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Armenia/Turkey: Journalist's Killing Dampens Optimism Of Breakthrough

(RFE/RL) January 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For decades, the month of April has been a time for grieving by Armenians and their diaspora, with routine commemorations marking the onset of the mass killings of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

But following the January 19 assassination in Istanbul of prominent Turkish-Armenian writer and editor Hrant Dink, January too has assumed significance.

Death Of Opportunity

The death of the 53-year-old Dink, who was gunned down on the steps of the editorial office of his newspaper "Agos," is more than simply a tragic killing.

Its significance lies, first, in its timing. The killing coincided with a new sense of optimism, as a significant segment of opinion on both the Turkish and Armenian sides appeared to be poised for a breakthrough in the diplomatic deadlock between Ankara and Yerevan.

This most recent initiative included a new consideration of measures aimed at easing Turkey's longstanding closure of its borders with Armenia and seeking to move each country closer to formal diplomatic relations.

Ironically, there has been a new impetus for reconsidering possible trade relations with Armenia among the most unlikely of circles -- the senior Turkish military leadership.

That impetus has stemmed, first, from a realization in Ankara that the blockade and embargo imposed on Armenia in 1993 in order both to demonstrate solidarity with Azerbaijan and to pressure the Armenian government over Nagorno-Karabakh have failed.
The slow pace of negotiations on finding a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has limited Turkish policy.

Moreover, there was a related recognition that Turkish foreign policy has become far too limited and hostage to Azerbaijan, with little room for innovation and even less for Ankara to seek new policy options.

Those limitations on Turkish policy were further enhanced by the stalemate in mediation talks aimed at negotiating a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. That stalemate compounded mounting Turkish frustration over the burden of subordinating its strategic approach to the region to serving Azerbaijani interests, rather than to meeting Turkish needs.

Additionally, this impetus came in response to the twin threats posed by the rise of a Kurdish proto-state in northern Iraq and a resurgence of Kurdish nationalism in the eastern regions of Turkey.

Thus, opening the Turkish border with Armenia was seen as an effective way to stabilize and economically develop the Kurdish-populated areas along the Turkish-Armenian border. And given the long-stated Armenian offer of normal diplomatic relations without preconditions, there was a convergence of interests between Turkish military and commercial interests, with each sensing an advantage in forging economic ties with Armenia.

Forward Thinking

The killing of Dink is also significant in that it reflects a much deeper struggle under way in Turkey today that reflects a dynamic reassessment of both Turkish identity and Turkish secularism. Moreover, the past few years have seen profound shifts in public opinion in Turkey as debate and discourse have become polarizedby conflicting visions of Turkey's strategic orientation.

Within this deeper context of internal change, Dink played an important role in contributing to the debate about Turkey's future orientation.As a strong advocate of Turkish membership in the European Union, Dink represented the Western-looking segment of the Turkish political and intellectual elite.

Dink's death has Armenians mourning (epa)

As with the bilingual nature of the Armenian and Turkish newspaper that he edited, Dink personified the duality of Turkish identity -- seeing himself as much Turkish as Armenian and declaring his commitment to improving relations between Turks and Armenians. Dink once broke down during an interview with AP, decrying what he termed as the hatred that some Turks held for him, adding that he could not stay in a country where he was unwanted.
Dink's life as a Turkish citizen reveals as much about the internal changes taking place in Turkey today as does his death.

In this respect, the murder of Dink was more than simply a fatal attack on an ethnic Armenian: it was the killing of a prominent Turkish citizen. And Dink's life as a Turkish citizen reveals as much about the internal changes taking place in Turkey today as does his death.

Specifically, Dink was individually engaged in his own contribution to the debate over Turkey's future, boldly asserting the historical veracity of the "Armenian genocide" in the face of threats and intimidation. As part of this effort, he was convicted in 2005 of "insulting Turkish identity" on the basis of an article in which he wrote of the 1915 genocide of Ottoman Armenians, and was given a six-month suspended sentence in October 2005 for his boldness.

Both his persecution and prosecution demonstrate the difficult choices facing Turkey on its road to EU membership, well beyond the confines of the Armenia issue.

Chance For Change

However, as tragic as the murder was, it may nonetheless present a new opportunity for Turkey to recognize the futility of the so-called "taboo" on such issues as the Kurdish question and the Armenian genocide. Addressing these two core issues represents more than a question of Turkey confronting with its past, but would actually serve to define Turkey's future.

Judging by the swift and strident official reaction to the murder, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemning the killing as a "bullet fired against free speech and democracy," there is some hope that Dink may ultimately achieve more in death to change Turkey from within than he could ever have accomplished in his lifetime.

But the challenge to transform this tragedy into a true turning point for Turkey hinges on the need for Ankara to adopt a new farsighted approach toward both Turkey's past and its future.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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