Sunday, September 19, 2010

Turkey: Cultural Diplomacy or Propaganda?

As promised earlier this March by the Turkish authorities, the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey held a one-time service in Surb Khatch (Holy Cross) church of the Akhtamar Monastery, on the island in Lake Van (in South-Eastern Turkey). Certainly, the intention of the government was to demonstrate its good-will not only towards its own ethnic Armenian minority, but also towards the Armenian state and the Armenian Diaspora worldwide.... and, just perhaps, showcase the event in front of the international community.

Photo courtesy of RFE/RL.

They certainly managed to make it to major Western news media organizations: BBC, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera English, to name but a few...

But, as captured by some of this coverage, there has been a major controversy involved regarding the official "status" of the Church: the authorities have designated the monastery as a "museum", and would not allow a cross on the cupola. The official explanation provided, however, were: "certain technical issues." (Nevertheless, the Governor of the Van Region reportedly said that the cross will be placed within 1.5 months. Not sure if this will materialize...)

All this in light of the Turkish refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Thus, there were no official representatives from the Armenian Government or the Armenian Church, while those Diasporans who ventured out there have been shunned and criticized by their communities back home.

What is interesting, however, is the way the National Turkish Television Channel covered the event in its respective English and Armenian-language sections (yes, they do have content in Armenian). The English-language article, for example, conveniently left out any mention of the cross-related controversy, and highlighted the presence of more than 3,000 tourists and visitors who came to attend the event. There was also no mention of the fact that only 50 high-ranking officials and representatives, and some media, were allowed in the church, while the rest of the audience had to watch the service on giant screens outside.

The Armenian section, however, could not ignore these concerns, so it resorted to citing the official explanation. It even featured an excerpt from an interview with a visiting Armenian journalist - Meline Mouradian - who expressed her excitement about the event, and said she hopes that "all issues will be resolved before similar occasions in the future."

In the meantime, there was a rally organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnagtsutyun) in Yerevan, where the supporters of the party, together with representatives from the Church, walked to Tsitsernakaberd (the Genocide Memorial) as a sign of protest against Turkey, the Turkish denial, and against, what they consider to be, the desecration of the Surb Khatch Church.

Great public diplomacy? Or propaganda? Certainly, it's a great overture by Turkish authorities, however, they should know better, and realize that by no means can this be enough to "satisfy" the moderate majority of Armenians around the world (I don't think the government should concern itself with the more radical nationalists - not just yet, at least). The problem with the cross and the fact that most of the visitors were not allowed to attend the ceremony (or even to get into the church, later), only added fuel to the ever-present Genocide issue.

Next time, perhaps...?


  1. You know, it's interesting. Al Jazeera English asked me to go out with a cameraman from A1 Plus and ask people on the streets of Yerevan about this event.
    Firstly, most people did not want to talk (a mistrust of the media or society's reluctance to make it's own voice heard even if given a chance?) but others were split.

    In the majority were those who had no clue even about the event and when told actually welcomed it. Otherwise, the minority who did know were mainly against it, with the rest for.

    Kind of interesting, but the notion that most Armenians were actually aware or against this event is not true. Was amazed that most just didn't know which indicates they do not access the media...

  2. Thanks for the interesting post...
    The question, though, is rhetorical.
    Of course, it is propaganda.
    It may seem clumsy (which it is) but only if seen as intended for Armenians (in Turkey, in Armenia or Diaspora). I think, however, that the target audience was actually different. It is a showcase for the European and US general public and for those individuals and agencies in those countries who wish to emphasize Turkey's goodwill, gestures of reconciliation, etc. (Obviously, it is a totally different question why they are interested in doing that, what their agendas are, etc. What matters here is that such events can conveniently be used for manipulating the public opinion and for providing "legitimate" reasons to make statements or to justify inaction)...
    In a word, in my view, it is traditional diplomacy and propaganda, not PD.
    Onnik has no solid facts to make a contention that "the notion that most Armenians were actually aware or against this event is not true". Just asking a few people on the streets of Yerevan does not ensure a representative sample.
    Most people are definitely aware. On the whole, it seems, most people feel ambivalent about the whole event. In fact, the situation is indeed rather confusing. Add also a growing distrust of Turkey, Armenian authorities, media (you name it) and you will get a better picture of uneasy feelings of most people...

  3. Thanks for the interesting post indeed!

    Although there was a ralley and "Patarak" in Tsitsernakaberd as a protest but Yerkir Media broadcast the whole ceremony LIVE!!!

