In his interview to Armenian News-NEWS.am, Dr. Mensur Akgun, director of Istanbul-based GPoT think tank, shares his views on Armenian-Turkish relations and the foreign policy agenda of Turkey – echoes of the presidential elections in France, situation over Syria, and Kurdish unrest. In the conclusion, Dr. Akgun, who was invited to Yerevan in the framework of Turkish delegation under the USAID-backed Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement project, talks about long-term effects of popular diplomacy, in the virtual absence of official contacts.
Do you think that the presidential elections in France were so closely followed in Turkey only for the Genocide bill?
It has been on the agenda for obvious reasons. Firstly, it is Sarkozy's identification of Turkey. In 2007 election campaign he publicly claimed that Turkey was not European. The second reason was the recent row between France and Turkey over the Genocide denial bill. Turks were rather happy for Hollande as a new president for all these reasons. But this doesn't necessarily mean this was the only reason. The basic one is very much related to the Turkey's EU membership candidacy as a Muslim country. Probably France would not endorse the denial bill because of the Constitutional Council's decision in February. But Turkey is changing, and the society understands that we need to commemorate the 1915 together with the others. I hope this will soon translate into politics as well.
The leaders of Turkish community opposed to recognition initiatives in Bulgaria, but not in Germany. What makes these two cases different?
In Germany, such initiatives have not been endorsed, as far I know. If there is any attempt, Turkish Diaspora can unite against that bill, but I personally don't want to see the Turkish community in Germany united against such a bill. It has been for quite some time that we do not use the term «so-called genocide» in Turkey. But during the French denial bill period, all the papers were calling the genocide «so-called». It doesn't help us at all, and I'm not sure whether it will help you in any way. Zero-sum mentality will not be helpful.
What is the main political agenda today for the Turkish Diaspora?
They are of course very much indeed like the Greek or Jewish, or any other Diaspora. Any Diaspora is very much emotionally attached to its homeland, and opened to manipulations by the homeland. From time to time they can develop initiatives of their own, and topple initiatives of their homeland. As an example, you may remember Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan visiting Armenian Diaspora in America in 2009. He was heavily criticized for the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. It is more or less the same with Turkey. Sometimes you find more nationalist elements living abroad than in Turkey. When it comes to the solution of Cyprus problem, Armenian-Turkish relations, Genocide issue, Kurdish problem, they can take much more nationalist position than Turks living in Turkey. Like elsewhere, there is pluralism among Diaspora organizations. You can unite them in certain areas, but not all of them. They can unite in advocating Turkish causes but it does not necessarily mean they are always of the same opinion.
Could Turkey play a role in moderating Syrian conflict alone or with the Western engagement?
Not much actually, unless of course you are intervening directly. We are just hoping that the Annan plan will function, Syrian regime will come to its senses and will not continue with the atrocities and will democratize itself. But the best option for all the parties, and Assad himself, would be to leave the power and probably go to Moscow, bargaining for its own and his family’s safety. If he can do that, people can probably let him go. In that case we would have incremental change rather than bloodshed that we saw recently. As for Western efforts, there should be political will, and I don't see it among the Americans and the Europeans. Syria does not possess oil and we don't have French president running for the second term and believing that bombing Syria will assist him.
Do you think that Turkey considers Balkans and its Muslim population as one of its areas of influence?
There is some sort of solidarity, but I don't think Turkey is trying to ally with Balkan Muslims against Greece, for instance. Turkey attempts to contribute to the reconstruction and the stability of the Balkans, they are bringing together Serbs and Bosnians, playing a role in the reconciliation in Kosovo. I don't think that the intention is to construct a new type of Ottoman Empire in the region.
Could there be any dynamics in the relations between Iran and Turkey after the presidential elections in Iran in 2013?
Much will depend on the attitude of Iran in Syria and Iraq, as well as the development of the nuclear program of Iran. If Turkey is convinced that the entire endeavor was to build a nuclear weapon, than there will be disappointment, and the relations can deteriorate. But they are trying to maintain them at the current level because of economic relations. They don't want to have an open confrontation. The competition in the region is not healthy, and Turkey is trying to contribute to the stability in the Middle East. The sectarian division in the region will not really help Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
Do you think that the military action in Kurdistan can resume after the situation in Syria gets ruled out?
Yes, but I think it can only be with true democratization. They should lay down their arms and they should not use force as an instrument of policy. There are various foreign factors, but this is basically an indigenous problem. The other factors include what is going on in Syria and Iraq, but generally we have to settle our own problem in our own country.
Do you believe in the viability of independence claims of Iraqi Kurdistan?
It may have some implications if this declared intention to gain independence will be advanced. If it comes by default, say, with the collapse of Iraq, then nobody can predict any future development.
Are the relations with Russia supposed to stay as they are under the presidency of Vladimir Putin?
I do not see any problems in today's bilateral relations. When it comes to regional issues, Turks and Russians do not necessarily share the same opinion. In Syria, they try to maintain the regime of Assad. They have their own reasons, and if I were Russian, I would do the same. When it comes to Turkey-Russia relations, since 1997 we haven’t had any problems. We came to the consensus over the Straits and it eradicated all the problems from the political agenda.
How promising is the popular diplomacy for the Armenian-Turkish contacts?
It is promising, but in the long term. The real change is not only the perception of the societies, but the perception of the government. They are really perceptive to what's going on in the society. If a larger segment in the Armenian society will consider Turkey as a friend, then everything will be different and the whole political environment will change. And it's the same for Turkey.
By Aram Gareginyan