The Closing of the Opening: The AKP’s Armenian Policy

Many welcomed the signing of the Armenian-Turkish protocols on October 10, 2009, in Zurich, Switzerland. At that time, the prevailing opinion in the international and Turkish media and academic circles suggested that the rapprochement between the two countries should be read as a sign of the democratization process in Turkey. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was considered to be the representative of a rising Muslim middle class, which was construed as the vanguard of democratization. A rapprochement with Armenia would be an unmistakable omen of Turkey’s normalization, a success of both democratization and regional stabilization.

In 2016, liberal expectations about the AKP’s democratizing zeal seemed to be doomed. As the euphoria about a “genuine” liberal democratic Islamism turned into a bitter resentment, the AKP and its leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is now presented as an increasingly authoritarian force. Rather than being an element of stability, Turkish foreign policy is now perceived as a destabilizing influence in Iraq, Syria, and even within NATO. I argue that Turkish foreign policy is driven by domestic power struggles and that Ankara’s Armenian policy displayed these shortcomings very early on.

The Turkish Victorians and the Rise of the AKP

As the 20th century came to a close, Turkey’s society was undergoing a severe economic, social, and political crisis. The economic policies pursued by successive coalition governments in the 1990s led to a big financial breakdown in 2001. Corruption was rampant, leading to mutual accusations within the political elite in the Center Right, which was increasingly becoming fragmented. However, political fragmentation was not confined to political elites. Major social transformations have taken place in Turkey following the neoliberal reforms implemented by the military coup in 1980. Privatization, export-led growth, financial liberalization, and the commercialization of agriculture unleashed an unprecedented de-peasantization and urbanization creating a large class of urban poor serving as the labor stock of the small and medium size enterprises. These enterprises constituted the backbone of Turkey’s export sector whose competitiveness was based on cheap labor. The owners of these small and medium size enterprises were called Anatolian tigers, and they were the main beneficiaries of the growth strategies implemented by the state.

Like other parvenu social groups, they legitimized their social mobility by an ideology vis-à-vis the established bourgeoisie. Like the Victorian middle classes of 19th century Britain, these nouveaux riches claimed that the Westernized, secular lifestyle of the bourgeois establishment was proof of its economic as well as moral bankruptcy. The claim to authenticity of this rising bourgeoisie was supported by its spatial and ideological proximity to the urban poor. In the burgeoning enterprises both the employers and the employees share a common provincial descent and a common urban estrangement, making the conservative Islamist ideology the perfect social glue for tense labor relations in a struggling economy. Since trade unions were closed down by the military coup in 1980 and most union leaders arrested, unionism remained weak throughout the period, which was also considered beneficial to the implementation of neoliberal reforms. Even when unions were allowed after the civilian take-over, they were unable to organize in the small and medium size enterprises and increasingly lost their effectiveness. Thus, Islamism slowly became the major social force and the religious-secular divide the main political cleavage, replacing the left and right-wing cleavages of the 1960s and 70s.

Another legacy of the 1980 coup was the Kurdish revolt initiated by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerillas. Starting as a typical guerilla movement in the countryside, the PKK had to transform itself as Ankara’s counterinsurgency strategy targeted Kurdish villages. In an attempt to cut the support of the PKK, thousands of villages were emptied, forcing farmers to join the cheap labor force in Kurdish and Turkish cities. However, the settlement policy as a counterinsurgency strategy only led to the urbanization of the PKK itself, as the Kurdish movement now attempted to participate in municipal and national elections. Protective of its central command over the country, however, the state apparatus and the political establishment remained unresponsive and even hostile to the articulation of political demands by the Kurds within the representative system. The result was a bloody civil war claiming tens of thousands of lives.

An important consequence of the counterinsurgency strategy was the consolidation of the so-called “deep-state,” an informal network of state officials, mafia members, and media pundits responsible for conducting an outright illegal warfare against political opposition. The deep-state had its roots in the counterinsurgency against the left and the workers’ movement in the 1970s. It was connected to similar structures operating in Europe, especially in Italy, and was involved in illegal trafficking as well as major human rights abuses committed in the name of national security. An unexpected car crash in November 1996 led to a scandalous exposure, when Abdullah Çatlı, an ultra-nationalist criminal wanted by the police for several murders and drug trafficking, died in the same car with a senior police officer, Hüseyin Kocadağ, and a member of the parliament, Sedat Bucak. The event led to a weeks-long protest movement demanding the investigation and prosecution of the deep-state network. However, in a successful volte-face, the National Security Council dominated by the military establishment and the nationalist right initiated a public campaign about creeping Islamism. A successful coup in 1997 eventually ousted the first Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan after serving only one year in office. The ensuing coalition governments among center-left, center-right, and nationalist parties only deepened the political, economic, and social crisis. Following the financial meltdown in 2001 and the Stand-By Agreement with the IMF, all these parties were virtually wiped out in the elections of 2002. The winner was the AKP, a post-1997 rebranded version of Islamism, which even rejected Islamism as a designation and invoked the European sounding Muslim Democrats.

