Armenians are once again fearing for their future in Turkey – journalist

Turkey’s intervention in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has again turned attention to its complicated, and sometimes violent relationship with its own Armenian community.

During the Ottoman Empire, present-day Turkey was home to a thriving ethnic Armenian community. But as the empire began to collapse during the First World War, Ottoman authorities were responsible for the systematic killing of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, a mass murder now widely accepted to have been a genocide. 

Today, there are between 35,000 and 70,000 Armenians still living in Turkey, mainly concentrated in Istanbul, where they continue to make up a vibrant part of the city’s multicultural heritage. But, as journalist Aris Nalcı told Ahval in a podcast, the Armenian community once again feels under threat.

“Most Armenians were already willing and thinking to go abroad. Now they are even more eager,” Nalcı said, with a few families already having left for the United States and Canada. 

War in the digital age has increasingly seen conflicts play out online, and the Nagorno-Karabakh clashes have been marked by a surge of hate speech towards Armenians on Turkish social media. After interviewing an Armenian, Nalcı said he received hundreds of threatening messages. 

But while the medium may be new, the dynamics fuelling ethnic tensions remain largely the same. “Those who incite hatred among the people benefit from nationalism,” Nalcı said, and in Turkey such politics can win you an “1-2 precent of the vote”, at the cost of the small remaining Armenian community.

Turkey has taken an increasingly assertive foreign policy stance in recent years, a move that appears part of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) increasingly nationalist turn in the face of electoral defeat in June 2015.

This includes in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey has provided military support to Azerbaijan, a country with which it shares close cultural ties and has long been a cause célèbre of Turkish nationalists. 

But as Nalcı points out, although inhabited by ethnic Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is a republic with a separate administrative structure. And Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, is therefore not actually at war with Armenia. Yet Azeri and Turkish rhetoric has tapped into old prejudices about "fighting the Armenians". “It makes people enemies, not a state,” he said.

Meanwhile, the human cost of the conflict continues to be high. The number of deaths is believed to be in the thousands, Nalcı said, which for Armenia, a country of less than 3 million, is another blow to a community that has already suffered a genocide. 

With a population of 10 million, Azerbaijan is not that big either, Nalcı said, and “mothers are trying not to send their children to the army”.