A New Center of Gravity for Armenians in Turkey?

There is a particular appeal of the extent of Armenian mobility and dispersion to non-Armenian audiences – including someone like me who does not come from one of those Euro-American powerhouses where ‘fascination’ with the rest of the world often emerges as another way of reiterating a history of superiority (of the self) and disconnection (of the other). On the contrary, as a person who bears this particular surname, which roughly translates as “genuine Turk,” I have a more direct personal and scholarly interest in making sense of the Armenian world (and the world for Armenians) that has evolved in the wake of different waves and experiences of displacement, diasporization and re-diasporization. However, if understanding Armenian mobility and movement requires comprehensive and critical engagement with the various brutal and inhumane components of nation-building and demographic engineering – especially for us from Turkey – it should also be noted that the ways Armenians historically have both formulated and maintained close ties over enormous distances undeniably deserve close scholarly attention to better make sense of histories of globalization. On the one hand, Armenian and to a lesser degree non-Armenian researchers have contributed to an ever-expanding literature on the various forms and modes of belonging and the increasing emergence of the Republic of Armenia as a center of gravity, a term I borrow from Sari Hanafi. On the other hand, the minimal but significant movement of people between the old post-Genocide homeland and the new nation-state homeland remains virtually un-studied. I stress this gap in the scholarship to point at the outdated and increasingly unilluminating discussions based on straightforward binaries of diasporans versus homelanders. Alternatively, I prefer to reflect on the possible transformative effect of the current citizenship scheme of Armenia in catalyzing some sort of bonding between Armenians on the two sides of the infamous border. This is why, in this article, I would like to discuss the findings of recent research that I conducted with Dr. Hrag Papazian with generous funding from the European Union (EU) within the scope of a transnational project implemented by a consortium of eight civil society organizations from Armenia and Turkey. 

In the two consecutive phases of our research, we interviewed Armenians from Turkey who had applied for and/or received Armenian citizenship but did not move to Armenia or elsewhere (phase one) and those who moved to Armenia either before or after becoming citizens of the country (phase two). In phase one, which I will not extensively address here, we observed that our interlocutors, by seeking non-resident citizenship of Armenia, acted almost exclusively on pragmatic motives in the wake of intensifying EU-Armenia relationships, which for them signaled prospects of free movement within the Schengen zone. Our findings from this phase are currently in the process of being published in the format of an academic article, but before moving forward here, it is essential to note that the increasing insularity and authoritarianism in Turkey not only brought direct economic hardships to be disproportionately shouldered by Turkish citizens, but also implied difficulties in traveling abroad for work, education and leisure purposes in the specific examples of Armenians and the wider middle-classes of the country. In stark contrast, meanwhile, Armenia has gone through its own unique political transformation in consolidating its democracy – a situation that unprecedentedly led Armenians in Turkey, who have often been prejudiced against Armenia, to make moves toward the country. As we argue, this movement has taken root and place at multiple levels of both imaginary and daily face-to-face encounters in which Armenians from Turkey increasingly discuss their own relationships, affiliations and similarities with Armenians of Armenia.  

It would not be misleading to argue that for most Armenians in Turkey, applying for Armenian citizenship has not only emerged as a direct reflection of a yearning for openness, which demands more movement and more relationships with the rest of the world, but has also remained mostly a ‘rhetorical’ formulation of a contingency plan, or, as was widely explained by our interlocutors, a ‘Plan B.’ By no means here am I seeking to shift our attention away from the emotive and the embodied aspects of everyday violence that Armenians experience in contemporary Turkey. I also do not want to take attention away from the ongoing community-wide discussions on the prospects of leaving Turkey. By speculating that the identification of Armenia as an emergency destination is in fact rhetorical, I emphasize that if Armenians in Turkey had an opportunity to live somewhere else, it would have most probably been a different country. However, for a very tiny minority from Istanbul, Armenia has nevertheless become the place to settle, and the reasons behind their movement should be accounted for. 