    Vlad is correct saying that it was mainly addressed to non-Armenians rather than to Armenians. Evidence: see Vercihan's article at A lot of Consuls and Embassy people were there...

    After all this is a mere political game just like the Greek churches' and monasteries' "re-opening" in Turkey (, though some might say there is difference. Of course there is difference but it is part of the ONE VERY WELL PLANNED BIG GAME.

    The Armenian bishop who was initially nominated to attend the ceremony as Holy See of Etchmiadzin representative, when interviewed yesterday admitted the fact that Turkey has(d) a 500-year-long diplomatic experience and we (i.e. Armenia) cannot compete with it!!

    I agree with this. We should just find OUR SHARE of the benefit out of this whole game...!

  4. thanks for the thoughts!

    @Onnik: it's indeed sad that people are averse to expressing opinions/views on camera. i guess looking back at the past can provide a good explanation, tho (well, even if we assume that there are no related issues at present). And awareness - I'm sure MORE people would know about it the day after (i.e. today) since all these reporters who went to attend and cover the event will have their reports broadcast. though, i'll admit, i didn't really follow the "prelude"/run-up in the Armenian media...

    @Vlad & Armine: i would certainly agree with most of your points, and you do point out all the reasons for which this could (should?) be considered propaganda, as opposed to PD or CD. despite it all, though, i do genuinely believe that they'd want to start engaging the Diaspora more actively, and that this is just one other step in that direction - EVEN IF within very narrow limits. the only thing bothering me here - really - is the expectation for Turkey to "give everything up" upfront, all at once, with no caution or reservations. yes, such an expectation might be morally justifiable for many, but what about the political and viability considerations for the Turkish govt?

    and well, after all, no matter how we twist it, PD is about wielding "soft power" - i.e. influence and manipulation (even if 'soft'). let's see how well Turkey did in this respect in front of the "West", this time...

  5. A comment on comments, if I may.
    I agree with most of what you said but not with everything.
    Of course, you are right that sometimes there is this expectation "for Turkey to "give everything up" upfront, all at once". Most people, however, take a more realistic stance. They realize constraints, realities, etc. Actually, Armenians demonstrated quite a lot of patience and understanding, which, in all truth, I did not expect them to be willing or even able to, given the context.
    It looks like it is the other way round. It is Turkey that wants all and NOW!!!
    Most Armenians the world over were unhappy (to put it mildly), most Armenians in Diaspora were furious about the Protocols. Nevertheless, very difficult decisions were made to compromise. And what? Turkey reneged on the agreements and the obligations. And put forth more and more preconditions...
    As soon as the Turkish Government discovered that they did not manage to fool the world (even the obliging part of the world) and that their tactic is backfiring, they went along with this church show in Akhtamar. I will not be surprised if they eventually put the cross on that church. It may happen even next month as the anniversary of the signing of the Protocols is approaching. Or that step can be reserved for April 2011...
    My second comment is about Armineh's quote of the Bishop about Turkish diplomacy.
    Of course, Armenians could (and probably should) learn much from Turkish experience. I doubt, though, that it is the best or the most efficient. I guess other countries can provide much better and more efficient examples (or role models, if you would).
    The "efficiency" of Turkish diplomacy was for centuries grounded in their military power.
    Putting aside political correctness for a moment, just recall the history. Forget about Anatolia or Cilicia. Just Asia Minor, etc. When did all those areas become Turkish? Aha, probable the Milete school of ancient philosophy was Turkish. Simply poor guys were not aware of that... and erroneously thought they were Greek...
    As happened innumerable times in history, the hordes came and usurped and destroyed and conquered. Then ruled and oppressed with sadistic cruelty. (Some nations, however, with masochistic propensities, find it - in retrospect - enjoyable), like some Bulgarians or Georgians.
    Anyway, one can hardly see any diplomatic wisdom there..
    Then the Ottoman Empire crumbled. If you would care to read a bit history, you will see that had it not been for avarice of Britain (Lloyd George) and France (Clemenceau) and the anti-western fever of a new Bolshevik regime in Russia, the US President Wilson's plan would have prevailed and the map would be different and the history would have taken a different course...
    In 1945-1946, it was not diplomacy but the American threat of the use of an A-Bomb that stopped Uncle Joe from taking some action against the Nazi Germany's ally Turkey...
    So much for diplomacy...