The Discourse of “Opening”

The AKP won the majority in the parliament both in 2002 and in 2007. However, despite its mandate the party was still struggling with the entrenched state bureaucracy. The judiciary and military establishments continued to exert a tutelage over the executive and treated the AKP openly with disdain, thereby consolidating the secular-religious divide. Thus, the headscarf issue became the symbol of the power struggle between the establishment and the newcomers exacerbating the social struggle over resources and, increasingly, representation. In this context, the AKP posed itself as the reformist political force representing not only the pious urban poor and the parvenu, but also other social groups excluded by the establishment. The party initiated a series of legal reforms aimed at Turkish accession to the European Union.

In its attempt to increase its international and domestic support against the state bureaucracy, the AKP challenged long-standing foreign and domestic policies. As Turkey’s policy towards Armenia demonstrates, AKP’s reformist attitude opened up the public sphere for discussion rather than leading to a substantial policy change. The fact that “We could not imagine talking about these issues so openly in the past” procured democratic credentials for the AKP. The buzzword for this policy was “opening.”

The discourse of “opening” denoted several meanings, all of them vaguely implicating the reformist zeal and the democratizing ethos of the AKP. According to its leading ideologue Ahmet Davutoğlu, the opening was the result of a self-confident cadre. Intellectualizing the parvenu social ethos, Davutoğlu’s liberal-conservative discourse claimed that the Turkish Republic had been dominated by an estranged Westernized elite. Because of their alienation to their authentic roots in Islam, the Middle East, and in Ottoman history, these elites were introverted, lacked self-confidence, and suffered an inferiority complex towards the West. The AKP, on the other hand, represented the people’s values and would finally enable the Republic to reconcile with its Ottoman legacy and Islamic heritage. Davutoğlu and other AKP ideologues recycled several historiographies to explain how the establishment Kemalism was an offspring of Young Turk Jacobinism, responsible for a secularist nationalism, which disrupted the Ottoman imperial multiculturalism. In this discourse the Ottoman imperial administrative system was rehabilitated as an authentic liberal multicultural model, a much sought-after proof by Western liberals for the compatibility of “moderate Islam” with liberal democracy. Even the rather condescending discourse of “tolerance” towards religious minorities was construed as a token of multiculturalism. AKP’s policies towards Armenians and Armenia need to be interpreted in this political and ideological context.

Armenian as the Constitutive Other

A major component of AKP’s opening initiatives was the policy towards Armenians and Armenia. In fact, the AKP seemed to follow Turkey’s traditional policy towards minorities. Throughout the history of the Republic, the state subordinated policies towards minorities to reciprocal relations with the neighboring nation-states with which these minorities shared a common heritage. Treatment of Turkey’s Greek and Jewish populations is exemplary in this respect. Until the establishment of an independent Armenia in 1991, however, it was relations with the Armenian diaspora rather than a nation-state, which constituted a measure for policies towards Armenians. AKP’s Armenian opening was no exception to this rule. The promises of reforming the state’s policies towards Armenian citizens went hand in hand with the promises of normalizing relations with Armenia. Both policies were designed to impress an international audience supporting liberal reforms and a domestic audience yearning for democracy, economic growth, and stability.

The assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007 was a milestone in the Republic’s political history, bringing the unspoken Armenian question to the fore for the first time. Dink was the editor-in-chief of Agos, an Armenian newspaper established in 1996. Since the ecclesiastical administration is legally subordinated to the state bureaucracy, the emergence of Agos as an independent outlet of the Armenian community was a groundbreaking project in and of itself. However, the influence of Agos went far beyond the Armenian community and challenged the very foundations of Turkish nationalism. Dink’s writings related to ordinary Turks and urged them to reconsider what it meant to be a citizen of Turkey as an Armenian. In these pieces, the recognition of the Armenian genocide was not only a historical phenomenon that needed to be dealt with by diplomacy and historical commissions. It was also about social reconciliation aiming to build a democratic society of equal citizens and to never allow such atrocities to ever take place again. In other words, the recognition of genocide was necessary for democratization.

