Armenian Turks become ‘target’ as Azerbaijan conflict escalates

Renewal of hostilities between two countries on Sunday has killed 100 people

Youths from the Turkey Youth Foundation organisation chant slogans during a protest supporting Azerbaijan in front of Azerbaijan's consulate in Istanbul, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces accused each other of attacks on their territory Tuesday, as fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued for a third straight day following the reigniting of a decades-old conflict. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
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Fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in the southern Caucasus has renewed pressure on Turkey’s ethnic Armenian minority as Ankara ramps up support for its long-standing ally Azerbaijan.

Mostly living in Istanbul, Armenian Turks number around 60,000, a huge drop from the estimated 1.5 million to 2.4 million who lived across eastern Anatolia before World War I, during which the population faced massacres and expulsions by Ottoman forces.

The resumption of the conflict between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan has seen the re-emergence of anti-Armenian sentiment in Turkey, both online and in traditional media.

Garo Paylan, an opposition MP of Armenian ancestry, claimed the Turkish government’s bellicose support for Azerbaijan and anti-Armenian rhetoric was fuelled by “racist motives” that posed a danger to Armenian Turks.

“Why do you perceive Azerbaijanis as brothers and Armenians as the enemy when we have Azerbaijani and Armenian citizens,” he said in comments directed at Vice President Fuat Oktay.

“Are you aware that your hate speech towards the Armenian people is making our Armenian citizens a target?”

The words of politicians and newspaper columnists were reflected in a demonstration outside the Istanbul headquarters of the Armenian Patriarchate on Monday when a convoy of cars decked in Azerbaijani and Turkish flags passed the building sounding their horns.

In the southern city of Sanliurfa, fire engines processed around the city similarly bedecked in flags.

Mr Paylan called the Istanbul demonstration a “provocation” and demanded the government address “hate crimes”.

Even before fresh fighting resumed at the weekend around Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave seized from Azerbaijan by Armenia-backed secessionists in the early 1990s, a report identified Armenians as the group most targeted by hate speech in the Turkish media.

The Hrant Dink Foundation – named after a Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in 2007 – reported on Sept 18 that 803 articles targeted Armenians last year, with many written around the day that marks the 1915 Armenian genocide, a term that itself draws fierce reaction in Turkey.

Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of the dual Turkish-Armenian language Agos newspaper, said the conflict had roused nationalist feelings in Turkey that were raising concerns in the Armenian community.

“Whether it’s Karabakh or a decision taken by the US legislature on [recognising] the Armenian genocide, unfortunately, Turkish-Armenians feel that the spotlight is suddenly turning on them, and of course it creates anxiety among them,” he said.

April 04, 2012.  Vakifli, Turkey - A group of Armenian men play cards in the local cafe in Vakifli, overlooked by a photograph of Kemal Ataturk.  Vakfili, a town of about 80 families near the border between Syria and Turkey, is the only Armenian village left in Turkey after the Genocide of 1915 and the pogroms that followed it. 

Courtesy Scout Tufankjian *** Local Caption ***  rv25ap-cover story-p1.jpg
A group of Armenian men play cards in the local cafe in Vakifl in 2012. Vakfili is the only Armenian village left in Turkey. Courtesy Scout Tufankjian 

Turkey’s affinity with Azerbaijan stems from their shared Turkic ethnicity, language and culture, prompting the expression that they are “one nation, two states”, although their citizens largely follow different strands of Islam.

They have deep economic ties, particularly regarding energy with much of Turkey’s natural gas coming from its neighbour while Baku’s oil and gas reserves cross Turkey to reach overseas markets.

Militarily, the two countries are also close. They signed a defence pact 10 years ago and their armed forces regularly carry out joint exercises. There is also talk of Turkey establishing a permanent military base in Azerbaijan

In addition, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilhan Aliyev have a close personal relationship.

The renewal of hostilities on Sunday has seen some 100 people killed, including civilians, in the heaviest clashes in the stop-start conflict since 2016. Both sides blame the other for reigniting the war.

The conflict threatens to draw in Turkey, which has denied sending air power and Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan, while Russia supports Armenia, although Moscow also has good ties with Baku.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday reiterated Mr Erdogan’s comments that Turkey would “stand by” its ally if it chose to solve the dispute “on the ground”.

Such remarks have been amplified in Turkey’s pro-government media with a leading commentator in the Yeni Safak newspaper calling for Azerbaijan to launch an all-out war.

The media has also sought to align Armenia with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has fought a 36-year insurgency against Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the US and the EU as well as Ankara.

The state-run Anadolu news agency on Monday reported claims by the Azerbaijani ambassador to Ankara that PKK fighters had been recruited to fight alongside Armenian forces, as well as members of an Armenian terror group that targeted Turkish diplomats and airlines in the 1970s and 1980s but has not been active for more than two decades.

The claims were described as “absolute nonsense” by Armenian President Armen Sarkissian.

On Wednesday, Turkish media outlets carried reports of Armenians and “PKK sympathisers” holding an “anti-Turkey” rally in Paris.

Rober Koptas, who runs Aras Publishing in Istanbul, compared the current climate to previous anti-Armenian pogroms.

“Armenians experience this fear very vividly,” he said. “It’s a community that’s already cowering and is closed. When this rhetoric is expressed on social media or in other forms, these fears that already exist in Armenians are exaggerated and life gets a little more difficult.”