The so-called Bangladesh neighborhood in Yerevan located in the Malatia-Sebastia district as seen from the author’s kitchen window.

In the second phase of our research, we conducted interviews exclusively with Armenians who had moved from Istanbul to Yerevan since Armenia’s independence. As there has been an acceleration of such movement in the last five years, in this article I am specifically interested in the accounts of people who have moved to that country only recently. On one level, these Turkish and Armenian dual-citizens revealed similarities with the people we contacted in phase one. For instance, they similarly expressed that the increasing authoritarianism in Turkey had already made them think through an escape plan, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. Moreover, the Velvet Revolution of 2018, which took place without any violence, directly contributed to the public imaginations about Armenia among Armenians in Turkey. It should perhaps be stressed repeatedly that a moment of the closing of Turkey to the outside world intersected with a moment of the opening up of Armenia (until the recent 44-day war, which I will briefly address later). At another level, however, the people who eventually moved to Armenia envisaged a future quite different than that of the people we interviewed in the first phase of our study, even though their general sense of their own level of wealth, understandings of the violent events of the past, and extent of their daily encounters with the diverse populations of Turkey did not differ from those of our interlocutors who did not move to Armenia. 

Roughly speaking, it is possible to consider our respondents within three major and not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. First are the young people who have been disappointed by the education system and/or the job market in Turkey. They frequently note the increasing nepotism in the country, displaying a sharp tone of frustration with a political system in which their qualifications in education are not ensured to guarantee job security and livelihood. For them, moving to Armenia was a smart step before they launched their professional lives. Second are the middle-aged people who had already sought to exit Turkey with their families. In this group, the focus shifts from the mental and material conditions of the self to the care and upbringing of children. For them, moving to Armenia signaled a new start, something only possible through their extended relationships that developed either directly with Armenia in the three decades following independence or indirectly via other Armenians in the diaspora who provided access to Armenia. The third group comprised individuals or families who were subjected to direct physical or political/economic violence in Turkey. For them, the moment of crime came with the realization that – as one of our interlocutors who had lost a relative in a racist attack put it – “all links with the future [in Turkey] had to be cut.” In this sense, for all three groups, moving to Armenia implied a new beginning of a prospective future, namely a start or a re-start of a prospective future, as in the first and second groups, respectively, but this was ‘a different kind of a start’ for the third group. Severely injured by political violence and discrimination or loss of loved ones, I find our interlocutors in this last group to be struggling to make sense of and re-define a future that will never break away from a feeling of regret for not having made the move to Armenia sooner. 

I aim to not over-philosophize here. However, there is a particular temporal aspect of moving to Armenia from Turkey and a complex emotional and psychological framework behind it that lead me to put forward the following: If these people moved to Armenia, they did so by passing through particular thresholds of anxiety and fear, in which the former was solidified as the latter. As Sarah Ahmed, in her rightfully celebrated book The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), noted, fear and anxiety seem to be remarkably similar even though the states of the body (i.e., the self) that they define are different. As I construe it, anxiety keeps arrangements and structures in place – and when we take a closer look at the constant circulation of rumors and the anticipation of risk among Istanbul’s Armenians, it might even have a capacity to keep a community bound together. Fear, as in the words of Ahmed, however, “projects us from the present into a future” simply because it involves a realization of a directly approaching hurt or injury, not only the anticipation of it, as in anxiety. In this framework, however, there is still more to explore, because how are we going to distinguish the fear of death from feeling anxious about death or loss? 

Some of the most striking points raised by our interlocutors who moved to Armenia are repeated in the following words that denote scale: 

“It doesn’t happen to only Armenians anymore!”

“Everyone wants to move somewhere else, not only Armenians!”  

