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Analysis

Two Roads Diverge in the South Caucasus


Summary: Two roads diverge in
the South Caucasus and the newly
elected U.S. administration can take
by Dr. Emre Erdoğan*
either one. On the one hand it can
support steps for cooperation and
can mark the very first example of ISTANBUL — Two roads diverge in the changing global environment, Turkey
the new world order by permanently South Caucasus and the newly elected remains in a difficult position. The
ignoring the signals of domestic American administration can take current government hopes to improve
politics; or on the other hand it can either one. On the one hand it can sup- relations with Armenia and diffuse the
prioritize domestic political pres- port steps for cooperation and can mark enduring security concerns of the Turk-
sures, thus contributing to fragility the very first example of the new world ish electorate toward this ignored neigh-
order by permanently ignoring the sig- bor; however, these ambitions might
and instability in the region.
nals of domestic politics; or on the other be hindered by the potential passage
hand it can prioritize domestic political of the Armenian Genocide Resolution
The election of Barack Obama pressures, thus contributing to fragility (HR106) in the U.S. Congress. Turkish
in the United States created an and instability in the region. relations with Armenia and Armenians
optimistic global climate, particu-
have always been a crutch for Turkey in-
The election of Barack Obama as the ternationally, providing strong evidence
larly with those seeking multilat- 44th president of the United States for those Turks claiming that Turkey
eral settlements of international created an optimistic global climate, has no friends. Debate, internationally,
disputes. However, Turkey faces an particularly for those seeking multi- over the Armenian genocide issue is a
important dilemma under a chang- lateral settlements of international dominant factor influencing Turkey’s
disputes. The 2008 release of skeptical approach toward its historical
ing global environment. The current
Transatlantic Trends (www.transatlan- allies—e.g. France, the United States
government hopes to improve rela- tictrends.org) reports that the strong —as well as some of its new neighbors.
tions with Armenia and diffuse the leadership and unilateral approach
enduring security concerns of the defining U.S. foreign policy during Ordinary Turkish citizens, presumably
the Bush administration has received having little information about and
Turkish electorate; however, these
very little support, especially from the limited interest in international prob-
ambitions might be hindered by the European public. The survey shows lems, and tend to see the “Armenian”
potential passage of the Armenian the leadership style of President-elect issue as an instrument of international
Genocide Resolution (HR106) in Obama is perceived as a new era for powers. A key actor in that group of
the U.S. Congress.
enhanced cooperation between the international powers is the well orga-
United States and the European Union. nized Armenian Diaspora, which enjoys
The “Armenian” issue—with refer- considerable influence in Washington.
ence to the international pressure to However, Turkish public opinion on
recognize the Armenian Genocide the Armenian issue cannot be under-
Offices
Resolution—is an early opportunity for stood solely from an international
Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris
Obama to define his approach of U.S. perspective. It must be contextualized
foreign policy. within Turkey’s domestic framework.
Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest
Historical and contemporary factors,
www.gmfus.org Amid the hopeful atmosphere in the such as inherited fears about “external
*
Dr. Emre Erdoğan teaches social statistics at Istanbul Bilgi University, Department of Political Sciences and International Relations. The
views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
Analysis

forces,” terrorist activities of the Armenian Secret Army for team. This gesture and the recent visit of the Foreign Minister
the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) during the 1970s that of Armenia are considered visible steps toward improved rela-
targeted diplomats and civilians, and the benign nationalism tions on a diplomatic level.
of the media, have strongly influenced the way ordinary Turks
feel about their relationship toward Armenia. Adding to this These developments seem compatible with the expected
negative perception is the lack of understanding on both sides shift in U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration.
of the border. A 2005 survey showed that from geographic During his last European tour, Obama signaled that a new
facts to political life, both the publics of Turkey and Armenia Democratic administration would likely push for improving
knew little about each other. For example, the survey reported cooperation by using civil and public diplomatic tactics in
that 44 percent of Turkish citizens had no idea who governs their international transactions between countries. Thanks to
Armenia and 63 percent of Armenians thought that Turkey the supervision of the United States, the relationship between
was a presidential democracy.1 Turkey and Armenia could become a textbook example for
the new era in international relations.
Adding to the complexities of Turkish public opinion is the
fact that public discourse tends to conflate the two separate Unfortunately, another dimension to President-elect Obama’s
issues, on the one hand, relations with Armenia and on the foreign policy style may cancel out this opportunity. Obama
other, the “Armenian” issue. This has occurred in part because has emphasized a willingness to prioritize domestic demands
Turkey’s new neighbor never excluded itself from discussions in international issues rather than using the neorealist strate-
about the Armenian genocide and became an advocate of the gic policies. This preference suggests Obama will support the
issue in the international scene. passage of HR106 affirming that “the Ottoman Empire perpe-
trated ‘genocide’ on its Armenian subjects, killing at least 1.5
Under these constraints, public opinion forms one of the million of them between 1915 and 1923.” In 2007, the House
most challenging obstacles for Turkey to establish peaceful Foreign Affairs Committee narrowly passed the resolution.
and productive relations with Armenia. Together, acting as Almost immediately, U.S. officials attempted to repair any
strategic anchors and negotiators, Turkey and Armenia could damage this resolution may have done to Turkish-American
be a stabilizing factor in the turbulent Caucasus region, which relations.
is characterized by enduring military conflicts between in-
numerable proto-nations. The short military conflict between Previous attempts to pass the resolution were prevented
Georgia and Russia underlined the urgency of setting up an by emphasizing the vulnerability of U.S.-Turkish relations.
international platform of peace-oriented countries in the Certain incidents, such as the Turkish Parliament’s rejection
region. In order to achieve long-term stability, further coop- of the March 1, 2003 Bill that would have allowed the U.S.
erative steps must take place. Surprisingly, in spite of some troops into Turkish territory to open a second front in Iraq, as
nationwide stereotypes and reciprocal dislike between these well as the increased terrorist activities by the Kurdistan Work-
two societies, the survey shows that both publics are open to ers Party (PKK)—as a result of increased Kurdish autonomy
further economic and diplomatic cooperation. in Northern Iraq, underline the fragility of that relationship.
Furthermore, multiple public opinion surveys show that the
Recent exchanges demonstrate that the current political envi- United States is perceived as the greatest threat to Turkey. This
ronment is fertile for creating peace in the region. The soccer anti-American sentiment regularly corresponds to terrorist
game on September 6, 2008 between Armenia and Turkey in activities in the region. Unsurprisingly, passing HR106 will
Yerevan created a very good starting point for establishing a have a negative affect on the already sensitive Turkish-U.S.
healthy dialogue between these two neighboring countries. relationship, and endanger the fragile partnership between the
This opportunity was highlighted by the bold visit from Turk- two allies. A survey conducted by the Istanbul-based
ish President Abdullah Gül in support of the Turkish national Ari movement in 2007 presented specific data regarding

