Interview with Volkan Vural
Originally posted at http://www.blogian.net with the translator's permission. Used on Armeniapedia with permission from Blogian.net.
Ara Arabyan’s translation of retired Turkish diplomat Volkan Vural’s interview with Taraf (Sep 8, 2008), where the former Ambassador says Turkey must apologize to Armenians.
“[Duzel] In response to an invitation by the president of Armenia, President Abdullah Gul went to Yerevan to watch the soccer game [between the Turkish and Armenian national teams]. We have a dispute with Armenia over historical events. Was not the Armenian president’s invitation to Gul before the resolution of this dispute a political risk for himself?
[Vural] Of course it was a risk. The decision to invite the Turkish president to the soccer game was not an easy decision for Armenia. We view the world solely through our own lens. We must also look at events from the perspective of others. There is a neurosis about Turkey in Armenia. Consequently, it is not easy to make any decision related to Turkey. Politicians may have to pay–indeed have paid–a high price for such decisions.
[Duzel] Who paid such a high price?
[Vural] Former President Levon Ter Petrosyan was ousted from office because he sought a solution to the Karabakh problem and to establish ties with Turkey. They made him pay the price of establishing ties with Turkey. Today, even though a major portion of the people of Armenia want relations [with Turkey] to develop and the borders [between the two countries] to open–the Turkey dossier is not so easy to handle as it is thought.
[Duzel] Is it easy to handle the Armenia dossier in Turkey?
[Vural] It is also difficult in Turkey. However, the reality is that the problem between us and Armenia is not something that can be resolved by historians alone. That is because this is psychological and political issue rather than a historical matter. There is a certain psychology, distrust, fear, and terror that the events of the past have created among people.
[Duzel] Do you not think that Armenian and Turkish historians can solve this problem if they discuss the events of the past freely and describe them objectively?
[Vural] A solution to this problem cannot be found via history alone, because a solution requires overcoming the psychological problems this issue has created among people. A solution requires the creation of a climate of trust in which the two peoples can draw closer with affection and respect and where they can talk to each other with ease. This is not a situation that historians can overcome. The Armenian question is a problem that needs to solved by politicians, not historians. History can only shed light on certain issues and play a role that facilitates a solution. That is all.
[Duzel] Do you think that any diplomatic steps will be taken in the aftermath of the [Turkish] president’s visit to Armenia?
[Vural] I expect and hope that they will be taken. This visit may serve as the foundation of a new beginning between Turkey and Armenia. Diplomatic relations between the two states must be established without delay.
[Duzel] What do you mean by “diplomatic relations”?
[Vural] “Diplomatic relations” means Turkish diplomats are resident in Yerevan and Armenian diplomats are resident in Ankara. This would mean a normal relationship between the two states, which would mean the opening of borders between them. The first step in the normalization of relations must be the exchange of representative missions in the two countries. We have to sign an agreement and say that “we will exchange embassies with each other.” The opening of the borders is not a necessity just for the Armenians. I have seen that border gate.
[Duzel] What did you see?
[Vural] I went to the Alican [Margara] border gate [from the Armenian side]. I waved to our soldiers from afar. This gate is 10 to 15 kilometers away from Yerevan. Look, we have been in contact with Armenia, which gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since 1991.
[Duzel] How so?
[Vural] For example, I am the first Turkish ambassador who visited Armenia. At that time I was [Turkish] ambassador to Moscow. This was the time when Armenia was on its way to becoming independent. Shnork Kalustian, then the Armenian patriarch in Turkey, had died during his visit to Yerevan. I sent a message to the Armenian president. I wrote in my message that “taking an interest in the funeral of the patriarch, who is our citizen, and facilitating the return of his remains to Turkey is my duty” and that “I am prepared to contribute in every way, including attending any ceremonies that may be held.”
[Duzel] Did you do this in consultation with Ankara?
[Vural] No, I did it at my own initiative, because the patriarch was a Turkish citizen. He was the spiritual leader of one of our religious minorities. There was no relationship whatsoever between Armenia and Turkey. At that time, Armenia was one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union. As Turkish ambassador to Moscow, it fell within my purview like the other Soviet republics. [Kalustyan's] funeral rites were conducted in the Armenian church in Moscow. I attended that ceremony to the astonishment of the Armenians who were there. They were really taken aback by the presence of a Turkish ambassador at a funeral ceremony in an Armenian church. This was my first contact with Armenia as ambassador.
[Duzel] Did these contacts with Armenia continue? If they did, how did they go?
[Vural] The contacts continued. They invited me to Armenia on a winter day. Ter Petrosyan was president. Armenia was in dramatic conditions. It was suffering tremendous deprivations, including the lack of any electricity. I had a long and very useful meeting with President Ter Petrosyan about ways of developing Turkish-Armenian relations and dissipating hostility between the two nations. Ter Petrosyan shared my views.
