By Hande Culpan, AFP
Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visit Saturday to Armenia is a brave step, but it is unrealistic to expect a quick reconciliation of two countries with such a poisoned past, analysts said.
Gul will fly to Armenia to watch a qualifying match between the two countries for the 2010 World Cup finals after he was invited by Armenia's President Serzh Sarkisian.
"Gul's visit is a bold move, but one should not expect much from it," said Cengiz Aktar, an international affairs expert at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "First of all, there is no a real desire in Turkey to make peace with Armenia and the atmosphere is not suitable for ground-breaking moves."
Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations and are hostage to a tragic past. Armenia claims that up to 1.5 million of its people were killed in systematic killings by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917, which it wants recognized as "genocide".
Turkey categorically rejects the genocide label. It argues that 300,000-500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in strife during World War I when Armenians revolted against Ottoman rule and sided with invading Russian troops. That resulted in an order to deport them en masse from their homelands.
The Armenian question has for years remained a taboo in Turkey. School books give only a brief paragraph to the people sent into forced exile for betraying the Ottomans. The official account clears Turks of all guilt for the deaths.
Only recently have liberal-minded intellectuals and the educated elite in Turkey begun to question the official line and alternative books re-examining history begun to appear on shelves. But the self-reflection has yet to spread to rural Turkey where many still believe deeply in official nationalist history.
"Fundamentally, the Turkish population is deeply nationalist and one of the founding stones of the Turkish nationalistic streak is animosity to Armenians," Aktar said.
Last year, ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, reviled by many for calling the Armenian killings a genocide, was shot dead outside his office in Istanbul by an ultra-nationalist youth. Several intellectuals, among them Turkey's first Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have been tried in court for remarks contesting the official version of events.
"The loss of Hrant opened the way for Turkish people to come closer mentally to discussing what happened in those years, but politically we are still far from any reconciliation with the past," said Etyen Mahcupyan, who replaced Dink as chief editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is too weak to make any ground breaking moves. The Islamist-rooted ruling party just survived a legal bid seeking its closure; it is under pressure over a controversial investigation into an ultra-nationalist gang and the influential army's top brass has begun to step up warnings of rising Islamist threats to the secular country.
"There needs to be a period of stability in order to see clearly ahead. Turkey is lacking that at the moment and that is why it is unable to discuss the past," Mahcupyan said.
The Armenian massacres is also fodder for domestic politics on both sides of the border, preventing an honest discussion, he explained. Opposition parties attacked Gul even before he confirmed his visit to Yerevan.
Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia when it gained independence in 1991 but no diplomatic relations were established because of the international campaign for the genocide label. In 1993, Turkey shut its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan, which was at war with Armenia over the Nagorny-Karabakh enclave.