By Tigran Avetisian
Representatives of more than 30 Armenian and Turkish non-governmental organizations met for a first-ever joint conference in Yerevan at the weekend to discuss ways of assisting in the ongoing dialogue between their estranged nations.
The event highlighted a dramatic thaw in relations between Armenia and Turkey. After months of intensive diplomatic contacts the governments of the two neighboring states appear close to establishing diplomatic relations and opening the Turkish-Armenian border.
According to Artak Kirakosian of the Yerevan-based Civil Society Institute, one of the Armenian organizers of the conference, it was initiated by Turkish civil society activists with the financial assistance of the British embassy in Turkey. He said they were emboldened and inspired by Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s historic September 2008 visit to Yerevan.
Participants of the two-day conference broadly agreed on the need for an unconditional normalization of bilateral ties. Some of them were optimistic about chances of that happening in the nearest future. “I am very hopeful and positive,” said Hakan Ataman of the Ankara-based Civil Society Development Center (CSDC).
The conference skirted sensitive problems hampering the border opening, focusing instead on the situation with democracy and human rights, environmental problems as well as youth and women’s issues in the two countries. Kirakosian told RFE/RL that the participants, among them the daughter of the slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Delal, agreed to meet on a regular basis and take joint actions in each of these areas.
“We live in the same region and naturally have the same problems,” said Lilit Asatrian, chairwoman of the Armenian Association of Young Women. “I believe that young people can make a very big contribution to settling historical problems that we have with our neighbor.”
The most sensitive and significant of those problems is differing interpretations of the World War One-era mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire seen by many historians as the first genocide of the 20th century. “I think that the Armenian genocide is the most important problem of the Turkish people,” Ataman told RFE/RL. “The Armenian genocide is not only an Armenian question. It’s also a Turkish question.”
Gokhan Kilinc, another Turkish participant, said Turkish-Armenian civil society contacts should concentrate on the future. “We should discuss not the past but what we can do for the future,” he said.