Friday, March 26, 2010

Turkey's Zero-Problem "PD of Culture"

Cultural diplomacy seems to include several components: exporting one's cultural products, or adopting a "culturally sensitive" approach to diplomacy and public diplomacy (specifically), to name but a few. There is another part to cultural diplomacy too: allowing "foreign insiders" to practice their culture within a country.

Turkey has been learning this lesson recently (and here I will focus on the Armenian issue, only). This month's barrage of statements and crisis-management attempts by the Turkish Government regarding the issue of the Armenian Genocide seemed to have provided a lot of good and bad press for Turkey, as well as Armenia, and although both countries' administrations tried to reiterate their commitment to keep the dialogue open, the relations reached a new low: quite naturally. The most prominent illustration of it was Prime Minister Erdoğan's March 16 threat to expel the 100,000 Armenian migrant workers, who currently live in Turkey. (Later, of course, he claimed the media misquoted him and misrepresented his statements: the easiest way to deal with unfavorable media reports, right?)

(Surp Khatch Cathedral on the island of Akhtamar, Lake Van. Image from Mimdap.)

And yet, it seems that Turkey is back on track with its "Zero-Problem-with-Neighbors" foreign policy, exploring somewhat newer avenues within its cultural diplomacy (in the broader sense, as stated above) with Armenia. Just a few observations from the last two days:

- Yesterday, Turkey's Culture and Tourism Ministry released a statement saying that it will allow annual service to be held in the Surp Khatch (Holy Cross) Cathedral, 10th Cent. AD, of the Armenian Akhtamar Monastery on the island of Lake Van. Although it has been presented as a "tourism-conscious decision", supposedly in the hope of boosting the number of visitors (quite obviously, attracting Armenians from Armenia as well as from all over the world), the one-day service to take place in mid-September is very much a symbolic gesture towards Armenians. Surp Khatch has been a major issue of controversy after Turkey set out a "restoration project" in 2007 and made it into a museum, while the Armenian side claimed that restoration would be incomplete before a cross is placed on top of the church-turned-museum (very similar story to what happened to many Byzantine churches, Istanbul's Hagia Sofia being the most prominent case, of course). Talks of allowing Armenian liturgy in the church have been going on in the past several months, and yet, the release and the timing of this final decision statement by the Ministry seems to have been very strategic. Nevertheless, although the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul already welcomed the news, the major controversy regarding the cross still remains unresolved.

(Detail of David and Goliath from Surp Khatch. Image from ARF.)

- On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also stated that the government is currently trying to work out a way of allowing the children of "illegal Armenian immigrants" in Turkey to attend non-Muslim minority schools. Since many of these families do not have official documentation, it is very difficult for their children to receive education in the first place (making the accessibility to non-muslim-oriented education even more difficult). Although there was nothing concrete said about the matter, it is, again, a clear show of attempt by the administration to ease the tensions regarding Erdoğan's statement last week.

- Today, the Yunus Emre Foundation announced that it is looking forward to opening a Turkish Cultural Center in Armenia, as soon as the "normalization Protocols" are approved and go into effect. Although it is highly unlikely that there will be any progress regarding the Protocols any time soon, the stated intent is still notable, given the history.

Again, attempts are good. The problem is, will they work? After all, credibility and trust are among the key elements indispensable in any relational communication - especially in public diplomacy - and it is a fact that building trust takes time, consistent effort, and relevant actions. Will the world and, especially, Armenia see this as a truly positive sign? So far words have been the norm. Let's see how the transition from talking to doing goes.




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