by Alin Ozinian
İstanbul’s Armenian community feared for its safety during the 43-day Karabakh war, which appears to have ended with a peace deal signed by the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents and Armenia’s prime minister on Nov. 10. Not only Turkish-Armenians but also irregular Armenian workers are concerned about their security, with hate speech against Armenians quickly escalating among Turkish society. The situation has forced some Armenians to move abroad and start a new life for the safety of their children and the future of their families.
Since the beginning of the war on Sept. 27, the state-run and pro-government press as well as the public were focused on the military actions in the war. In early October Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised Azerbaijan’s “great operation both to defend its own territories and to liberate the occupied Karabakh.”
İbrahim Karagül, editor-in-chief of the pro-Erdoğan Yeni Şafak daily, was one of the most prominent journalists promoting hate speech towards Armenians on Turkish social media. “A missile must accidentally fall right in the center of Yerevan,” he tweeted on Sept. 27. His tweet generated 11,000 retweets.
Turkey’s “full support,” mentioned several times by Erdoğan, also fed into the ultranationalist feelings of Turkish society. “Turkey stands with and will continue to stand with friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all our means and all our heart,” Erdoğan said.
Anti-Armenian policy and sentiment served to renew hostility and hatred, which took its final shape in slogans and anger during protests in Turkey targeting Armenians in general and Istanbul-Armenians in particular.
On Sept. 28 Turkish and Azerbaijani nationalists drove in a convoy of honking cars bearing Azerbaijani flags to Istanbul’s Kumkapı neighborhood, where the Armenian Patriarchate is located. Kumkapı has also been home to Armenian immigrants since the 1990s.
Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Garo Paylan slammed the demonstration and called on authorities to take precautions. “It is a provocation. I call on the government to take the necessary precautions with regards our patriarchate and institutions. The result of hate speech is hate crime. Stop the politics of hate!” he tweeted.
On Oct. 4 Azerbaijani and Turkish citizens joined in another demonstration in Beyazıt Square. After singing the Turkish and Azerbaijani national anthems and waving flags, Can Kitay, the organizer of the demonstration, said they were gathered there in solidarity with the “glorious army of Azerbaijan” and stated that “Armenia showed herself to be a terrorist country” by “attacking peaceful inhabitants” and that Armenia had “gotten the response it deserved.”
Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson Ömer Çelik stated that threats against Turkish-Armenians were not acceptable. However, anti-Armenian sentiment continued to spread and caused anxiety for the Armenian community of Istanbul.
The pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper reported that the protest was organized by Turkish aid agency the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). According to investigation files obtained by Nordic Monitor, the IHH works closely with Turkish intelligence agency MIT and its president.
Another convoy of nationalists drove down Halaskargazi Avenue, which connects Şişli with central Istanbul, on Oct. 6. The Armenian community, living in nearby Kurtuluş, perceived this as an attempt to intimidate it.
Another HDP deputy, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, tweeted: “You are not supporting Azerbaijan by disturbing our Armenian citizens. You have only become a tool for dangerous provocations.” Gergerlioğlu also compared the nationalists’ actions with the Sept. 6-7, 1955 pogrom against the Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities in Istanbul.
Caroline (39), a native Istanbul Armenian living in Kadıköy, says her family felt alone and “outcast” during the days of the war. “If you are an Armenian in Turkey, life is always difficult for you, but this time it was different. We felt very unsafe. They hate us and don’t need to hide it. I think they don’t want us in this country. We are thinking about moving abroad, but it’s not easy. We don’t know what to do,” Caroline told Turkish Minute.
Many Armenians still think the demonstrations, during which Turks heaped curses on the Armenians and showed solidarity with Azerbaijan, were “messages” for the citizens of Armenia who live in Kumkapı to leave the country.
The “immigration” from Armenia started after independence in 1991. Economic instability in the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union intensified with the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border by the Turkish government. Turkey’s relaxed visa regulations and cheap and easy travel to Turkey were the main driving forces for Armenians.
Heghnar (55) is among the many Armenians who have worked without official documents in Turkey for the last 20 years. She recently left Turkey and returned to Armenia. “Life is difficult everywhere, I worked there for long years, but last month we decided that we could no longer stay in Turkey. Besides various ethnic problems, this time it was matter of life or death. We felt they could harm us, even kill us,” she told Turkish Minute.
Nearly 300 irregular Armenian workers, a favorite target of Turkish politicians angry with Armenian genocide bills proposed in foreign parliaments, left Turkey in November.
The fears of Turkey’s Armenian community did not ease after the ceasefire. Many Armenians still believe the latest protests were attempts to frustrate the community and were provocative acts aimed at repressing the Armenians and giving them a hard time.
Aras (43), a mechanical engineer who works for a well-known foreign company, told Turkish Minute that he was exhausted because of the oppressive atmosphere in his workplace. “My colleagues were continuously asking me questions regarding Armenians’ position on the Karabakh problem and telling me that ‘Armenia has bitten off more than it can chew.’ I explained many times that I am not a representative of Armenia, and more importantly that I’m a citizen of Turkey. My words didn’t change anything. Sometimes I feel like I’m being suffocated and that there is no longer room for Armenians in this country.”
Turkish Minute spoke with Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of the Agos weekly newspaper. He said the nationalist atmosphere had alarmed the Armenian community and that the government took additional security measures for Armenian institutions, including churches, schools and newspapers, in view of the current situation.
“A sub-commission of parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee visited the Armenian Patriarchate and other Armenian institutions as well as the Agos newspaper. We tried to explain the community’s distress because of the media’s anti-Armenian attitude and the proliferation of hate speech. We reminded them that the ‘Armenia started the war’ statement by officials and the press does not reflect the reality and is a misrepresentation of the facts,” Danzikyan added.
While there are numerous Azerbaijani flags flying in various parts of Turkey, Turkish politicians are still sharply criticizing Armenia and claiming that Yerevan is the main obstacle to a final peace. “The ‘Two states, one nation’ slogan is gaining strength and is being repeated not only by Erdoğan, AKP members and İlham Aliyev but also by opposition leaders.”
The Turkish press continues to spread aggressive rhetoric full of hatred against Armenians, while Erdoğan and his “teammates” are fueling Turkey’s totalitarian regime with nationalism and xenophobia.