian community for the consequences of the past events. However, at this time he did not term it a genocide, and Turks and Armenians have a ways to go before the two communities see eye-to-eye.
In the past five years, a small number of projects have arisen to facilitate Turkish-Armenian dialogue. In June 2012, the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, in conjunction with Turkish Policy Quarterly and funded by the Black Sea Trust of the German Marshall Fund, led a particularly successful dialogue project in Gudauri, Georgia. The project, “Capturing the Mountain,” brought together six Turks and six Armenians under the guidance of three facilitators for a week of activities and talks designed to build the framework for a harmonious future through the realization of collective memory.
Overall, the participants deemed the program a great success. Some had entered the program skeptical they would be able to traverse much ground in the issue, but all left with a higher expectation of the possibility of Turkey and Armenia normalizing relations in the future. Moving forward, the key is to develop programs that translate the success of this project on the individual level to a larger, further reaching level, ensuring that politicians and a wider collection of citizens understand the lessons of the dialogue. This can be achieved by establishing projects geared for civil society representatives, state level officials, or actors who are otherwise deeply engrained in the mainstream of thought surrounding the issues.
Ever since World War I and the soon after fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and Armenia have experienced tense relations. These originated from what many scholars have coined the “Armenian genocide” in 1915, and from this blossomed a century of other issues. Today, Turkey and Armenia are beginning work toward normalizing relations, however both countries have a long way to go to see eye-to-eye. In fact, the countries to this day do not have official diplomatic relations, despite the fact that they share a border.
Under the Ottoman Empire, minority groups, including the Christian Armenians, were given some autonomy in that they were able to maintain their social, religious, and legal structures of the community at the expense of a small extra tax to the central government. While this system generally worked to keep the empire in harmony, some communities wanted even more free reign than they had been afforded. In the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire began to face some threats from certain communities, including some uprisings from Christian Armenians in the northeast which resulted in territory loss for the empire. Simultaneously, a group of dissatisfied officers known as the Young Turks had risen to power and were working to restructure the state.
The Young Turks led the Ottoman Empire into World War I as allies of Germany. During the war, the Turks engaged in battles on the eastern front, leading one campaign in 1914 to capture Baku which resulted in a disastrous skirmish with Russia. Some Armenians in the area had fought alongside the Russians, and so the Young Turks publicly denounced the entire Armenian population as a fifth column, or a threat to the state. As a measure to prevent future insurgency, the Young Turks organized the mass migration of Armenians from the border areas to other parts of the country father away from the possibility of collaboration with the Russian Christians. The result was a series of bloody marches and the relocation of nearly 1.5 million Armenian Christians.
Because of the brutality and huge death toll of the Armenian migrations, many scholars have deemed the event the first modern genocide. The term “genocide” was coined in 1943 by Polish lawyerRaphaelLemkin to describe the atrocities against Jews occurring under the Nazi regime, so the term was applied to the Turkish massacres retroactively. The Turkish government denies the event was a genocide, for a long time explaining that it occurred as a necessary wartime precaution and reminding the international community of the number of Ottoman citizens of a variety of ethnicities who perished as a result of the war. Thus, many Turks argue that the incident does not count as a genocide because the leadership never called for the systemic murder of all members of a particular racial group. Regardless, the Armenians argue the event was in fact genocide and want reparations for the injustice done to their ancestors during the war, but the Turkish government does not feel it owes the Armenians nearly as much as they demand.
In 2009, Turkey began to seek to reconcile with Armenia, and tens of thousands of Turks signed on to the “I apologize” campaign. In 2010, some Turks began to publicly commemorate the tragedy, and in 2014 the Turkish government even formally acknowledged the incident. On the anniversary of the Armenian genocide that year, Turkey’s president RecepTayyip Erdogan issued a statement of condolence for all Armenians whose relatives had suffered at the hands of the Ottoman government. This action was a huge step towards the normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations, butthere is still a long way to go until the governments see eye-to-eye.
Despite the progress, there continues to be much controversy surroundingTurkish-Armenian relations. This year, during the centennial anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Turkey simultaneously celebrated the centennial anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, an event which usually occurs a day later than the Armenian commemorations. This move was speculated to be an effort to take away the international limelight from the genocide commemorations. As these two events fell concurrently,there was a lot of backlash from the Armenian community.
