Ohannes Kilicdagi

Ohannes Kilicdagi

Ambivalence as a tool of governance

Turkish government’s policies toward Armenian community’s status and Patriarchate elections a calculated tool to keep the community receptive to accepting the lesser of two evils.

The status of those groups that are called “non-Muslim Lausanne minorities” in Turkey has been always ambivalent since the beginning of the republic, which has stripped off some rights and opportunities that they had in the Ottoman millet system. They would not have been left in limbo if they had been given the status of equal citizens instead of their status in the Ottoman millet system. However, they have not been treated as equal citizens of the country either, as they have faced a variety of political, economic, and fiscal discrimination throughout the history of the republic. In other words, these people have lost rights based on their group identity or membership in the Ottoman millet system but could not gain citizenship rights (not on paper, but in reality) based on their individuality in the republic.

 As an integral part of this policy their institutions have been also left in an ambiguous situation. One may point to the state of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul as an example of this approach. The Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul is a centuries-old institution, which was indeed a part of the Ottoman administrative system. Armenian Patriarchs used to act as the official mediator between the Ottoman state and the Armenian community. For example, they managed the collection of some taxes from the Armenian community as well as contributed to the conscription process of Armenians into the Ottoman army. So, it was an officially, legally recognized institution by the state. 1863 Armenian Constitution (which the Ottoman state called “regulation” rather than constitution), prepared by the community and became a part of the Ottoman legal system after being ratified by the state, defined the limits of authority and responsibilities of the patriarch and patriarchate. The Turkish Republic, on the other hand, neither adopted this document as a part of its legal corpus nor prepared another law defining the status, rights, and responsibilities of the Armenian Patriarchate. As a result, the Armenian Patriarchate does not exist on legal ground; legally speaking there is no such institution. Practically speaking, however, Turkish state has continued to treat the persona of Armenian patriarch as the representative of the Armenian community as state representatives accept him in official meetings, invite him to official ceremonies in national and religious holidays, discuss not only religious but social problems of the Armenians with him. Moreover, President Erdogan has sent a letter of condolence to the Armenian Patriarchate on every April 24 (of course, without pronouncing the “G-word”) since 2014, which is another gesture of recognizing him as the representative of Armenians in Turkey. In sum, there is a huge discrepancy between de jure and de facto situations of the Armenian Patriarchate.

This absence of legal ground is also reflected in the election of Armenian patriarchs. In the 1863 Armenian Constitution it was stipulated that the Armenian Patriarch would be elected by the General Assembly which itself was to be elected by popular vote. In the republican era, similar to the situation explained above, no permanent legal document organizing patriarchal election has been promulgated. During the elections in 1961, 1990, 1998, and 2019, the existing governments enacted an ordinance organizing the election but each time it was particularly underlined in the ordinance that it was just for that election and would not bring about any permanent legal consequence. In this way, the government did not tie its hand with any permanent rules and regulations and secured that next time the Armenian community could not execute the election of a patriarch without receiving a new ordinance from the government. As a matter of fact, the last election in 2019 was preceded by a long crisis because of this lack of permanent legal regulation of patriarchal election. The previous patriarch, Mesrop Mutafyan, was diagnosed with a neurological disease in 2009 that first made him unable to perform his duty and later left him in coma for long years. Subsequently, a disagreement emerged within the Armenian community about how they should proceed as Armenian patriarchs are elected for life unless they resign. Technically, Mutafyan was not dead and there was no resignation either. The Turkish government, exploiting this internal disagreement, did not publish a new ordinance for the election until Mutafyan’s death on March 8, 2019. So, the government delayed the election for ten years. Moreover, the ordinance that the government issued contained a prerequisite for candidacy which none of the previous ordinance had had: all candidates had to be priests ordained by the Armenian Patriarchate. It was widely agreed that the government, most probably being prompted by certain people within the Armenian community, added this new prerequisite to block a number of potential candidates whom the government would not like. Once again, the non-existence of permanent and foreseeable regulations of elections enabled the government to intervene in the patriarchal election in accordance with its own will.

When the aforementioned ordinance was promulgated in 2019, again a disagreement occurred within the Armenian community. One camp argued that this ordinance should not be opposed through judicial means because otherwise, it would last another decade to execute the election. The other camp, contended that the ordinance should be rejected as it undemocratically intervened in the election and unjustly crossed out some candidates. Eventually, the former view tipped the balance, an election was held and the current patriarch, Sahak Maşalyan, was elected in December 2019.

Here we see a governmental strategy: stalling the election for a long time and making people desperate about it; later, enacting a defective regulation in accordance with their policy purposes and exploiting the hopelessness of the people to make them accept it, as they think this is their only choice. Additionally, lack of permanent, foreseeable and, of course, democratic, legal regulation generates dispute within the community, which again the government exploits to impose its own will on the community. This is a recurrent pattern that one may see in the treatment of Armenians and other “non-Muslim Lausanne minorities” by the Turkish state. Indeed, something similar has happened in the elections of minority foundations for the last nine years. Let’s focus on that in the coming articles.

*Ohannes Kılıçdağı, after receiving double major BA degrees from sociology and political science departments of Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, continued his doctoral studies at the Department of History of the same university. He was a research fellow at the Department of Near Eastern Studies of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2012-2013. He received his PhD in 2014 with his dissertation titled “Socio-political Reflections and Expectations of the Ottoman Armenians after the 1908 Revolution: Between Hope and Despair”. Between 2003 and 2017, he lectured at the Sociology Department of Istanbul Bilgi University Sociology on social and political history of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. From 2017 to 2019 he was a post-doc fellow at the Center for the Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University. He was appointed as Nikit and Eleanora Ordjanian Visiting Professor at Middle Eastern South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) at the Columbia University for Spring 2020. Meanwhile, he was a research affiliate at the History Department of MIT during the 2019-2020 academic year. He was Kazan Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno in Fall 2020, and Dumanian Visiting Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago in Spring 2022.

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