These sentiments reflect the extent to which discrimination and the likelihood of a just and equal life are being understood in contemporary Turkey. In addition, I believe they account for a historical moment in the country, where Armenians observe that non-Armenians (including Turks) are similarly deprived of a future in which anyone has the power to imagine or shape anything. For Armenians, who have been silenced, left out and suppressed in the political, economic and cultural spheres of Turkey, it seems that the magnitude of anxiety has multiplied and transformed into something else with the suffocating state surveillance and control of non-Armenians, who have been otherwise crafted as a majority by the state and imagined as such by the citizens. It is the growing number of disillusioned people that has translated a somewhat foundational condition of anxiety in post-Genocide Turkey into a tangible fear of the future.  

In earlier research conducted among Palestinian citizens of Israel, I observed how claiming injury/injustice depended on previous cycles of naming hurt and loss, and blaming/looking for someone/something to hold accountable. This framework should also hold valid for Armenians in Istanbul, whether they seek citizenship elsewhere or not. The uniqueness of our phase two informants lies not only in their observation that there is nowhere from which to claim justice or reparation but also that there is no one else around them who would similarly do so. 

A final note on the recent political developments in Armenia deserves special attention here as Armenians in Turkey follow the news about Armenia as never before. The 44-day war with Azerbaijan took place in a period when we were finalizing our phase one interviews, and by the time we started our phase two interviews, it had already ended. Between the lines of both of our groups of participants, this led to zigzags about whether Armenia would be able to hold on to its promise as an open country with a consolidated democracy. As the news from the frontline was coupled with Turkish mobs targeting Istanbul’s Armenian neighborhoods, there was confusion about how to – and how much to – relate to what was going on in Armenia. Some of our respondents took it as a moment to further silence themselves. However, a tiny group among our respondents in Istanbul counterintuitively perceived this as an ‘opportunity’ to think through prospects of belonging to both countries. For instance, as one of our respondents who had never imagined living in Armenia despite her newly acquired passport put it, “the war demonstrated that there was only one place that will stand behind Armenians in the world and that is Armenia.” As this article has argued, such a decision to move to Armenia entails a passage from a state of anxiety to a direct perception of fear – which the recent war has partially but considerably succeeded in generating in multiple ways. This is why, while I believe that Armenia is going to solidify its co-centrality in the world of Armenians, it is also too soon to jump to a conclusion about what kind of a future is about to unfold for the people of Turkey, let alone the Armenians in this country.

Dr. Salim Aykut Ozturk

Dr. Salim Aykut Ozturk

S. Aykut Ozturk is a political and visual anthropologist with a PhD from UCL Anthropology Department. He has extensive research experience in various displacement contexts around the world, including Jerusalem, London and Istanbul. His first book "Mobility and Armenian Belonging in Contemporary Turkey: Migratory Routes and the Meaning of the Local" (London: IB Tauris) is forthcoming in 2022. He is currently working on a second book, "An Island that is No More: Everyday Politics and Armenian Placemaking in Istanbul." He is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Dr. Salim Aykut Ozturk

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2 Comments

  1. In the 1950’s 10% of the population of Instanbul was Greek . Then the Turkish government organised the pogroms against the Greeks similar to “ Crystal Night” of Nazi Germans with rapes smashing Greek shops and 100,000 Greek bread winners deported. The same occurred in 1965.
    The population of Instanbul is now $15m with only 4000 Greeks .
    Such is the mindset of the Turks. The Turkish population is made up of the remnants of others who went crypto underground to survive against the majority of Turks. This minority from Bulgaria , Ukraine, Greece Armenia , Kurdistan , Romania, etc mixed ethnic characteristics can be seen to not resemble the Turkoman . Turkey has now secured its North Western borders with the pit down of Armenia. The push is now definitely South West into Syria and into Hellenic Mediterranean territory as the Treaty of Lausanne ends in 2023 . It is clear that Turkey is building up a war machine that exceeds defense requirements and is for the invasion of little Greece . Greece is preparing for a defensive war against this aggressor . It will be the war that Turkey initiates against Greece that will reset the geopolitical region of a fractured Turkey.

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