ANKARA: The recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region seem to be evolving into a conflict in which all regional actors are participating — particularly Turkey and Russia — whether through attempts to control information, drone usage, or the employment of foreign mercenaries.
Garo Paylan, one of the few Armenian members of Turkey’s parliament and a member of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been an outspoken critic of Turkey’s recent policies on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
“Turkey is currently the only country that supports war, although it is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is tasked with negotiating a settlement to the Karabakh conflict,” Paylan told Arab News. “But Ankara has lost all neutrality in this process.”
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been holding joint military exercises for some time with Turkey and Russia respectively, which has likely resulted in improving their military capabilities in the difficult terrain and the soon-to-arrive harsh winter conditions. The Azeri army is using Turkish-made drones.
According to Paylan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey will all be losers if the conflict in Karabakh is allowed to continue, while Russia will be the only winner. He believes that Moscow is taking advantage of Turkey to make Azerbaijan and Armenia much more dependent on Russia in the energy-rich region.
Turkey’s energy cooperation with Azerbaijan is on the rise, in contrast with its diminishing imports from Russia and Iran, its erstwhile major sources. Turkey reportedly plans to establish a permanent military base in Azerbaijan.
However, to what extent Turkey will be willing to risk undermining its relationship with Russia, or whether Ankara will attempt to use this crisis to gain leverage over Moscow, is still unclear, as both countries support opposing sides in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts.
In the meantime, the current escalation of regional tensions has had direct repercussions over citizens of Armenian descent living in Turkey.
Convoys of cars flying the flag of Azerbaijan and sounding their horns regularly participate in demonstrations in Istanbul, particularly in areas where the majority of residents are Armenian. The street demonstrations began on Monday in the district where the headquarters of the Armenian Patriarchate is located.
Paylan has repeatedly called on authorities to guard against the alarming rise in incidents of hate speech against Armenians on both social and mainstream media, and warned of the potential for hate crimes sparked by the government’s bellicose support for Azerbaijan. Ibrahim Karagul, editor-in-chief of a major pro-government newspaper in Turkey, recently called on Turkey to “accidentally” drop a bomb on the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Before the First World War, there were an estimated 2.4 million Armenians living in Turkey. There are currently around 60,000, mostly residents of Istanbul.
Omer Celik, the spokesperson of the ruling Justice and Development Party, said the government would not allow the demonstrators to threaten Armenian citizens, but the fact that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained silent has sparked criticism.
According to Paylan, the Karabakh conflict has triggered a rise in nationalism and racism, and now poses a real danger to Armenians in Turkey.
“Any hate speech towards the Armenian people makes our own citizens an imminent target. The government is using this conflict for domestic consumption. Armenian-origin citizens have become scapegoats, and the object of rising racism and hate speech,” he said.
Hrant Dink, a well-known Turkish-Armenian journalist and intellectual, was killed in 2007 in an armed attack by a young Turkish ultranationalist in Istanbul, whose trial is still ongoing. That case has become a symbol of hate crimes against minorities in Turkey, and continues to be dogged by allegations of state involvement 13 years later, as full details have yet to be revealed.
Before his murder, Dink famously said, “I feel like a dove, fearful and free at the same time. But I know that the people in this country would never dare touch a dove.”
Paylan believes the Armenian community shares those same feelings at the moment.
“The current climate reminds me of previous anti-Armenian pogroms. We have experienced this worrying trend for the past four generations,” Paylan said.