Amongst the headlines on the economic crisis, torture memos and the Obamas’ new dog was an almost-missed article that may prove more interesting. As the Washington Post reported on Thursday, “Turkey and Armenia announced yesterday that they had agreed in principle to normalize relations.” This is significant in light of 20th century relations between Turkey and the Armenians, beginning with the expulsion of Armenians from Turkey during World War I and continued debates over whether or not this counted as genocide, and extending to after the Cold War, when Armenia emerged as an independent country and engaged in a war with ethnically Turkic Azerbaijan. This follows similar developments in another ethnic conflict involving Turkey, with Turkish officials recently ordering that mass graves containing Kurds killed during separatist unrest in the 1990s be exhumed.

While there are many factors at work, it is very likely that this is part of a broader shift in Turkish security policy under the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002. The party’s electoral victory prompted concerns about the group’s commitment to democratic norms and the possibility it will institute Islamic law. The concerns proved unfounded, however, with the AKP acting as responsible reformists; ironically, the Turkish military—the guardians of secularism—emerged as the greatest threat to democracy in the country, threatening several times to remove the AKP from power. Yet, while the AKP is not a radical force in the mould of the Taliban, their rise to power did change Turkey through the redefinition of Turkish identity and the incorporation of religious influences.

The Turkish political system began to open up in the 1990s, and increasing popular pressure on the state’s actions gradually broke the military’s exclusive hold on security policy. This also undermined the military’s monopoly over what security means, exposing this to popular contestation as well. The AKP’s rise was part of this, advancing a conception of Turkish security that questioned the state’s US ties and was more concerned with global Muslim opinion than its predecessors’. This was not a revolutionary rejection of the West, though, as Turkey continues to view itself as European and the AKP actually criticized the secular parties for not pushing hard enough on gaining accession to the European Union.

Some of this redefinition has gone against US interests. Anti-US sentiment—both within Turkey and around the world—led the AKP to reject cooperation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while anger among AKP leaders and regional publics at the 2008 Israel-Hamas conflict resulted in some tensions between Turkey and Israel, who have long been military partners.

Yet, this has also involved a break with Turkey’s secular nationalist legacy, which could prove positive. While the AKP has advocated an increased role for Islam in Turkish society, it has simultaneously deemphasized the significance of ethnic divisions and attacked ethnic Turkic chauvinism. The party launched major outreach campaigns to the Kurdish population—although Kurdish parties won out over the AKP in 2009 local elections—and has proved more willing to compromise on the Armenian issue, as its identity is not tied as tightly to the founding myths of Turkish nationalism (which include downplaying crimes against the Armenians). Interestingly, the digging up of the Kurdish graves was enabled through the arrest of several security officials who were involved in actions against the Kurds; they were arrested on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the AKP in early 2009.

See also Doug Merrill’s analysis.

— Peter Henne, Doctoral Candidate, Georgetown University Department of Government

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