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NY Times: Courting Europe, Turkey Tries Some Soul-Cleansing

Last Taboo Amid democratic reforms, Turks have been confronting their past, including the 1915 massacres of Armenians.


Published: December 4, 2005

VAN, Turkey

THE 10th-century Akhtamar Church, its stone facade alive with vivid images of birds, animals, saints and warriors, dominates a small island just off the southern shore of Lake Van. For nearly a millennium, this spectacular Armenian monument was a seat of great religious and political power.

Then the Ottoman Empire expelled and wiped away the Armenian population here in the massacres of 1915, and the church fell into near ruin. Its condition symbolized the abysmal relations between many Armenians, who believe their ancestors were victims of genocide in 1915, and the Turkish Republic, which rejects that claim.

This fall, at Turkish government expense, restoration workers began repairing the church. They have cleaned the exterior and replaced the collapsed roof, and plan to return next summer to work on the interior.

Although this is an act of historical preservation and tourism promotion, it also reflects something much larger. To the horror of conservative nationalists, there is a new sense of freedom taking hold in Turkey. The government is promoting democratic reforms that will one day, it hopes, allow Turkey to join the European Union. In the process, old taboos, like admitting the possibility that the Christian Armenians were the victims of genocide, are falling.

Whether steps like restoring the Akhtamar church will ease Turkey’s entry in the European Union, however, is far from certain.

In Europe, resistance to Turkish membership has in fact been growing. It was one reason that voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the union’s draft constitution last spring. A magazine poll a year ago found that French opposition to Turkey’s entry had risen to 72 percent, from 58 percent two years earlier. More recent polls suggest that Europe’s resistance has not abated. French officials have promised a referendum on any plan to approve Turkish entry into the European Union.

Here in Turkey, even as the church reconstruction was under way, a court was giving Hrant Dink, editor of a newspaper for Istanbul’s Armenian community, a suspended prison term for making comments “disrespectful to our Turkish ancestors.” A prosecutor has indicted Turkey’s leading novelist, Orhan Pamuk, on similar charges, and several other such cases are pending.

To outsiders, it sometimes seems that Turks cannot decide whether they want to embrace the standards of human rights and free speech that the European Union demands of its members.

In fact, however, many Turks say they fervently want their country to meet those standards. So, on most days, does the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But defenders of the old order, including prosecutors, judges and officials with influence in the army and bureaucracy, fear that steps to open Turkish society will weaken national unity, and are trying to suppress them.

Nationalists have prevented the government from reopening Turkey’s land border with Armenia, and have tried to prevent serious investigations into incidents like a recent bombing in the southeastern province of Hakkari, which was made to look like the work of Kurdish terrorists but turned out to have been carried out by police agents.

Tension within Turkey’s political class is intensifying as citizens begin voicing opinions that have long been anathema.

In September, for example, a group of historians and other academics, most of them Turkish, met in Istanbul to challenge the taboo on suggesting that the Ottoman regime committed brutal crimes, perhaps even genocide, in 1915. It turned out to be a historic conference on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians.

The event had been postponed twice, once after Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said it would constitute a “stab in the back” to Turkey and again after a judge banned two universities from playing host to it. It was finally held at a third university.

Participants had to walk through a gantlet of angry protesters, but once they found their seats, and began to speak, they observed no limits to their debate. Their papers had titles like “What the World Knows but Turkey Does Not” and “The Roots of a Taboo: The Historical-Psychological Suffocation of Turkish Public Opinion on the Armenian Problem.”

The conference produced an avalanche of news coverage and led to weeks of analysis. Some columnists and opinion-makers objected to parts of what they heard, but nearly all welcomed the breakthrough to open debate on this painful topic.

“I was there, and it felt like we were making history, like something incredible had suddenly happened,” said Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the mass-market daily Sabah. “Everyone was conscious of it. This is not a taboo anymore.”

The response to the conference suggests that other longstanding taboos may also be ripe for challenge. If people here can now argue freely that the Ottomans were guilty of genocide in 1915, it may not be long before they promote other long-suppressed ideas like Kurdish nationalism, with which some Europeans sympathize, or political Islam, which nearly all of them detest.

The recent rioting in France in alienated Algerian immigrant communities, however, raises new questions about Europe’s willingness to accept Turkey’s application in any event. The anti-immigrant French leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, for example, was quick to use the riots as a further argument for not admitting “another 75 million Muslims” into Europe.

It could easily be 10 years or longer before Turkey is ready to join the European Union, and this fall’s riots may well be forgotten by then. Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he was not worried by the impact of unrest like this.

“The Turks responded to those riots in a very interesting way, saying that they show how urgent it is to give Muslims in Europe a sense of belonging, and that admitting Turkey to the E.U. would be a way to do that,” he said. “Plenty of politicians in Europe, like Tony Blair, are saying the same thing.”

“I do have another worry, though,” Mr. Taspinar said, “and that is terrorism.” If there is another attack in Europe that is linked to Al Qaeda, he said, “then I think the balance of opinion could turn against Turkey. Europeans might conclude that they don’t want the E.U. to have a border with Iran, Iraq and Syria, which is what admitting Turkey would mean. In that scenario, even if the Turks do everything right, developments over which they have no control could prevent them from joining.”

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