Involvement in regional conflicts such as the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia has whipped up nationalist fervor and obliterated space for advocates of peace and democracy.
By Garo Paylan
Mr. Paylan is a member of the Turkish Parliament.
- Oct. 15, 2020
ISTANBUL — A procession of cars filled with men waving the flag of Azerbaijan, honking and whistling drove through the Kumkapi area in Istanbul, which is home to the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul and many Armenian families. The car rally, on Sept. 28, was a provocation, a threat that filled my community, the tiny Armenian community — 60,000 out of 83 million — in Turkey with fear.
After a decades-long fitful truce, the conflict over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh — a breakaway Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan — between Azerbaijan and Armenia resumed last month, leading to a large military deployment, destruction of civilian centers and thousands of casualties.
In this war, Turkey strongly supports Azerbaijan, with which it shares ethnic bonds, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed global calls for a cease-fire. He has supported Azerbaijan with defense technology, drones and propaganda machinery.
This strategy is in line with Mr. Erdogan’s government’s decision to increase our country’s military footprint abroad — Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean — to enhance Turkey’s position as a regional power.
But there is also a direct correlation between the Turkish government’s desire to delve into conflicts abroad and the closing down of the democratic space at home.
I have witnessed and experienced this myself, as an Armenian from Turkey and as a member of the Turkish Parliament, representing the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir from the People’s Democratic Party, or the H.D.P., which brought together the country’s Kurds, leftists, environmentalists, feminists and minorities in opposition to Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or the A.K.P., and its rule.
Turkey’s involvement in regional conflicts has whipped up nationalist fervor, obliterated space for advocates of peace and democracy and deepened a sense of fear and precarity among the minority populations.
In the past few weeks, Turkish television networks controlled by the government and pro-government daily newspapers have adopted a hypernationalist tone, describing Armenia as the enemy, and giddily broadcasting and printing images of Armenian targets destroyed by Turkish drones. A month or so earlier, the Turkish government clashed with Greece and Cyprus over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. For a few weeks, Greece was the enemy.
On Sept. 27 I criticized Turkey’s warmongering in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on Twitter, arguing that Ankara should stop throwing gasoline on that fire, as there will be no winners in a war and both Armenian and Azeri people will lose. I urged my countrymen, “We must do what we can for a cease-fire.”
Because of my country’s authoritarian turn, my background and political leanings are enough to turn me into a target. On Oct. 5, the Eurasia Institute of Strategic Affairs, a nationalist outlet, published a full-page advertisement in support of Azerbaijan in Sabah, a newspaper with links to the Erdogan family. It was signed by former and current members of the Turkish Parliament from the A.K.P.
The advertisement in Sabah accused me of being pro-Armenian and of committing treason, calling on the Turkish judiciary and the Parliament to “fulfill its duty.” In the current Turkish political climate, it sounded like a call to remove my immunity — parliamentarians in Turkey have immunity from prosecution — so that I can be put on trial for my peacenik stance. Yet I have filed a legal complaint about the advertisers and continued to call for peace in the Caucasus.
As an Armenian from Turkey and a descendant of genocide survivors, I know very well the meaning of this message. In 2007, Hrant Dink, a celebrated and outspoken Armenian journalist from Istanbul, who edited the Agos newspaper, was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in a similar period of heightened nationalism. Mr. Dink once described Turkey’s Armenian minority as “living with the trepidations of a dove.”
The darkness that engulfed Turkey seems to widen every day. In the past few weeks, dozens of my friends from the H.D.P., including Ayhan Bilgen, the elected mayor of Kars, on the border with Armenia, have been arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges, ostensibly for organizing street protests in 2014 across the country. The protests were a response to the government’s nonchalance in the face of the siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani by the Islamic State.
Seven H.D.P. parliamentarians, including me, are being accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” in an indictment, and a prosecutor is preparing to ask the Parliament to remove our immunity, which will then allow the police to arrest us. This was already done to Selahattin Demirtas, a former co-chairman of the H.D.P., and thousands of other H.D.P. members and officials who are in jail. It’s not hard to see that the political intention here is to paralyze our party — the third largest in Turkey — and weaken the opposition.
Despite the recent threats, I was encouraged by thousands of people calling, writing and gathering signatures expressing their support for me. The other day, someone cleaning the streets shouted at me, “My deputy, if they take you away one day and you cannot see us, know that we are here.” And I do.
You may wonder why we continue to struggle for democracy in this country. Things were not always so dark in Turkey. A decade ago, Turkey was a relatively promising democracy, on path for European Union membership and calling for regional peace. It coined the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, and at one point, we were even close to normalization of relations with Armenia.
We founded the H.D.P. in that hopeful period in 2012. Our mission was to support the peace process with the Kurds and to introduce a pluralist voice in our country’s stifling political scene. I entered the Parliament in 2015, exactly a century after my great-grandfather was killed in the Armenian genocide. My goal was to help build a democracy strong enough, and vast enough, so that Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Alevis, minorities and women would live without any fear, as equal citizens.
I yearned and worked for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. When I met Armenians during my travels abroad, I argued that this struggle for the heart and soul of Turkey was important because only a democratic Turkey could face its past — and only then would our collective healing start.
But Turkey took a path toward authoritarianism after 2015, and our basic civil rights are on hold today. President Erdogan, once an advocate of European Union-led reforms and a peace process with the Kurds, over the past decade has established a one-man regime, moved away from democracy and entered a coalition with hard-right Turkish nationalists. Greater militarism has followed.
Militant nationalism and authoritarianism can neither solve our domestic problems nor help the region. A better choice for my country will always be to seek regional peace and cultivate better ties with our neighbors. Turkey must encourage Armenia and Azerbaijan to return to peace talks and facilitate a lasting settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
On Saturday, Russia, which has a defense agreement with Armenia and good relations with Azerbaijan, brokered a cease-fire between the two countries. This highlighted Russia’s role in the region and has left Turkey out of the diplomatic game. If President Erdogan wants to be relevant, he should stop inflaming tensions in the Caucasus and support the cease-fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
But I am not naïve, and I know that only a democratic Turkey can help stabilize its region and act as a responsible member of the international community. That is why I will not remain silent in the face of threats and will keep on fighting for democracy here and peace abroad.
Garo Paylan is a member of the Turkish Parliament from the People’s Democratic Party.
Correction: Oct. 15, 2020
An earlier version of this article misstated the region that includes Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is the Caucasus, not Caucuses.