Nigar Goksel: “Armenian issue is at core of Turkish identity”

Istanbul researcher discusses Armenia and Turkey

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Thursday June 25, 2009

Nigar Goksel in Armenia.

Washington - Diba Nigar Goksel is an Istanbul-based senior analyst for the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin think tank. For the past several years, Ms. Goksel's work has focused on Armenia and has included a report, "Noah's Dove Returns: Armenia, Turkey and the Debate on Genocide," released last April. Last week she was in the United States to begin a research project on the Armenian diaspora's role in Armenia. She was interviewed by the Armenian Reporter's Washington editor Emil Sanamyan on June 17.

Welcomed in Armenia as "normal person"

Armenian Reporter: When you first began working in Armenia, were you apprehensive about it or, perhaps, excited about the opportunity, or both?

Nigar Goksel: I was excited. I was a little bit concerned that as a Turk I wouldn't be spoken to about issues in Armenia openly and that would influence the quality of research I would do.

Like in Georgia and Azerbaijan, our research in Armenia is about trying to understand how Armenia is changing, where Armenia is headed. How the state-building process and economic development, and a debate about the future of Armenia is progressing. A lot of our research in Armenia entailed travel outside of Yerevan, talking to ordinary people, opinion leaders, and business people.

So I was concerned that because I was a Turk, answers would be adjusted accordingly and there would be a perception that I was looking for problems to display [to the outside world] or something like that.

It ended up not being the case and I was positively surprised.

I was received and welcomed wholeheartedly, especially in the villages of Armenia. In Yerevan, it was more complex: some would be more positive, others more negative. And it was in small towns where I received the most challenging questions and borderline accusations.

So it ended up being research / bilateral dialogue effort, because I was also asked a lot of questions by Armenians about Turkey. One amazing thing is how high the level of interest is in Armenia about what is happening in Turkey and how few Turks Armenians actually meet.

AR: The warm reception you describe particularly in the rural areas, did you feel like you were given special treatment because, perhaps, you were breaking existing stereotypes? Or was it more just out of a sense of general neglect and an appreciation of an outsider's attention?

NG: At least in some places, my Turkishness was not important or not initially an important issue. People would talk about their local problems. Say, how budget of this village is sufficient or not for reconstruction of a particular sewage system or whatnot.

And it could be an hour into a conversation when someone would ask where I was from. And upon hearing I was from Turkey, they would say, "Oh, why didn't you tell us?" and start bringing fruits and vodka to the table and start talking about the past.

In part, I think it was a stereotype issue. I was not a classical Turk that people envisioned – a stern man with a mustache. And it was an opportunity for [Armenians] to talk to one of those people that they had heard so much about but never had an opportunity to confront.

Sometimes, when my Turkishness would be first revealed, the conversation would turn more confrontational. [I would be often asked] if from my perspective there was genocide. And after hearing me say yes [there was], and that Turkey is changing profoundly in this sense but that there are still problems- as soon as it seemed that I talked as a normal person, the atmosphere [would relax.]

And in villages, sure, there is a sense of not being paid attention to by other Armenians first of all. So, someone coming from an international organization and caring about what their daily life looked like certainly got a positive reaction.

Rural similarities and differences

AR: You have also done field research in rural parts of Turkey; how similar are problems in Armenia's rural areas to those in Turkey?

NG: There are similarities with Turkey, but frankly problems in Armenia are more similar to Azerbaijan's or Georgia's by virtue of the Soviet heritage and the breakdown of the Soviet system.

In Armenia, in some rural areas, people used to work in industry and had to readjust to working on land, but are still trying to hold on to some degree of their education.

That is different from eastern Turkey where industrialization has not yet reached. And people in Turkish villages were always there and education-wise they are not where the villagers of Armenia are.

And of course in eastern Turkey there is the conflict with the Kurdish insurgency which taps into identity issues and relations with the Turkish state.

Other than that, in terms of underdevelopment, the lack of amenities and limited opportunities, they are similar.

Armenian-Turkish engagement and where it could lead

AR: Having focused on Armenia for several years now, what is your sense of Armenia's main challenges?

NG: When we began working in Armenia, our focus was not on Armenia-Turkey relations. But we soon saw that the debate on the political scene, what politicians are accused of, is usually about concessions they are [ostensibly] ready to make to Turkey. Or the debate on the economy, why Armenia's economy is in a state it is in: Oh, it is because Turkey has closed the border.

So, we realized we could not avoid the Turkey issue if we were to discuss Armenia's challenges. Frankly, I think more and more people realize in Armenia that the source of Armenia's problems today is not necessarily Turkey. Yes, Turkey's border being closed does create some challenges, but were it to open tomorrow it would create other obstacles to recovery of the economy as well.

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