‘Armenians want condemnation of “crime against humanity,” not perpetrators’

One of Turkey’s most prominent experts on the Caucasus, Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, who now lives in Armenia, has said Armenians do not expect Turks to visit Tsitsernakaberd, a memorial in Armenia dedicated to the victims of the alleged 1915 Armenian genocide, or to condemn the perpetrators of the alleged genocide but instead want them to denounce the “crime committed against humanity.”

Öztarsu, who studied at a university in Azerbaijan, went to Armenia to conduct research about the region and ended up settling there. He recently finished compiling his impressions and observations in a book titled “Ama Hangi Türkler ve Ermeniler” (But Which Turks and Armenians).

The border between Turkey and Armenia has been closed since 1993, after Turkey objected to Armenia’s war with Turkish ally Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The two countries do not enjoy diplomatic relations. In addition, Turkish-Armenian relations have often been overshadowed by a dispute over the massacre of ethnic Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire more than 90 years ago.

Armenians accuse Ottoman Turks of committing genocide and killing more than a million Armenians starting in 1915. Turkey strongly denies these allegations.

Öztarsu said he has always tried to be impartial during his observations in Armenia but that the issue turns into a matter of honor after some point.

“This is the same for Armenians. Armenians even say, ‘Those who come to the genocide memorial from Turkey and betray their nation, saying “Our ancestors massacred these people”,’ do not benefit us. Until now, the problem between Turkey and Armenia has persisted due to people with such a mentality [expecting Turks to condemn their ancestors]. This is not what the Armenian side wants. What they want is the condemnation of the crime committed against humanity. They don’t want Turks to pursue hostility against [Ottoman] Turks,” he said.

The researcher said he is hurt by the claims by most Armenians about former Turkish leaders as they present them, including Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, as “killers.”

When asked how his life had changed after settling in Armenia, Öztarsu said it was a turning point for him to decide to live in Armenia given that he is from Malatya, where there was a significant Armenian population, and had studied in Azerbaijan.

“Malatya, where many Armenians used to live and is also the hometown of [slain Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink, is important for Armenians. Coming from Malatya was sufficient for me to face accusations while I was in Azerbaijan. Some people thought I was Armenian because I am from Malatya. I just tried to ignore such claims. … There are some who are very racist,” he said.

With regards as to how a Turk can conduct official proceedings in Armenia, Öztarsu said such a thing is impossible because Turkey does not have a diplomatic mission in Armenia. He said many people have recently begun talking about settling the problems of Turks in Armenia and Armenians in Turkey through their respective embassies in Tbilisi.

“No matter what the problem is, you cannot ignore the existence of a country which is your neighbor. You cannot treat it as an African country that is far away,” he said.

Öztarsu, who had the opportunity to compare the perceptions that Turks and Armenians have about each other in 2004-2005 while doing research in Armenia, said Turks and Armenians do not actually know each other.

“I have been asked several times about how Armenians view Turks. They have like a ghost in their minds that massacres people. There are some Armenians who are prejudiced against Turks and curse them even though they have never met any Turks before in their lives. But there are different attitudes among Turks. Just as there are those with feelings of hostility and anger, there are also some Turks who say, ‘We used to have nice Armenian neighbors’.”

Öztarsu said there are some Armenians who still want to return to their homeland in Turkey and they have great longing for the country.

“I have come across many interesting people. I was struck by an elderly woman who was carrying a photo of an old Turkish actor in her wallet. I am surprised by their longing for Turkey. When I asked them what they would do if they go to Turkish provinces such as Sivas or Malatya, they said, ‘No problem, we just want to return there and die there.’ They see these places as their homeland. Some neighborhoods in Yerevan are named after Turkish provinces,” he said.

“For instance, Turkey established dialogue with Greece [despite the Cyprus problem]. People come and go from Greece to Turkey and vice versa. There is an ongoing communication via TV series, commercial activities, etc. In order to ensure Turkey’s presence in the Caucasus and to end Armenia’s isolation, dialogue is a must. There should be communication between the Turkish and Armenian peoples. We are duty bound to achieve this,” he said.

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