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Journalist's Murder Opens Window of Opportunity

Many in Turkey compare the mood following Hrant Dink's murder to 1999, when shared grief over a devastating earthquake saw Turkey open up to an old foe. From EurasiaNet. by Yigal Schleifer 2 February 2007 In the days immediately following the shocking murder of outspoken Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, many observers expressed hope that the tragedy could serve as a catalyst for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. Initial signals, however, show that a rapprochement still will not be easily achieved.

A 17-year-old youth with suspected ultranationalist ties admitted to the 19 January shooting death of Dink. The journalist’s 23 January funeral in Istanbul drew over 100,000 mourners, including – in what was seen as an encouraging sign – Armenia’s deputy foreign minister, Arman Kirakossian. The occasion marked the first high-level visit by an Armenian official to Turkey since relations between the two countries were cut off in 1993. Joining Kirakossian were several leaders of Armenian diaspora organizations – many making their first-ever visit to Turkey – as well as the archbishop of the Armenian Church of America, Khajag Barsamian.

Before leaving Turkey, Kirakossian reiterated his country’s desire to renew relations with Turkey without "any preconditions."

"It looks as if we have a window of opportunity here because of the sympathy that was created after [Dink’s] funeral, the new atmosphere that was created in the country and the fact that the government was quite resolute on the issue of investigating the murder," says Sami Kohen, a columnist with the daily Milliyet newspaper and a veteran observer of Turkish foreign policy.

Many in Turkey compared the aftermath of the murder of Dink, editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, to the time following a devastating earthquake in 1999, which saw historic rivals Turkey and Greece enter a period of rapprochement – brought together by the shared experience of the temblor’s destruction.

"We are hoping that a tragedy like Hrant’s loss will have the same effect," says Noyan Soyak, an Istanbul businessman who is vice chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council. "The will is there in both countries, but what the problem is nobody knows."

The initial replies from Ankara to the Armenian gesture have not been positive, though. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Kirakossian’s statements contained "nothing new," while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Yerevan should first reply to his previous offer to set up a joint commission to study the tragic events of 1915. Armenians contend that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide, while the Turkish government disputes the genocide assertion, saying that Armenians were largely victims of a vicious partisan struggle that raged during and after World War I. "They haven’t responded to my suggestion. These statements don’t show good will. Therefore, I don’t find their manner genuine," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.

Egemen Bagis, a parliamentarian with the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), says a foundation exists for rebuilding relations, but that Yerevan has rebuffed Turkey’s reconciliation gestures. "Armenia has always played a very cold, non-cooperating attitude with Turkey," Bagis says. "They should take advantage of Turkey's willingness for dialogue."

Some analysts in Turkey believe that, despite the tough talk, Ankara may be compelled to make some progress on the Armenia front. The murder of Dink, who was hauled into court numerous times under a controversial article in the Turkish penal code which makes it a crime to "insult" Turkish identity, has placed Turkey in the international spotlight. An improvement in relations with Yerevan would help ease some of the pressure Ankara is now facing on the freedom-of-speech issue.

In addition, the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote in the near future on a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. Any positive movement by Turkey regarding its relations with Armenia would likely assist its lobbying efforts to defeat the resolution. "Turkey can start a dialogue with Armenia this time by slightly tuning its attitude. And it must," political analyst Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in a recent column in the English-language Turkish Daily News. "Talks should start. A dialogue should begin. Prerequisites can be brought to the discussions later."

Milliyet’s Kohen suggests the Turkish-Greek model could serve as an example for fostering a dialogue between Ankara and Yerevan. In the Turkish-Greek case, thorny issues like territorial and historical disputes were initially set aside in order to get talks started. While Turkey and Greece have yet to resolve their territorial dispute, commercial and cultural relations between the two countries have taken off since 1999.

"You know that you have differences, but you enter into a dialogue, you get to being on speaking terms," says Kohen. "The problem right now is that [Turkey and Armenia] aren’t even on speaking terms, and there is a lot to talk about."

Analysts in Turkey believe that, ultimately, any move regarding relations with Armenia will be determined by domestic considerations. Turkey is heading towards parliamentary elections in November and the government, facing a rising wave of nationalism at home, will find it hard to make any dramatic moves on nationalist hot-button issues touching on the issues of Armenia and Cyprus.

Soyak, representative of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, believes opening the border with Armenia, closed since 1993, would be a step in the right direction, fostering goodwill and bolstering Turkish trade at the same time. [Turkey closed the border in 1993 as a gesture of support for Azerbaijan, its closest Turkic ally, which remains locked in dispute with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.] "The closed borders haven’t helped anybody," he says. "They haven’t helped the Azeris gain back territory. It hasn’t helped Turkey with fighting genocide resolutions around the world. We should open the borders and see what happens."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.
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