Turkey Pulse

Armenians dig out their Ottoman land deeds

Article Summary
Armenians might count on Ottoman title deeds, preserved and passed down to generations for 100 years, to claim their abandoned properties next year.

The great suffering and losses that accompanied the forced displacement of Armenians in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire are called a “genocide” by Armenians and “deportation” by Turkey. The parliaments of 20 countries have recognized the Armenian version of events. The centenary of the Armenian genocide is only five months away.

In the United States, where the Armenian issue is most prominent, 42 states have recognized the events as genocide. Yet, in his eagerly anticipated statements every April 24, President Barack Obama has used the expression “meds yeghern,” which means “great calamity” in Armenian, rather than the word “genocide.” Serving his second term free from the pressures of re-election, Obama is unlikely to alter his usual language in 2015. The Republicans, who took control of the Senate in midterm elections Nov. 4, appear to stand closer to Turkey on the Armenian issue, provided Turkey mends fences with Israel.

In a taboo-breaking move, in April Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, issued a message of condolence to the Armenians. “We wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren,” he said. Following Erdogan’s message, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited his future Turkish counterpart to attend the centennial genocide commemorations in Yerevan in 2015. Sarkisian said he was inviting the Turkish leader so he could “face up to telling testimonies of the history of the Armenian genocide.”

The leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not responded to the invitation. The General Staff, however, made an interesting move the first week in November, removing from its website archival documents under the heading “Armenian activities in 1914-1918,” which included photographs of Turks massacred by Armenian rebels. Ali Ihsan Kokturk, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said the military had removed the files in line with a government recommendation and had submitted a parliamentary question on the issue. It is not clear whether Kokturk’s claim is true, but the military’s move underscores Turkey’s desire for the centenary to pass in a calm atmosphere.

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While Sarkisian wants Turkish leaders to “face up” to the genocide, the Turkish leadership has argued that the issue should be left to historians. In his anniversary message last year, penned jointly with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (then foreign minister, and now prime minister), Erdogan stressed that historical issues should be considered along with their legal foundations. “We, as the Turkish Republic, have called for the establishment of a joint historical commission in order to study the events of 1915 in a scholarly manner. This call remains valid. Scholarly research to be carried out by Turkish, Armenian and international historians would play a significant role in shedding light on the events of 1915 and an accurate understanding of history. It is with this understanding that we have opened our archives to all researchers,” the statement read.

Another controversial matter expected to be brought up in 2015 is the issue of Ottoman title deeds on houses and land, including orchards and farmland the Armenians left behind. Having held on to the documents for 100 years, scores of Armenians are expected to use them next year to bring lawsuits in Turkey and abroad.

The historian Israfil Kurtcephe, also president of Akdeniz University, is among the academics closely following the issue. Stressing that Armenians “were once our citizens,” Kurtcephe told Al-Monitor: “A court case [involving an Ottoman-era title deed] was opened in Adana’s Kozan district, and the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. From now on, those who have title deeds could bring lawsuits directly in our courts. … Armenians describe a series of provinces in Turkey’s Cukurova and Black Sea regions as ‘occupied Armenia.’ Turkey should have created institutional mechanisms for a fundamental solution of the problem. Instead of taking action at the 11th hour, we should have set up scientific bodies to counter Armenian lobbies maintaining efforts to have us condemned in the international community’s conscience. Those lobbies are spending billions of dollars. We should shrug off our defensive psychology and create similar budgets in the shortest possible time. We should work for amity between the two peoples.”

Though some argue that territorial and compensatory claims cannot be raised against Turkey because international agreements cannot be retroactive, Kurtcephe noted that brides in Armenia still receive Ottoman title deeds as wedding gifts. “In line with the tradition in some Christian communities, fathers give dowries to their daughters. Others give title deeds as wedding gifts to brides in order to keep the genocide awareness alive. When presenting the title deeds, the person says he is giving his daughter a shop in Trabzon or a house in the Adana region or land of so many acres in Sivas. You can watch all this on Armenian television. Sometimes they broadcast these wedding ceremonies live to convey a message to the public,” explained Kurtcephec.

The coming year will bear witness to whether the court cases concerning the Ottoman title deeds will ease or strain bilateral Turkish-Armenian ties. The two countries have missed major opportunities to normalize relations. A US-backed rapprochement begun in 2008 was marked by an effort at “soccer diplomacy.” Sarkisian and then-President Abdullah Gul watched soccer games between their national teams together.

Building on the thawed climate, Turkey was to open the Alican crossing on the Armenian border, while Armenia was to withdraw from several of the seven Azerbaijani districts in Nagorno-Karabakh it has occupied since 1993. Both the Azerbaijani and Armenian diasporas, however, reacted harshly to the rapprochement process. As a result, the opportunity brought about by soccer diplomacy was squandered.

Now, on top of all the foreign policy troubles Turkey already faces, its long-postponed problems with Armenia are likely to spawn new crises in the coming year.

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Found in: united states, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, genocide, barack obama, armenians, armenia

Tulay Cetingulec is a Turkish journalist who has worked for Sabah and other Turkish newspapers and magazines such as Dunya, Nokta and Aktuel, covering finance and politics. She has also been a news programmer at Turkish television's Channel 6 and TGRT.  

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