Dink: "I am the one who understands his nation’s pains and bears that burden"

On the anniversary of Hrant Dink’s assassination, an interview conducted by Alin Ozinian, mere months before his death sheds light on Dink’s perspectives on the possibility of democratization in Turkey.

January 19 is the anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink. Dink was an invaluable intellectual in Turkey, whose contributions to addressing the problems faced by Armenians in Turkey and whose efforts to bring about reconciliation with history educated and motivated the public. Dink was the founder of Agos, a newspaper the first of its kind which addressed Armenian issues in Turkish. On January 19, 2007, Hrant Dink was assassinated by Turkish nationalist Ogun Samast. In the below interview, completed in 2006 shortly before his death, Dink addresses his hopes and fears for the future, possible political developments in the region, and his proposed pathway forward for Armenians in Turkey, in the Diaspora, and in Armenia itself.

It was in the middle of October 2006. We had arranged to meet with Hrant Dink at his office at the Agos newspaper. I had previously conducted interviews on the theme of the “Intellectual and social atmosphere in Turkey around the Armenian Problem” with 30 Turkish academicians, journalists, politicians, and intellectuals. Hrant had introduced me to many of them. It was now his turn to answer the questions.

He greeted me warmly when I entered his office, and we quickly began to talk. At times during our conversation, we switched off the tape recorder and he expressed his suspicions. How could I have known that the stupid scenario he painted then, which I had not taken seriously at all, could have come true a mere two months later? When our interview had ended, we were both happy with the sense that we had made a contribution to the existing situation, me with my questions, and him with his responses.

The last time I talked to Hrant was over the phone when I was in Yerevan on January 16. I had been asking him for his opinions on turning the project into a book. He cut our conversation short. “Come, we’ll talk face to face here,” he said. I went to Istanbul many times after that date, but we have never talked face to face since…

Will you tell me how and why Agos was founded, and whose idea it was?
Agos is a publication that was founded due to the pressure of the situation the Armenians in Turkey found themselves in. Despite some of the negative reactions from the community, Agos emerged, Solely Armenian-language publications had become insufficient in the community, as there were many Armenians from Anatolia who spoke and wrote only in Turkish. These people could not consume Armenian media and a serious communication problem was in question. There was a push brought about by the desire of a community to open itself to the outside after having lived in a reclusive manner. We had to defend ourselves. The community was being misrepresented in society. At some point, the word “Armenian” had been turned into a curse word, some associated it with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while others associated it with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). When the Karabakh topic was being discussed, it caused uneasiness.

As Armenians, we lived like worms shut off in their homes, listening to what the media said about us and unable to do a thing. We protested the claims, screamed, and declared that it was a lie, but could not express this out loud. We needed to tear down that wall.

One day, the Patriarch at the time, Patriarch Ghazanchyan, called me and invited me over. There was another piece of news in the Sabah Newspaper. A photograph of an Armenian cleric with Abdullah Ocalan had been published with the headline “Here is the proof, Armenian and PKK collusion!” Then His Holiness told me at the time that this was a lie, and that the cleric was not Armenian. He asked my friends and I what we could do about it. I expressed my point of view and suggested that we invite a press conference. It was risky, but we gathered all the local and foreign press. It was incredibly successful. After that, I said that it was not feasible to hold a press conference after every issue, and that we publish a newspaper instead.

A couple friends and I who had suggested the newspaper were running it. Some left afterwards, and then it was my job. Another purpose of the paper was to foster an intellectual atmosphere, to raise from within our community social scientists and intellectuals.

What problems did you come across during the establishment of the paper and afterward?

The first problem was the conservative pressure in the community, and the antipathy the local Armenian press felt against us. There were many who claimed we would collapse after six months to a year, yet we have just completed our tenth year. Consider that some did not even report that Agos was being established.

Because we were working in Turkish, many viewed our paper as a regression. However, we were intending to show that good things could be done for this community by using Turkish. I think now people have come around to the idea.

When you founded the newspaper, were you aiming for the Turks to read and follow the Armenian news as well?

One of our primary objectives was to open our community to the larger society. To be a window, a door, to one another. I think we have succeeded in this, as both communities are more integrated now than before.

We managed to make our own community problems, Turkey’s problems. Operating under the belief that our problems would only be solved by Turkey’s democratization, we pushed our community to show interest towards bigger societal issues. With Agos, the Armenian community began to embrace its identity, to defend it more bravely, and to be fearless.

Can you talk about the peculiarities of being a journalist and publishing a newspaper especially for a minority in Turkey? What are your viewpoints on the freedom of the press in Turkey?

There is no marked difficulty in publishing a minority newspaper. If you are not an ambitious journalist in Turkey, if you are not operating under a definite political argument, if you are more concerned with magazine pieces, then it is not a difficult occupation. But if you are a journalist with certain ideological persuasions, then of course you will face hardship.