Capturing the Mountain
The Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation was founded in 2007 as an independent, non-political organization designed to facilitate conflict resolution dialogue and lay the framework for building peaceful future relations. The organization was founded originally to tackle the shaky Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, but has since expanded to cover a wider variety of issues in the South Caucasus region.
In 2012, the Imagine Center, in conjunction with Turkish Policy Quarterly - a Turkish international relations debate journal - spearheaded a project to facilitate dialogues among Turks and Armenians. The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, an arm of the German Marshall Fund, awarded the project at $30,000 grant. The program lasted one week (June 8 - 14) and was hosted in Gudauri, Georgia, an area neutral to both parties.
This project was known as the Capturing the Mountain: A Turkish-Armenian Dialogue Project. In total there were twelve participants: six representing the Turkish side of the narrative and six representing the Armenian case. The group included Armenians and Turks from Armenia and Turkey, but also members of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, Syria, Lebanon, and Georgia, and Turks of Kurdish and German origin. Each participant came representing their own personal ideas, not on behalf of any organization. The week of activities was led by three facilitators – one Turkish, one Armenian, and one American. The facilitators were: Phil Gamaghelyan, who is a co-founder and co-director of the Imagine Center;NigarGöksel, whois Editor-in-Chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly; and Chris Littlefield, whois a dialogue facilitator with Imagine Center.
Over the course of the week, participants engaged in a series of talks and activities designed to build common ground among the participants through discussion of the history and current state of Turkish-Armenian relations. One particularly powerful and ground breaking activity, as noted by many participants in interviews, occurred at the beginning of the week and involved the creation of a timeline of the history of Turkish-Armenian relations. The group was divided between the Turks and the Armenians, and each group had toseparately devise a timeline with the ten most important events of the century in terms of Turkish-Armenianrelations. The two groups then came together to compare their timelines, and surprisingly they both had listed essentially the same events. What distinguished the groups from one another were the oftentimes diametrically opposed interpretations of the events. This activity provedcritical for building dialogue about the shared history and developing collective memory, something that is necessary for building communications and fostering dialogue.
At the end of the week, the group compiled a short documentary about their experiences in the program, and the different perspectives coming into and leaving the program. The group scheduled a conference for January 2013 to follow up the event. The group also made tentative plans to climb Mount Ararat/AgriDagi together in the summer of 2013, an activity which was designed to further bring together the group. Mount Ararat is within Turkey’s legal borders, but the mountain holds significance for both nations.
Overall, the participants deemed the program a great success. Some had entered the program skeptical they would be able to traverse much ground in the issue, but all left with a higher expectation of the possibility of Turkey and Armenia reaching a mutual understanding moving forward.
Many of the participants attributed the success of the program to its organization. The first step for a successful dialogue was establishing connections on an intellectual level. Many participants felt that the second step of climbing Mount Ararat will allow participants to also connect on a physical and emotional level, really driving home the point that people on both sides of the conflict are human and can accomplish great feats if they are able to work together.
As the project proved wildly successful with individuals unattached to any agency, the next obvious step is to widen the breadth of the project to reach a broader audience. This can be achieved by establishing projects geared for civil society representatives, state level officials, or actors who are otherwise deeply engrained in the mainstream in terms of thinking about the issues. Part of the reason this particular project was so successful was because the participants all came in with an open mind and a willingness to engage in dialogue and to have their views challenged. While this is critical for making any progress, particularly in laying groundwork for future success, the message that reconciliation is possible needs to reach those in higher positions of power.
Moving forward, the key is to develop programs that translate the success of this project on the individual level to a larger, further reaching level. The Imagine Center has continued its work in the Turkish-Armenian dialogue space, just this year facilitating a program with a group of students. This program was also successful, which indicates Turks and Armenians have a growing willingness to engage in conversation surrounding their collective issues. Even though the individual governments may stick to certain policies or reasons of precedent, individuals want to see changes and development. Slowly but surely, if more programs like this exist then voices will start reaching the respective governments and hopefully this will create changes on a policy level.
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