By Levon Marashlian
Virtually never do Turks and Armenians find common ground on anything. But rare glimmers of possible agreement could be detected in the media between January and March 1990. Hurriyet, Turkey’s largest daily paper, repeated Turkish writer Mehmet Ali Birand’s view in Milliyet, that the crisis in Azerbaijan and Armenia is “not” a “war between Christians and Muslims.” Echoing this accurate assessment, Gulfem Aslan of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) stated on CNN World Report that “this is not a religious conflict as related by some western circles.” Aslan was apparently referring to reports in western media. It is significant that major Armenian organizations and spokesmen also have been emphasizing to western media that it is wrong to characterize this as a Christian-Muslim conflict.
Therefore, it was disappointing to read that according to Hurriyet, Birand “adds that the Armenians are manipulating the situation very well,” and “gaining the sympathy of the West by saying they are being massacred by Muslims of Turkic origin.” Birand charged that if “there is a religious element, it is the Armenian church, backed by Americans and Europeans of Armenian origin.” The same charge was leveled in the Los Angeles Times by Bulent Basol, vice-president of the California chapter of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations (ATAA), who wrote that this “is not a religious war as Armenians would like the public to believe.”
That these charges are wrong is best demonstrated by the joint declaration issued in Los Angeles by both the Etchmiadzin and Antelias branches of the Armenian Church and the Islamic Center of Southern California and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The declaration reaffirmed Armenian-Muslim harmony and stressed that the Karabagh issue “is not based on religious difference.”
Turning a point of agreement on a sensitive topic into a fabricated disagreement is counterproductive because Turks are missing a chance to highlight what may be a mutually fortuitous foothold, a small piece of common ground between themselves and Armenians. Clarifying the points on which Armenians and Turks agree and disagree, and determining whether simple ignorance or malicious intent is impelling Turkish commentators to make the false accusation concerning religion, will shed light on motivations and will show the connection between public opinion and Armenian-Turkish relations moving onto stable ground.
“This is a war for land,” wrote Basol of the ATAA. This, too, Armenians agree with – except their explanation would add socio-economic causes and would include the fact that Armenians had been living there for 1,200 years before Turks from Central Asia first invaded and occupied the area. Basol asserted that Karabagh “has never been ruled” by Armenians, that they “were sent there” by the Russians to augment the “Christian population of this Muslim-dominated” region. This revealed a gross ignorance of elemental history and, more seriously, exposed what appears to be a calculated desire in certain Turkish circles to inject religious overtones. Their target is clear. But given the Armenian people’s long tradition of peaceful coexistence among Arabs and Iranians, the Middle Eastern peoples south of Anatolia and Transcaucasia should be able to see through the nefarious attempt by some Turks to manipulate Muslim opinion.
“Armenians started it,” wrote Basol. Again Armenians would agree, if, rather than centuries of oppression by Turkic invaders and their descendants, we take as a starting point the massive Armenian demonstrations in February 1988. But according to Hurriyet, Birand “writes that it all began in the summer of 1987 when the Armenians rose against the Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabagh. They rounded up 200,000 Azerbaijani Turks and beat them.” According to TASS and virtually the entire international media, however, the sequence of events was as follows: Armenians rose up in Nagorno-Karabagh in February 1988, and approximately 160,000 Azerbaijanis fled or were forced to leave Armenia after the February massacre of Armenians in Sumgait, and after there began a process to drive out Armenians from Azerbaijan – which resulted in approximately 200,000 Armenians fleeing or being forced out.
Since then there has been another pogrom against Armenians, in Baku, a fact courageously acknowledged by moderate Azeri scholar Gassan Guseinov, on ABC’s Nightline program, as “the terrible massacres of Armenians in Azerbaijan.” Speaking from Moscow, Guseinov explained that “the local Azerbaijani government, the local police, was absolutely inefficient to stop the massacre of Armenians in Baku.” Although he made a futile attempt to absolve leaders of the Azerbaijani Popular Front by claiming they had “condemned” those massacres, the central point for consideration here is that neither Guseinov the Azeri nor any third-party source has charged Armenians with such atrocities. It is this absence of international substantiation which renders hollow Turkish columnist Oktay Eksi’s observation in Hurriyet that a BBC report of “Azerbaijanis burning a pregnant woman to death” is “probably correct but our certainty that Armenians committed equally savage murders is equally correct.” In contrast, the TRT report made no such inference and in fact showed the funeral of an Armenian victim, rather than the funeral of an Azerbaijani.