In the past few years, we have been experiencing significant problems with freedom of the press. There are new limitations brought by the new Turkish Criminal Code and the Press Law, and we have our fair share of difficulty there. Our paper was confiscated a few times… Sometimes I feel that due to our attitude towards the Armenian issue, we’re dealt with more than our fair share. I feel this, but we persevere, I have not yet given up.

What is the importance of the European Union for Turkey during this point in time? Must Turkey become a member of the EU?

EU membership is an indispensable process for Turkey. It is necessary to understand the factors pushing Turkey to join the EU. The cause is not a genuine desire; it is fear. And because it is fear, the process is moving so slowly. Had there been genuine want, the membership process would have been quick. This fear is the fear of the uncertain. If you look at it from the EU’s perspective, the reason it would accept Turkey is fear regarding what would happen to the country if it were not part of the EU. Thus, if this fear is not overcome, and in my opinion, it should not be overcome, no one will turn their backs to this process. The European Union signifies a transfer of sovereignty but had the militarist structure governing Turkey until today said a definitive no to the EU, this process would not have come this far. If we do not become a member of the EU, we might one day have to leave NATO. The process goes so slowly because of the reason that there is no great desire to become a member of EU. I do not think any development can arrest this process. It may slow it, or perhaps even freeze it at times, but it cannot eliminate it entirely.

What is the greatest problem in the process of Turkey’s Europeanization and modernization?

I think the fundamental problems are the fears of those above, and their rules, and their resistance to the reactions coming from the lower classes. Turkey was established on a region smaller than the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the anxiety remains that it may get smaller yet. We can term this the “Sevres syndrome.” Because of this, a policy of approaching every change with fear and suspicion developed in Turkey. And this is why the dynamics of change move so slowly in Turkey.

Turkey is both a crossroad and a border between the East and West. Within Turkey, I consider Malatya to be the border between East and West. The eastern and western portions of Malatya are different worlds. Turkey truly is a country of strategic importance, but beyond this it is also a country that has ties to the east and the west. As this is the case, it would be unfair to expect a speedy adaptation from Turkey.

One of the greatest reasons that change is not easy is that building constructed in Turkey, that of artificial identities. A new history and a new language were constructed and then imposed on society. This is also the reason they are afraid to reckon with history. Each alternative perspective on history constitutes an earthquake for this artificial identity. I think this scares Europe, because if this building collapses it will not just collapse on itself but on others …

May reforms take place in the sphere of democracy and human rights in the process of corresponding to EU demands?

I have no doubt, but it is a difficult process. Laws may be passed but while putting them into forces there will be opponents...

Change of thinking is necessary, democracy will sufficiently change the way of thinking. The more the way of thinking is changed the quicker democratization will be.

However trouble of people in some situations is observable. For instance, freedom of thought is considered to be high treason (Turkey’s criminal code, article 301), and freedom of religion and conscience (head scarf) may be seen as regression. What is the reason? In effect are people ready for those reforms?

Today people are speaking about the rise of nationalism, but I do not believe that nationalism increases but it is being increased by some people. It became more obvious in the last two years. Those people do their best to design upcoming elections in Turkey. They make plans to overthrow the Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, they have no reason neither economic, nor democratic. One way is to inspire nationalists and it is done everywhere: at funerals of martyrs, against the EU, or while welcoming the Pope.

I think the whole pain of those responses is the coming elections. They do not want to give seats to the Islamists in the government. We will see what will happen…

Do you agree that there are differences in Turkey based on ethnic roots? Can you speak about reasons provoking it and consequences following it?

As for ethnicity, no doubt there are various attitudes. A simple example, today not only Muslims but also Christians, Armenians should have been in main headquarters, military powers, police, various official government offices and ministries. The main reason provoking it is security. Turkey has evaluated the contest of minorities in conception and takes it as a matter of security.

I say facts, but there is mathematical data. Out of 300,000 Armenians during the the Lausanne period, today only 60,000 are left while the Turkish population has increased from 13 million up to 70 million. When one increases how does it happen that the other is decreased? It was necessary to decrease the number of minorities.

Some crucial points materialized. For instance, the law for property tax, September 6, 1955, but what happened has already happened. Besides, many Armenians Turkey because of economic, psychological, and safety related problems.

There is one more fact as well. You will not find anything connected with minorities especially the Armenians in any textbooks. There are facts on minorities only in the textbook of National Security. In elementary school there is not even a sentence such as “Ali gives the ball to Hakob;” Ali will always give it to Veli. When we observe these, we are nowhere. Only in the textbooks of National Security may you find the word “Armenians” which will take place in the unit of unprofitable groups which play tricks on Turkey.

How do you evaluate the relationship between Turkey and Armenia?

We may speak about non-existing relationships. I do not see any relationship after Armenia gained its independence. First the USA attempted to make some steps then the EU, but in vain. Desire exists but it is very weak.

