By Yigal Schleifer
Friday, September 12, 2003
A group of Turkish and Armenian women are trying to ease the strained political relationship between their two countries. Their efforts began two years ago and are now increasing in scope.
ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--Stepping into the gap that their governments have so far been unable to bridge, a group of Turkish and Armenian women are expanding a dialogue project that was begun two years ago, in the hope that their work might eventually have an impact on official policy.
The project, called the Turkish-Armenian Women Communication Group, got its start on March 8, 2001. Two Armenian women--a member ofArmenia's parliament and a representative of an Armenian non-governmental organization--came to Istanbul, Turkey's capital city, to be part of a panel discussion celebrating international women's day.
After a series of reciprocal meetings, the group--made up mostly of businesswomen, journalists, academics, non-governmental organization representatives and parliamentarians--has been growing both in size and scope. In the latest encounter, held in early July in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, a dozen Turkish and some 20 Armenian women met, organizing several smaller subcommittees responsible for coming up with projects for further cooperation.
In the beginning, the two groups asked each other one question: "Are we satisfied with the politics of our governments toward each other up until now?" says Mujgan Suver, a Turkish psychologist who works on human rights issues at the Istanbul-based Marmara Group, a Turkish public policy foundation that initiated the dialogue project. "We said if we are satisfied, then fine, let's leave it. But if we are not, let's do something about it and maybe we will someday be able to get our governments together and talk about it."
Despite sharing a 166-mile border, Turkey and Armenia currently have no diplomatic relations. Turkey sealed its frontier with Armenia in 1993 to protest the Armenian takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.
An even greater source of tension, though, dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Starting in 1915, during the violence of World War I, large numbers of Armenians were deported from their homes in Turkey's Anatolian heartland. Estimates of the number of Armenians killed during the deportations range from 300,000 to nearly 1.5 million. For Armenians, the events of that time are considered genocide and they would like them officially recognized as such. Turkey has steadfastly refused to accept the term "genocide," pointing out that atrocities were committed by both sides during what was a time of great upheaval.
"For both countries, the relationship is still a very thorny issue, and there doesn't seem to be any opening on the horizon, to be honest," says Ali Carkoglu, research director at the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. "It's very difficult these days to deal with this issue in a cooperative manner."
The Marmara Group's Suver says it is because of this impasse in Turkish-Armenian relations that she wanted to start the dialogue group. Suver was previously involved in a similar group with women from Greece--a country that, up until recently, also had strained relations with Turkey--and says that project proved fruitful in bringing Turkish and Greek women together.
Hranush Kharatyan, president of the Armenian branch of a human rights group called Transcaucasus Women's Dialogue, which has other branches in Georgia and Azerbaijan, says the idea of a dialogue group also appealed to her as a way of breaking through the rancor that exists between Turks and Armenians.
"Our common goal is to arrive at the establishment of peaceful relations," Kharatyan writes from Yerevan in an e-mail message. "Though Turkish and Armenian women vary in their perspectives regarding this issue so far, there exist also common views."
Suver says she also hopes the project will help bring those involved, who come from a region where women are often shut out of political life, closer to the political process and the conflict resolution process.
"Unfortunately, women never take part in peace negotiations, in peace deals," she says.
Working as women in an area where they aren't the usual leading players on political issues could actually be advantageous, says one of the group's participants.
"People don't take it as a potential source of danger when women are working on a something. They don't take it seriously. That could be helpful," says Lale Aytanc Nalbant, an Istanbul chemical engineer who has been part of the dialogue group since June of last year. "We are not taken seriously by the politicians, but in the end we can accomplish much more than expected."
Both the Turkish and Armenian participants, meanwhile, say that their meetings have already led to positive, if small, changes.
"If we compare our first and last meetings, I can say that our relations have become more friendly and tolerant. We try to understand each other and even some conflict issues have been solved through dialogues," writes Susanna Vardanyan, president of the Women's Rights Center, a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization, in an e-mail interview.
Istanbul's Aytanc Nalbant says she has seen the bitter tone that at first dominated the meetings slowly melting away. "Once you get to know people more and more, you feel more like family towards them and grow more confident towards them," she says. "There are less doubts that they have secondary intentions when they say something."
In order to move forward, the group has for now decided to lay aside discussions of the past, particularly the genocide issue, and to focus on creating joint projects through four subcommittees that were formed at the recent meeting in Yerevan. Among some of the ideas the group is considering are creating a summer exchange program for Turkish and Armenian students, publishing cookbooks that would illustrate daily life in both countries and creating a committee that would screen the media in each country for negative depictions of each other.
The time may be ripe for projects like these to have an impact. Both the United States and the European Union--which Turkey hopes to join in the near future
--have been applying pressure on the two countries to resolve their disputes.
Noyan Soyak, the Turkish vice chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, an independent group promoting better trade relations between the two countries, says the increasing number of Turks and Armenians meeting outside of conventional political channels has led to a positive change in public opinion in both countries.
"Public diplomacy is the infrastructure. We are softening the ground for the politicians to play on," Soyak says.
For now, though, the participants of the dialogue say they are focusing on building trust within their own circle before trying to influence their countries' leaders.
"When the time comes, we will work on applying political pressure," says Suver. "This won't just be a group of women meeting. But we have to let time pass before this can happen."
Yigal Schleiferis a freelance writer based in Istanbul.
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