Breaking the Taboo


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The controversy over a conference on the fate of the Ottoman Empire's Armenians has once again highlighted the difficulties Turkey faces in pulling its legal and institutional frameworks into line ahead of EU membership talks.

With a group of lawyers first successfully gaining an injunction halting the September 23-25 conference - and then deciding to prosecute the prime minister after he had condemned their action - clearly there are some major problems within the country's current legal structures. What concerns many now is what this may mean for Turkey's progress in reform, with plenty of thorny issues on the agenda should the country begin EU accession talks on schedule on October 3.

The conference on Ottoman Armenians at Istanbul's Bilgi University last week came as something of a first, as it saw Turkish academics debate arguments both for and against describing what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as a "genocide".

The fact that such a sensitive and taboo subject was being debated in Turkey at all raised more than a little interest across Europe, where pressure from the Armenian diaspora has led to "genocide recognition" resolutions in a number of national parliaments.

Back in Turkey, it was no surprise that the occasion triggered a predictable amount of resistance. What was intended to be a positive initiative ended up drawing negative attention from the international press at first, thanks largely to the fact that the conference had already been cancelled twice due to local opposition.

Exploring the issue was always going to be tricky, particularly with the battle lines drawn between those who believe that the Ottoman Turks were responsible for the extermination of 1.5m Ottoman Armenians, and those who vehemently deny this version of events.

The conference was supposed to have taken place in May, but was then postponed after the justice minister, Cemil Cicek, joined a chorus of opposition and said the academics attending were a "stab in the back" for Turkey.

Reset for September, the conference was then once again in trouble when the Istanbul Administrative Court decided to suspend the gathering at the last minute, after a group of nationalist lawyers sought an injunction against it being held.

But other local lawyers retorted that this legal intervention, which prevented the conference being held at Istanbul's prestigious Sabanci and Bosphorus universities, had no legal basis.

"An administrative court cannot poke its nose into the organisation of a conference," Ulku Azrak, professor of administrative law at Marmara University claimed. "The decision by the Istanbul court is a political decision. If the judiciary makes a mistake then it will not only be a judicial mistake, it will be a political mistake too."

European and Turkish politicians were the first to endorse the view.

"I never approved the decision suspending the conference", Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "because I want a Turkey in which freedoms are experienced in a broad way."

The court's decision certainly put the government in an awkward position given that it occurred just one week before the scheduled opening of negotiations on EU accession and with Brussels particularly sensitive to any initiatives that grate with European norms - particularly given disagreement in many European capitals over whether Turkey should start those talks at all, or what kind of outcomes from the talks should be allowed.

Yet there was then a counter move over the conference within Turkey itself. Bilgi University stepped forward to hold the gathering, as the legal injunction only prevented it from being held at Sabanci and Bosphorus universities. While ultranationalists did turn up to throw eggs and tomatoes, they failed to disrupt the event, which was then widely supported by the media, politicians and other academics. Most Armenian diaspora organisations also welcomed the event.

However, much to Ankara's annoyance, despite this, on September 28, the European Parliament endorsed a resolution calling on Turkey to recognise the "genocide" of the Ottoman Armenians, with this being made a condition for EU membership - although this has no binding force on EU leaders.

Meanwhile, Turkey's legal system remains under a critical spotlight. The conference on Ottoman Armenians was but one trigger for fresh scrutiny too, with the court case against internationally renowned author Orhan Pamuk - also for remarks about the Armenian issue - causing a particular stir amongst human rights activists.

Though many analysts expect the case against him to be dropped in the face of EU pressure before it comes to trial in December, the fact that the writer could have been taken to court in the first place over the issue is concerning, to say the least.

These two cases also underline for many a real disconnect between certain elements of the legal system and the political realities of the day in Turkey.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn recently pointed to resistance from some members of Turkey's judiciary towards critical reforms, particularly those with reference to human rights. Justice Minister Cicek's remarks on the Armenian conference can be judged within this context.

Yet while some analysts believe that Turkey's criminal justice and judicial system is still prone to nationalist ideology, others point to the constitution itself as being problematic. Although greatly revised since it was first drawn up, today's constitution came into force following the military coup in 1980 - a period of great and violent internal turmoil. The spirit of the original document, some analysts believe, remains - and has been difficult to change.

But to define the issue as one confined to the legal system and the constitution would also be a distortion. Apart from Cyprus and the Kurds, the Armenian issue ranks as the most sensitive topic around for many contemporary Turks. Being obliged by members of the international community to accept that one's ancestors were responsible for the deaths of between 1m and 1.5m of their fellow citizens would make any society shudder. At the same time, many Turks see the issue as one of double standards, as the official line in Ankara for many years has been to suggest that as many Turks as Armenians were killed at the time in chaotic fighting. The debate, as usually presented in Turkey, therefore appears to exclude Turkish suffering and privilege Armenian.

But this could not dent the symbolism of the conference. That Turkey could hold such an event on such a taboo subject in 2005 would have surprised most analysts a few years ago. Now Ankara has approached Yerevan to set up a joint Turkish-Armenian commission, symbolising yet another positive step in resolving their thorny past.

Nevertheless, expelling deeply engrained sensitivities is likely to take time and effort. More than a conference will be needed to this end.

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