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Turkish Friendship Offering To Armenia Riles Erdogan

  • Robert Tait

The still-incomplete "peace and brotherhood" monument in Kars during construction in April 2009

The still-incomplete "peace and brotherhood" monument in Kars during construction in April 2009

It was meant as a symbol of friendship that would help to heal the wounds of a long history of bloodshed, bitterness, and recrimination between Turkey and Armenia.

Instead, an imposing monument in the eastern Turkish city of Kars near the two countries' border threatens to become yet another victim of their tortured relations after incurring the wrath of Turkey's mercurial prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In a visit to Kars on January 8, Erdogan showed emphatically that he was unimpressed by the sculpture's subliminal message of peace by denouncing it as a "freak" and calling for its demolition. The prime minister, a former Islamist, voiced particular display that the towering structure threatened to overshadow the shrine of Hasan Harakani, a revered 11th-century Muslim figure.

"They have put a freak near the shrine," "Hurriyet" quoted Erdogan as saying. "They have erected something weird. The municipality will turn that place into a nice park."

The target of Erdogan's ire was a 35-meter stone structure -- as yet unfinished -- by a prominent Turkish artist, Mehmet Aksoy. Featuring a divided human figure one half of which extends a hand to the other half, it is supposed to symbolize efforts to end a century of enmity between Turkey and Armenia.

The prime minister's comments have since been played down by his culture minister, Ertugrul Gunay, who said the statue would not be pulled down.

The sculpture, called the Statue of Humanity, was commissioned at a time when the two countries were involved in intensive talks aimed at overcoming hostilities fueled by allegations that the mass killings and deportations of Armenians by Ottoman forces in the World War I era constituted genocide.

But it has been bitterly criticized by Turkish nationalists as a craven concession to the Armenia genocide accusations, which Turkey has long denied.

Meanwhile, a 2009 protocol agreement intended to open the border between the two neighbors has gone un-ratified by both countries amid Turkish demands that Armenia forces withdraw from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Ankara's close ally.

Increasing Alienation

Cengiz Aktar, a professor of politics at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University who has been closely involved in civic efforts to ease Turkish-Armenian divisions, says Erdogan's outburst risks further alienating the government in Yerevan.

"I don't think it will have any bearing on the burgeoning relations between Turkish and Armenian civil societies," Aktar says. "The only effect it might have is on the government of Armenia, who will probably see yet another unfriendly attitude by the government of Mr Erdogan."

Yet despite the vehemence of Erdogan's tone, some observers say it will have little effect on the prospects for a long-term rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan.

Artak Shakarian, an Armenian political analyst and specialist on Turkey, believes the comments were aimed at wooing the Turkish nationalist vote in an forthcoming general election in June, when Erdogan will be running for a third term.

"Nationalists won in Igdir [the province neighboring Kars] in the latest elections. So nationalist votes there have quite a large share and Turkey is going to have parliamentary elections in a few months. Therefore Erdogan has an objective to gain the local nationalist votes," Shakarian says. "So this expression is likely to be connected with the upcoming parliamentary elections, in which playing on nationalist sentiments, Erdogan is trying to extend his influence to this constituency. Erdogan’s words do not have such an anti-Armenian subtext as they are dictated by pre-election nationalist motives."

Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, Armenia country director at the Eurasia Foundation, even goes as far as agreeing with Erdogan's critique of the Kars statute, saying it is typical of sub-standard memorials to the Turkish-Armenian conflict built over the years.

"I have seen myself that monument [and] I fully agree with Mr. Erdogan," Ter-Gabrielyan says. "That's a horrible construct and we know that many horrible constructs have been erected, both in Turkey and Armenia and it would be great if there was perhaps some kind of joint commission created which would evaluate the aesthetical, architectural and environmental significance of the monuments and buildings that are being constructed in eastern Turkey and today's Armenia."

Erdogan Attitude

The monument was commissioned by a former mayor of Kars -- since ousted in an election by a member of Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party -- who strongly favored reestablishing formal Turkish-Armenian ties, severed since Armenia's 1994 war with Azerbaijan.

However, Ter-Gabrielyan says neither the sculpture nor the attitudes of political figures like Erdogan hold the key to resuming ties.

"As a case of a monument, for me that's not the case," Ter-Gabrielyan says. "And also, if you take the story about the positive mayor of Kars and the current mayor of Kars who the rumor goes, is not that positive about rapprochement, this issue of rapprochement cannot happen based on the personalities' positive attitude. It has to happen based on the national interest of both countries. In that respect, Mr Erdogan is free to do anything he considers important to better his country. So far, he's not doing anything particularly against the possibility of rapprochement."

Indeed, the prime minister's remarks may hold more significance for Turkish domestic politics than for prospects of reconciliation with Armenia, says Cengiz Aktar, who believes they show Erdogan becoming increasingly authoritarian and weary after eight years in power.

"I don't think he has even thought of this aspect [ties with Armenia]. He just decided to speak his mind and it is very unfortunate because first, it is not up to the prime minister to tell what is good and what is bad in art," Aktar says. "And two, the way he described the sculpture and the way he kind of ordered its destruction, is extremely worrisome, not because of the sculpture per se but also regarding his mood. After eight years in power he really now gives the impression that he is very, very tired."

RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report