1
Ferhat Kentel and Gevorg Poghosyan, “Armenian-Turkish Citizens’ Mutual Perceptions and Dialogue
Project,” available at: http://www.american.edu/cgp/track2/data/ArmeniaTurkeyFinaReportTESEV.doc.

2
Analysis

the consequences of passing such resolution.2 According to U.S.-Turkish relationship and allow for genuine reconciliation
this survey, 8 out of 10 Turkish citizens opposed the Armenian between Turkey and Armenia, he must carefully balance do-
Genocide Resolution, (by rejecting the U.S. Congress as a mestic demands with an international geostrategic approach.
neutral judge). Moreover, this attempt was perceived in Tur-
key as another expression of anti-Muslim feelings and a result
of domestic political maneuvers by the U.S. House of Rep- Dr. Emre Erdoğan, Professor, Istanbul Bilgi University
resentatives. The majority of Turkish respondents said they
Emre Erdoğan teaches social statistics at Istanbul Bilgi University,
would support unfavorable reactions to the passage of such a
Department of Political Sciences and International Relations. A
resolution, from government sanctions boycotting American
graduate from Galatasaray Lisesi and Bosphorus University, Erdoğan
goods to opposition to American activities in Northern Iraq.
completed his Ph.D. in 2001. He has been a pollster since 1996 and is
Seventy-five percent of respondents stated that the resolution
one of founders of Infakto RW, an independent marketing and public
would worsen their opinion about the United States. Turkish
opinion research company. Erdoğan is the author of several articles on
politicians will likely take into account the significant number
marketing and public opinion research, political and civic participa-
of their electorate’s feelings toward the issue.
tion, and Turkish politics.

Interestingly, the survey also showed the resolution would About GMF
adversely affect Turkish perceptions about Armenia and
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpar-
Armenians. Seventy-three percent of Turkish citizens said
tisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated
that approval of the resolution would negatively affect
to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North
improving Turkey’s relationship with Armenia. A series of
America and Europe. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on
surveys conducted in Turkey between 2006 and 2008 showed
the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to
that there had been no significant change in the perceptions of
Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides
the Turkish electorate on this issue.3 Sixty percent of Turkish
of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF
respondents agreed with the argument that “there was no
has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade,
Armenian genocide” and another 15 percent thought that
Ankara, and Bucharest.
“there has been some mistreatments, but not genocide.”
Meanwhile, according to the same surveys, 40 percent of
Turkish respondents supported improving relations with their
forgotten neighbor.

These figures emphasize the complexity of this issue. They


also underline the importance of the developments of this
past September, including the soccer game between Turkey
and Armenia. These developments must be credited to the
boldness of Turkish and Armenian political leaders seeking to
establish a sustainable dialogue, despite historical fallacies and
domestic political pressures.

Public opinion polls can provide interesting insight into con-


troversial issues, as we can see with the Armenian issue. In this
case, the results from the above-discussed surveys seem clear.
If President-elect Obama wants to manage the already fragile

2”
Terror Free Tomorrow and ARI Movement, Turkish Views on U.S. Congress Armenian Resolutions,
available at: http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagestft/Terror%20Free%20Tomorrow%20ARI%20
Movement%20Final%20Report.pdf.
3
International Republican Institute, Survey of Turkish Public Opinion, available at:
http://www.iri.org/europe/turkey/2007-06-28-Turkey.asp.