Notwithstanding TRT’s relatively mild segment, disinformation is routine in Turkish media. A recent Bayrak TV (Cyprus) report on CNN was typical: “With the intervention of the Red Army” in Baku, “all eyes turned to Armenia and Azerbaijan.” Cypriot Turks rallied “in condemnation of the brutal massacres there,” held a ceremony at “the martyrs monument” in Cyprus, and protested to the UN that “the recent disturbances” have “shown that even today the civilized communities are not immune to psychological warfare” and that “the scenario was prepared long ago and the people of Azerbaijan were provoked to react to defend their lands.”
Such pharisaic fodder has fueled the failure of many American reporters to stress the important distinction between indisputable atrocities, and rumors of isolated excesses in the heat of battlebetween Azeri pogroms against old women, and Armenians killing Azeris in self-defense or in military clashes. Particularly troubling is that some U.S. news agencies may be witting or unwitting accomplices to Azeri disinformation. This possibility was driven home by Michael Parks in a Los Angeles Time story on Soviet government charges filed against Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
By contributing to blurring the distinction between barbarity and battle, Azeri and Turkish spokesmen are performing a disservice to Turkic peoples. They are enabling a minority of barbaric individuals to perpetuate a historically deep-rooted stigma which still hangs like an albatross around Turkish necks. Nothing would do more to dispel this poor image than making progress in Armenian-Turkish relations – on the 1915 Genocide issue as well as on the 1990’s Karabagh crisis.
A first step toward this long-term goal could be to cultivate the healthy anti-Pan Turanist sentiments expressed in a recent Hurriyet editorial entitled “Influence Mightier than Sword” – specifically, the suggestion that “Turkey should offer its good influence on the Azerbaijanis toward a peaceful solution of the program without further bloodshed.” To carry out this salutary role, which would not go unnoticed by moderate Armenians if it proved sincere, an accurate understanding of both the Azeri and Armenian positions is essential. Armenian public opinion is well aware of Turkish positions since Armenian newspapers regularly (and accurately) present articles and views found in the Turkish press. One recent example is a Milliyet interview with Ayaz Mutalibov, first secretary of Azerbaijan communist party presented in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation organ, Asbarez. Another example is Hamid Kherishi’s (leader of Azerbaijan Popular Front) outlook, published in Le Monde, and translated in the independent Armenian weekly California Courier. Turkish public opinion, on the other hand, is denied exposure to Armenian views. Perhaps Turkish media someday will have the courage to offer the Turkish public, to accept or reject, access to Armenian perspectives as articulated in Armenian media.
The Armenian position on the current crisis is clear. The urge to unite Karabagh with Armenia is the direct result of on-going economic and cultural discrimination. For seven decades Azeri authorities have been trying to keep the Armenians economically impoverished and culturally suppressed, in order to assimilate them or drive them out. The same policy has succeeded in nearby Nakhichevan. In 1921 the Armenian population there was 40%, today virtually 0%. The policy is a continuing threat in Karabagh. In 1921 Armenians were 95%, today 83%.
Over 50 million Turkic peoples, enjoying control over vast and fertile territories extending from the Aegean to the Caspian, are surrounding four million Armenians who maintain a toe-hold on a rocky, land-locked fragment of a region where their presence antedates that of the Turks. Turks are in a secure enough position to demonstrate a generosity which would be unprecedented in human history. The public relations potential is equally unprecedented. Of course it would be naive for Armenians to think such an auspicious act is probable in the near future. But it is equally naive for Turks to think their grim image is going to be easily polished in the near future.
Since Turks and Armenians agree that this is not a religious issue, perhaps in time they will agree that it is a human rights case based on self-determination. Perhaps then, all sides may agree that the only equitable and mutually beneficial solution is a boundary change based on compromise.