Stephen Kinzer

A new role for Turkey

By Stephen Kinzer
October 15, 2009

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REACHING LAST weekend’s diplomatic breakthrough between Turkey and Armenia was not easy. It took six weeks of secret talks in Switzerland, seven last-minute phone calls from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the two countries’ foreign ministers, and a wild ride in a Zurich police car, lights flashing and siren shrieking, for a Turkish diplomat carrying a revised draft of the accord.

This breakthrough could also be said to have taken 16 years, the length of time the Turkey-Armenia border has been shut, or 94 years, the time that has passed since Ottoman Turkish forces slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Armenians in what is now eastern Turkey.

In the end, pragmatism prevailed over emotion. Armenia is a poor, landlocked country that desperately needs an outlet to the world. Turkey is a booming regional power, but suffers from its refusal to acknowledge the massacres of 1915. With this accord, each side helps solve the other’s problem. The border is to be reopened and diplomatic relations restored, giving Armenia a chance to rejoin the world. Questions about what happened in 1915 - was it genocide? - will be submitted to historians for “impartial scientific examination.’’

The most bizarre aspect of this process was the effort by Armenians in France and the United States to derail it. Earlier this month in Paris, President Serge Sarkisian of Armenia was met by shouts of “Traitor!’’ and had to be protected by riot police. The potent Armenian-American lobby also rallied against the accord.

If President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran proposed that impartial historians examine the question of whether the Holocaust actually happened, most Jews would presumably accept happily. The failed rebellion by Armenians in the diaspora suggests that some are trapped by the past; their cousins back home, meanwhile, seek a better future.

“There is no alternative to the establishment of relations with Turkey without any precondition,’’ Sarkisian said as the new accord was signed. “It is the dictate of the time.’’

Both parliaments must ratify the accord. There will be disagreements over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which Armenia occupies but which the rest of the world considers part of Azerbaijan, Turkey’s ally. Nonetheless, both countries seem resolved to thaw this long-frozen conflict. They will probably do whatever necessary to overcome remaining obstacles.

The accord will allow trade between the two countries to resume. It will also make it easier for Armenians to visit magnificent monuments from their past that lie within modern-day Turkey. Beyond that, it has far-reaching geopolitical importance.

For nearly all of its 86 years as a state, Turkey has kept a low profile in the world. Those days are over. Now Turkey is reaching for a highly ambitious regional role as a conciliator and peacemaker.

When Turkish officials land in bitterly divided countries like Lebanon or Afghanistan or Pakistan, every faction is eager to talk to them. No country’s diplomats are as welcome in both Tehran and Jerusalem, Moscow and Tblisi, Damascus and Cairo. As a Muslim country intimately familiar with the region around it, Turkey can go places, engage partners, and make deals that the United States cannot.

This new Turkish role holds tantalizing potential. Before Turkey can play it fully, though, it must put its own house in order. That is one reason its leaders were so eager to resolve their country’s dispute with Armenia.

Turkey has one remaining international problem to resolve: Cyprus. Then it must solidify its democracy at home. That means lifting restrictions on free speech and fully respecting minority rights not just those of Kurds, whose culture has been brutalized by decades of repression, but also those of Christians, non-mainstream Muslims, and unbelievers.

Under other circumstances, Egypt, Pakistan, or Iran might have emerged to lead the Islamic world. Their societies, however, are weak, fragmented, and decomposing. Indonesia is a more promising candidate, but it has no historic tradition of leadership and is far from the center of Muslim crises. That leaves Turkey. It is trying to seize this role. Making peace with Armenia was an important step. More are likely to come soon.

Stephen Kinzer is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq.’’

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