[Duzel] What did Ter Petrosyan, who is the leader of the main opposition party today, tell you
[Vural] He said: “I cannot forget the agony of the past, but I do not want to be stuck in the past. As a responsible statesman, I have to think about the future of my grandchildren. I sincerely want the development of relations with Turkey.” At that time, Turkey was perturbed by developments such as Armenia’s new constitution and declaration of independence.
[Duzel] Do certain expressions in the Armenian constitution and its declaration of independence still annoy Turkey?
[Vural] They still annoy Turkey. However, Ter Petrosyan gave me the impression that these issues can be overcome and I conveyed this situation to Ankara in a lengthy report. Subsequently, republics seceding from the Soviet Union declared their independence. At that point, I returned to Ankara and all this information was evaluated.
[Vural] During those meetings, it was decided that Turkey should recognize the independence of all the republics and that it should establish diplomatic ties with all of them except Armenia. Unfortunately, Turkey did not establish diplomatic ties with Armenia. This is a period that I have always seen as “lost years” for Turkey and that I have found most regrettable. This is the year 1991 and immediately after that. By 1993, matters were completely out of control, and Armenia occupied Nagorno Karabakh.
[Duzel] Had diplomatic relations with Armenia been established then, what would be happening now? Would the Armenian question have been resolved?
[Vural] There would still be an Armenian question in Turkey, but Turkey would be a country that has normalized its relations with Armenia. Both sides would have benefited from this normalization. In other words, we would have had a different evolution and a different game, and this would have had an effect on the Diaspora Armenians. However, we could not create this equilibrium like a great power. I also think that this normalization would have helped to improve ties between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The occupation of Nagorno Karabakh could perhaps be prevented. However, we did not pay the necessary attention to Ter Petrosyan then; we failed to help him and to seize the moment. Later, Ter Petrosyan was ousted and [Robert] Kocharian became president. Kocharian pursued radical policies of Armenian nationalism. Had we helped Ter Petrosyan to alleviate the deprivations in his country, nationalism in Armenia might not have been so rabid.
[Duzel] At that time [Turgut] Ozal was president and [Suleyman] Demirel was prime minister of a True Path Party-Social Democratic People’s Party coalition. Who opposed the establishment of diplomatic ties with Armenia? Was it the bureaucrats or the politicians?
[Vural] Many people within the bureaucracy of the Foreign Ministry opposed this. Ozal was very upset that this opportunity was missed. The [Armenian] declaration of independence naturally made many references to western Armenia–that is Turkish soil–and pledged efforts to win recognition for the genocide. That gave the impression that Armenia has territorial claims on Turkey. All these could have been overcome with the establishment of diplomatic relations. I already had prepared some proposals to change the declaration of independence. However, there was opposition to this at the time.
[Duzel] Why was there opposition?
[Vural] I see that as a lack of courage. I reported my meeting with Ter Petrosyan but [ellipsis]. Had we established diplomatic relations, Turkey would not be in the tight corner it is now across the world over the Armenian question. It would not have been so easy to condemn a Turkey that maintains very good relations with Armenia. We should not be too preoccupied with the matter of genocide on this issue.
[Duzel] So what must we do?
[Vural] We are an important country of this region. Peace and stability in this region is to our advantage. From a wider perspective, the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia are very important in terms of the interests of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. When I say “we should not be too preoccupied with allegations of genocide,” I mean the following: Allegations of genocide have become a vehicle of survival for the Diaspora. The allegation of genocide has become an industry; it has created its own people, entrepreneurs, politicians, artists, and money mechanisms.
[Duzel] Has not Turkey become too obsessed with genocide by not establishing relations with Armenia?
[Vural] In effect, yes. The development of relations between Turkey and Armenia would not entirely push aside allegations of genocide but [ellipsis]. Ter Petrosyan once pointed at the Alican border gate and told me: “Look, if this gate is opened, people will see and know each other; they will commingle with each other. We will end up buying many things we need from you. This will help the resolution of the problems of the past.” However, we have a strange reticence. We are a country with too many red lines and taboos. We are told that “Armenia is hostile to us” and that “it has territorial claims on Turkey.” It is time to distinguish between rhetoric and the realities of life.
[Duzel] What are the realities of life?
[Vural] People may say, demand, and dream certain things rhetorically. They may dream about a very large Armenia. There is no limit to dreaming. However, the realities are evident. Can Armenia take any land from Turkey? Which sensible person can contemplate that? The number of soldiers in our armed forces is as big as the entire population of Armenia. We must have more confidence in ourselves.
[Duzel] The man in the street may harbor fears or may be made to harbor fears, but how do you explain the phobias and red lines of military and civilian bureaucrats who know the realities?