Turkey has not yet become accustomed to the thought that Armenia is an independent country in the Caucasus. There is a state, a neighbor, Turkey should comprehend this and start a relationship.
When state policy fails, public policy takes its place. There are some attempts to establish non-governmental relationship from both sides, but they are very weak, very few.

What do you think the 1915 events should be called?

I have no doubt. It was genocide.

What do you think of diplomatic relations without preconditions suggested by Armenia and the committee of historians proposed by Turkey?

I do not think Turkey’s attitude is an honest one. The Armenian side is more sincere.

Why? Do you have any doubts that the committee of historians will be of any use?

Yes, everybody thinks that the committee of historians will be of no use. As a result, there will be no change in relations. This is the way which Turkey has chosen: no relations. I think Azerbaijan also imposes such a policy to Turkey. The Armenian side is more reasonable and sincere.

What is your opinion of third states on intervening and passing bills recognizing the genocide?

My point of view in these bills may be considered a very romantic one. I also think the world, like Turkey, takes a hypocritical position in the process of accepting the Armenian genocide. The world has been aware of the reality for a long time; they had their role and influence on those times.

Nowadays, France accepts it after decades. It is not a moral attitude, because the case is used as trump card in relations with Turkey. It is very painful for me as an Armenian when my tragedy is used as political trump card on international arenas. I cannot stand it, I oppose it. I am indifferent towards third states. I think the problem should be solved between Turkey and Armenia. But it should be solved not through punishing bills but morality. We do not need punishing bills in morality, our conscience is enough.

I believe that these two states may overcome this, but I do not want to predict anything.

Do you divide Armenians between those who live in Armenia, abroad, and in Turkey, when speaking about the Armenian question?

Not only in connection with that matter, but in general I think so. Turkey is a far and irresistible state for the Diaspora, but for Armenia it is a neighboring and necessary state. For the Armenians living in Turkey, Turkey is their motherland. Though I say such things I do not want to separate Armenians and accept the Turkish point of view.

Turkey should establish good relations with every state. But these two states should come to a conclusion and solve the problem. I do not think that Armenians living in Turkey must be involved in the talks as they are citizens of Turkey.

As a citizen of Turkey are you worried about the Armenian-Turkish closed border? What is your estimation on Turkey’s policy towards Armenia that accepts Azerbaijan’s problems as its own and sets preconditions in the relations with Armenia?

During the Demirel government, good relations were established between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey attempts to make relations with Armenia taking into account the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. Frankly, Turkey does not want to annoy Azerbaijan by negotiating with Armenia. Azerbaijan does not allow Turkey to negotiate with Armenia using the Karabagh problem.

Any nationalistic power will solve this problem in anti-Azerbaijani way. Turkey also takes this side and does not consider Armenia as its neighboring country.

First, Turkey exterminated the Armenian question, but as Armenia gained its independence the question again resurrected. Turkey suddenly saw a phantom and the same question of how to deal with Armenia came up. Turkey was in a desperate situation, but the Karabakh problem emerged, and Turkey clung to it with both hands and rejoiced. Turkey thought that it would take a long time to resolve this. This is the continuation of that policy...

According to you, is the Republic of Turkey the continuation of the Ottoman Empire and can it be held responsible for its history?

I do not expect apology or responsibility from anybody. I am the one who understands his nation’s pains and bears that burden. I do not think of financial compensation or returning of lands. For me, it is important to repair relations broken in the past, to know who and what circumstances played role. European states may also have a positive effect, compensate their guilt and try to soften the disagreement by founding economic and cultural advantageous platforms to make the two states closer.

Can we say that the role of the “Committee of Union and Progress” is great in this matter?

Not only one group is responsible, but there were also assistants who promoted it and shut their eyes to it. Today, there are also people who are reluctant for the truth to come to light. If you seek a responsible party, there are many of them, each one has its share, but I am not the one to remind people of this. Presumably it sounds very romantic, but everyone should admit his guilt.

Let’s try to analyze what are the main problems of the two states?

There are disappointments, unwillingness; enmity and fear…
Today some new fears exist. The Armenians also fear we need to pay attention to them. The Armenians are subdued between Azerbaijan and Turkey. There are two states suppressing then from the right and left. Fear and insecurity are an important handicap that need to be addressed.
We need to explain fairly that Turkey may be a friend of Armenia. The Armenian side should be reasonable, should see the present situation. There is an independent Armenia with two states around it carrying out an embargo. Armenia may relax only in the south but there is a mullah administration which may last indefinitely.
The Diaspora should ponder on this. Armenia should settle good relations with its neighbors and become a member of EU. If Armenia were a member of EU, today Turkey would be subjecting Europe to an embargo, not Armenia.
Instead of passing bills in parliaments of different states, it will be better for the Diaspora to persuade those states to accept Armenia into EU. They should be reminded of their history, the responsibilities they have as their share of guilt in today’s situation. The Diaspora at least should be able to carry that out. This is my formula to go forward and we should demand this from the Europeans based on the past.

Istanbul, October 2006

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.

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