Starting to talk about the genocide openly was essential to finding a solution to the Kurdish question. In one of his last pieces, Dink wrote about how modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s adopted daughter Sabiha Gökçen, who as the first female fighter pilot dropped bombs upon the Zaza Kurds in Dersim in 1937-38, was herself a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Dink also questioned Atatürk’s nationalist rhetoric about the nobility of Turkish blood and how this kind of nativism cannot provide a foundation for a democratic society. The implications of Dink’s writings were clear for a society which had been living with a counterinsurgency claiming thousands of lives for decades. Moreover, the occasional claims by state officials and leading politicians that the PKK leader and PKK members are in fact Armenians shows how “Armenian” is the constitutive other of modern Turkish citizenry.

Dink’s writings became even more significant following his assassination by the forces of the deep-state. At his funeral, hundreds of thousands of citizens from all walks of life filled the streets of Istanbul in a miles-long silent walk carrying Hrant Dink’s face as a mask and carrying banners saying, “I am Armenian.” Though met with some ultra-nationalist reaction, this event was unprecedented. Dink’s assassination along with other assassinations and bombings against Christian missionaries and the Kurds led the public to once again question the deep-state. This time the AKP was keen on using this opportunity to wrest power from the state apparatus.

Zurich Protocols

In April 2007, a political crisis broke out when Abdullah Gül, the AKP’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that he would run for president. The secular establishment reacted fiercely to the idea of having a First Lady with a headscarf. The main struggle was of course about the establishment losing the tutelage to AKP’s newcomers. On April 27, 2007, the Joint Chiefs of Staff even published a threatening ultimatum on its website opposing Gül’s candidacy. Rather than budging, however, the AKP preferred to use its struggle against the establishment in its electoral campaign and won a clear mandate in July 2007. Gül’s election unleashed a constitutional debate that still lingers today. The referendum of September 2010 was the turning point in AKP’s struggle with the secular establishment. The rapprochement with Armenia, which took place in 2008 and 2009, was part and parcel of winning the support of the United States and the European Union in this process. In other words, the AKP’s policy towards Armenia added to its reformist credentials.

On July 9, 2008, in a letter published in The Wall Street Journal, Serzh Sargsyan invited President Gül to Yerevan to attend the soccer game between Armenian and Turkish teams in September. Gül’s visit raised the hopes for normalization of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey. After months of diplomacy, in April 2009 it was announced that the two states agreed on a roadmap. This was followed by the public release of two initialized protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and the development of mutual relations. On October 10, 2009, with the American Secretary of State and her Russian and EU counterparts applauding in the background, the two protocols were signed in Zurich. However, this appeared to be a rather short-lasting springtime in the relations of the two states. Already in October 2010, the Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, was complaining in The Wall Street Journal that Turkey had “gone back on its word.” In 2015, the media reported on how President Erdoğan criticized Gül’s visit to Yerevan (Hurriyet Daily News, May 8, 2015).

Many international and regional factors might have contributed to the failure of the normalization process between Armenia and Turkey: the worsening of relations between Russia and the West following the Ukrainian and Syrian crises, the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis and the Azeri reaction to the Zurich protocols, Ankara’s loss of interest in the accession to the EU, etc. Admittedly, all of these factors have important bearings on the relations between the two states. However, I contend that the main explanation for Turkish foreign policy is to be sought in domestic power struggles. As the AKP consolidated its grip over the state apparatus, it also started going back to the traditional parameters of Turkish foreign policy. Major realignments within Turkey have now led the AKP to ally itself with ultra-nationalist and deep-state elements, reigniting a violent counterinsurgency against Kurds, generating frequent crises with Western allies, and most recently, a close cooperation with Russia. Under these circumstances, a revitalization of Armenian-Turkish relations seems unlikely, although the fact remains that both peoples would reap huge benefits from it.

Dr. Mehmet Sinan Birdal is a visiting assistant professor at USC’s School of International Relations and the Middle East Studies Program. Dr. Birdal has been involved in several transitional justice and human rights initiatives in Turkey in the past seven years. Birdal is a regular contributor to the daily newspaper Evrensel and the online newsportal Gazeteduvar. Birdal is the author of The Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans: From Global Imperial Power to Absolutist States (I.B. Tauris). His current research project investigates the class dynamics of transitional justice processes.