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Suat Kiniklioglu

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Opinion By Suat Kiniklioglu

Turkish Daily News
Sept 27 2005

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit a photo exhibition of the Sept. 6-7, 1955, street riots in Istanbul. For me it was truly an experience and cause for reflection. Seeing such graphic evidence of those events made me genuinely uncomfortable. The exhibition and the debate it sparked was a great leap forward in the quest towards confronting some of the unpleasant episodes of our recent history.

Although the opening of the exhibition was marred by a protest of a small group of nationalists, the exhibition marked an important change in Turkey. Fifty years later, Turks on both sides of the debate intensely deliberated the Sept. 6-7 events. The debate allowed Turks to become aware of some of the unknown aspects of those events.

Similarly, the infamous Armenian conference, which was scheduled to take place in May of this year, finally took place at Istanbul's Bilgi University last week. The conference became an important event in itself when, in the aftermath of Dec. 17, some European countries that are opposed to Turkey's European Union accession began to emphasize the Armenian issue as a precondition to Turkey's accession negotiations. The Turkish debate surrounding the events of 1915 had already tested new territory in the fall of 2004. Contrary to Armenian Diaspora allegations, Turks are intensely debating what happened in 1915. A preview of the Turkish media coverage of the Armenian issue would provide ample evidence of both the extent and depth of the Turkish debate.

The organization of a conference on the Armenian issue that included scholars describing the events of 1915 as "genocide" sparked widespread protests from diverse segments of Turkish society. Coupled with the earlier comments by Orhan Pamuk on the issue, the atmosphere became poisoned. However, the last-minute cancellation of the conference by Bosporus University in May and developments in the aftermath also raised eyebrows about academic freedom in Turkey.

Contrary to claims by critics, the conference was not organized to determine whether the events of 1915 constituted "genocide" but instead was to be a healthy starting point for an honest discussion on the subject. Some of the presentations that emphasized the need to avoid the word "genocide," to de-emotionalize the debate, were seen as very constructive.

The Turkish government's stance, particularly Justice Minister Cemil Cicek's turnaround on the conference, not only reflected an acute awareness about the potential damages a second cancellation would have brought about but also provided evidence of the political courage of the AKP on these sensitive issues. The handling of the Armenian conference, once again, confirmed the government's determination to start EU accession negotiations on Oct. 3.

The fact that the conference took place despite the sensitivity and strong criticism surrounding it was also a positive step in terms of assertion of academic freedom by the three universities involved. I hope the bold steps taken by the three universities will set an example to other foundations and universities.

All in all, we are experiencing a very significant but equally difficult process. Turkey is opening up to the world, confronting its recent history and discovering the many different shades of its social fabric. For this process to continue in a constructive fashion we need Armenians to confront some of the dark episodes of Armenian history as well. It would be most helpful if an Armenian conference could acknowledge that Armenian soldiers returning to Anatolia with the Russian army took revenge and killed many Turks in the process.

It would be a constructive step if somewhere along this process Armenians could come to terms with the terror unleashed by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), which claimed the lives of 32 Turkish diplomats in the 1970s. I know we are not there yet and that the Turkish side still needs to develop the debate internally, but Turks and Armenians should ready themselves for a historic reconciliation along these lines. Neither Turks nor Armenians should continue to live with this historic burden on them.

The events of 1915-1923 and the 1970s with ASALA are too tragic and sad for both sides. We need to find the courage and will to move forward.

There is no doubt the EU drive provides the primary catalyst for progressive Turks to push through this process. A lot of commentators expressed their skepticism when it was argued that the accession process itself is as important as accession. However, recent developments on the economic and political side confirm the significance of the process itself. Despite the increasingly "revanchist" atmosphere in the domestic political arena, facing up to Sept. 6-7 and beginning to debate 1915 provide reason for optimism. I am confident that the internal dynamics of Turkey are adequate to sustain this process provided the target remains full EU membership.

  • Suat Kýnýklýoðlu is director of the Ankara office of the German

Marshall Fund of the United States.

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