Ever since the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict turned into a war between Ankara-backed Azerbaijan and the Armenian armed forces, Armenians living in Turkey have worried about the resurgence of old demons.
Sitting upstairs in a cafe on Istiklal, the iconic pedestrian avenue in central Istanbul, Murad Mihçi speaks in a low voice, and furtively surveys the surroundings. “I have rarely seen such a violent period”, blows this Armenian, one of the 60,000 who live in Turkey. “Since the war has started again, I have been receiving death threats for my Twitter posts.” Ankara’s full support for Azerbaijan struggling for the past fortnight with the Armenian forces controlling le Haut-Karabakh, is the occasion for an outbreak of nationalist discourse in Turkey. And the Turkish Armenians are on the front lines.
“We are worried, worried, worried”, hammers Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian bilingual newspaper Close. He is alarmed at a return to the dark years for his community. “When nationalist rhetoric is unleashed, there are usually incidents”, he recalls. The newspaper’s premises, deserted due to the pandemic, are protected. Outside, a few policemen are watching the surroundings.
For thirty years of the conflict in Karabakh, Turkey has chosen its camp. The propaganda hammers home the message: the Azeris and the Turks are “one nation and two states”. The two countries maintain close economic, political and military relations, and share the demonization of an age-old enemy: the Armenians. “In the past, there have been much worse times. We are afraid to come back ”, explains Danzikyan.
The specter of the genocide of 1915 (1.2 million Armenians exterminated by the ruling “Young Turks” party) still hangs over the descendants of the survivors who remained in Turkey. Within a century, they also survived the organized pogrom of 1955, the tensions in the 60s and 80s and finally, in the 90s, the First Karabakh War, when Turkish and Azeri nationalists came together. The latter continue to deny the genocide of 1915 and denounce real or supposed massacres perpetrated by the Armenians during the First World War and in Karabakh.
The accession to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003 had, however, brought hope. His government was reforming the country, which opened up a little to its minorities. In 2007, the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, founder ofClose and advocate of reconciliation between enemy brethren, shook the land. 100,000 people marched through Istanbul chanting: “We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Armenians.” The Kurdish political movement undertook to ask forgiveness for the genocide. The Armenian Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir, in the south-east of the country, was rebuilt and reopened for worship in 2011. Between 2013 and 2015, the ceasefire between the state and the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK freed the wildest hopes. “It was a good period for civil society, we could breathe”, recalls Mihçi, himself an Armenian socialist activist and member of the pro-Kurdish HDP party.
But in 2015, the end of the ceasefire radically changed the political climate. “This period of peace and hope was ultimately only a parenthesis”, summarizes Mihçi. The Armenians are being discreet while the degradation of churches, threats and invective are on the rise. According to the Hrant-Dink foundation, created after the journalist’s assassination, Armenians were the target of 803 racist attacks in the media in 2019. Since the resumption of fighting in Karabakh on September 27, convoys of nationalist militants displaying Turkish and Azerbaijani flags paraded in several districts of Istanbul where Armenians live. The authorities let it happen.
Garo Paylan, Armenian deputy of the HDP, has been named and publicly designated as “traitor” by a think tank close to power. His fault is to have said that this war would only result in losers. A few days later, he hit the nail on the head: “There are no winners in war, nor losers in peace.”
“Faced with threats, we must continue to fight”, Mihçi wishes. Recalling that Armenians, Turks and Azeris have a lot in common, he denounces the role of imperialist powers such as Turkey, Russia and Israel (which arms Baku) in the conflict in Karabakh. “They exploit the situation in the Caucasus to the detriment of the peoples who are in the middle”, he said before saluting the Azerbaijani left and the calls for peace it has launched.