[Vural] This is Turkey. The Foreign Ministry is cautious, as expected. Acting with extreme caution is a rule of that profession, but no problem can be solved without taking any risks. This also partly reflects a desire to avoid the risk of being criticized by the Turkish public. The entire problem is this: There is a certain circumstance and you can either become the slave of that circumstance or find ways of changing it. We became a slave of the circumstances.
[Duzel] Turkey became a slave of the Armenian question.
[Vural] Yes. We should have sought another equation to solve this issue, but the risk was not taken out of fears of making mistakes and facing criticism at home. As a result, we reduced ourselves to the point of doing nothing.
[Duzel] As diplomatic relations develop with Armenia, will the events of the past be discussed?
[Vural] They will be discussed inevitably. In my opinion, this is not an impediment blocking the normalization of relations. The term “genocide” is a descriptor that was created long after our historic events. However, this descriptor has become largely banal today. Every inhuman act is termed “genocide” at some point. There is little doubt that the events we went through had very painful and tragic aspects. There is also little doubt that the Armenians see them as a tremendous act of injustice against them. It is fact that they think that they were forcefully uprooted from the places where they were born and raised. You cannot erase those sentiments. You cannot tell them not to think this way. Nonetheless, you can tell them: “Yes, these events occurred, but we cannot spend our lives on those events. We have another life ahead of us. Let us build that life together in friendship.”
[Duzel] Does Armenia really expect only this little from Turkey in connection with history? Is it enough to say these to them to establish peace?
[Vural] The Armenians will of course stir up the issue of genocide. They will seek ways of doing that. There will always be movements to make the entire world accept this position. In the meantime, the establishment of a “joint history commmission” between the two countries may, at first glance, be a good step forward, but I think that Armenia is not in a position to make a significant contribution with respect to history. In my opinion, the problem is not in history. I do not share the assumption that the historical facts are not known. The facts are known. Very many things are known. The whole problem is how these known facts are perceived, what marks they have left, and how those marks can affect the future.
[Duzel] I did not understand.
[Vural] An Armenian may sincerely think that what happened to his nation was genocide. We may think otherwise. If we get stuck on this, we cannot get anywhere. Arguing that “the historians should clarify this to us” means giving too much importance to historians. Every historian has a different interpretation of every event. The problem revolves around how the psychological problem will be overcome. Ter Petrosyan told me: “Let us put that issue to one side. Let us look at the future. It is obvious that we will not reach an agreement on this issue. We should allow the two peoples to commingle by other means. Let us bypass the genocide issue this way.” I also think that this is what needs to be done. There is no point in delving too much into this issue.
[Duzel] There is a very large Armenian Diaspora, mainly in the United States and France. Will they not insist on the recognition of the genocide?
[Vural] Of course they will. However, if relations between Turkey and Armenia improve, the Diaspora cannot have its present influence. This is because the people of Armenia will see the concrete benefits of good neighborly ties. When the borders open, trade will grow and they will become rich.
[Duzel] Could Turkey acknowledge that the Ittihadists perpetrated a great massacre of the Armenians?
[Vural] That would be hard. I think that we painted ourselves into a corner. Initially, we acted as if nothing like this happened. Now we are saying that “yes, some things happened but they were reciprocal.” I do not know where these discussions may go tomorrow, but I think certain psychological steps may be taken on this issue.
[Duzel] What can be done?
[Vural] What would I do if I was in a position of authority? I would say: “All Armenians and members other minorities who lived within the current borders of Turkey at the time of the Ottoman Empire and who were subjected to deportation in one way or another–even if this deportation was to other regions of the Empire–will be admitted to Turkish citizenship automatically if they request it.” I do not know how many people would take up this offer, but, at a minimum, people who were driven out of their villages, towns, or cities by force would have been told: “The republic is granting you and people of your ancestry the right to return and to become citizens of this country.” People who apply would be granted this right.
[Duzel] So what would happen to the properties and assets the Armenians left behind during the deportation?
[Vural] These can be discussed. A fund may be established. The return of the properties and providing a full accounting for them is now very difficult, but a symbolic reparation is possible. What matters is that we show that we are not insensitive in the face of a painful situation, that we empathize with the situation, and that we are considering certain ways of compensation as a humanitarian responsibility. I would actually apologize. It is quite debatable under what conditions but [ellipsis]. Regardless, if someone is forced to leave this country [ellipsis]. I do not mean this only for Armenians. I also mean it with respect to people who left after the 6-7 September  incidents. I mean it with respect to our Greek citizens.
[Duzel] When you say “apologize,” what form of apology do you have in mind?
[Vural] These events are unbecoming for Turkey. We do not approve them. The people who were forced to leave this country have our sympathy. We see them as our brothers. If they wish, we are prepared to admit them to Turkish citizenship.
[Duzel] And we apologize for the pain we have caused them.
[Vural] Yes. For the pain [ellipsis]. Yes. These are the best steps that can be taken. This is what a state like ours should do.”