by The Development Insider

The recent announcement of a normalization of diplomatic ties by Presidents Abdullah Gul of Turkey and Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia in Switzerland presents an unprecedented opportunity for the international community to engage the major stakeholders on multiple fronts to promote sustained peace and the process of reconciliation so often denied the south Caucasus since late Ottoman times. On October 10th, partially mediated by the shuttle diplomacy of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Turkey and Armenia jointly signed a set of protocols for the full normalization of diplomatic ties, which would include the opening of the border crossing; closed since 1993 when out of solidarity with long-time ally Azerbaijan during said country’s conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karbakh, Turkey blocked all cross border movement and trade. These events prompted nearly two decades of hostility – including limited trade, travel, and social interaction between Armenia and the two allies forming its east and west borders. The social drama has undeniably hampered the economic and social development of newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan in the post-Soviet context, while unnecessarily maintaining a hostile milieu in northeast Turkey. The current stalemate hampers the trade and social interaction necessary to promote the reconciliation process denied the region since the traumatic events which unfolded in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire.

Although the Executive branches of Turkey and Armenia have agreed to normalization, the protocols must now be ratified by both countries’ parliaments in order to be signed into law and actually be implemented on the ground. Despite a marginal few in Armenia voicing objections to the normalization process until Turkey officially recognizes the atrocities committed by the Ottoman military during WWI against ethnic Armenians as genocide, the process seems likely to pass through both legislatures with little delay. The resulting climate would leave a plethora of opportunities for the international development and diplomatic community to get to work creating the framework for cross-border activities to promote the mutual cooperation, dialogue, social interaction, and trust necessary for the reconciliation process between Armenia and Turkey.

The alleged genocide of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915 left deep scars in the collective socio-historical consciousness of Armenians, both in the homeland and across the widespread diaspora. Moreover, the resulting sense of victimization and duplicity felt by the Turks towards the Armenians following the events of WWI in Eastern Anatolia and the south Caucasus, prolonged and exacerbated by decades of isolation and little social interaction between the two, has served to further entrench the sense of indifference and hostility towards Armenia. Such human social realities, which manifest themselves as a result of conflict, must be understood with the full consideration of the concepts of war and peace as social actions that are made through social processes operating at every level of society. Prolonged human conflict must be conceptualized as a cultural system, which when sustained for a significant period of time becomes reproduced in the minutiae of daily living and the very constructs of what it means to be human and live in ones community. A comprehensive and holistic sociological critique of traumatized and mutually hostile communities allows a full comprehension of the phenomenological experience which informs the cultural reproduction of spoken words, memory and myths, poetry and songs, symbols and rituals of the entire social organism at work serving to prevent a full reconciliation between communities. When such socio-cultural habits develop and last over a prolonged period of time, they can deeply inform the collective social memory of a society, and when not properly addressed lead to further violence and animosity. In the contemporary political context, development agencies and NGO’s are perfectly poised to utilize this anthropological perspective in order to program the types of cross-border initiatives and projects to promote and encourage the coming together of disparate group historical narratives. In the process, the much delayed yet highly anticipated discourse and dialogue will finally be granted the platform necessary for Armenia and Turkey to begin the process of reconciliation.

For instance, an excellent starting point for the international development community regarding strategic planning would be to address the perceptions and rigid cognitive schemas of both communities’ through engagement with their youth populations. Funding for cross-border academic exchanges, starting at a relatively young age through the university level, would serve to not only dispel myths and lingering slanderous propaganda regarding the ‘other’, but to break down the cultural barriers and entrenched negative emotional reactivity associated with the other side. The programming of cross-border projects aimed at youth interaction could further serve to educate each side on the perceptions of history and academic approaches towards understanding the controversial events which led to the mutual hostilities in the first place. Youth returning home to either Turkey or Armenia possessing the memories of recent positive experiences could potentially serve as informal “ambassadors of peace” with the older generation, typically more rigid and unyielding in their historical memories and cultural stereotypes. With the older adolescents and university aged students, teams of mixed Armenian and Turkish researchers could be commissioned through small grants to look into various aspects of the alleged genocide and jointly compose consensus- based essays at various levels of analysis and editorial comment; an idea which is currently part of the political agreement brokered in Switzerland by both countries’ governments. This type of academic engagement, when thorough and widespread, will create the next generation of politicians and political activists with more similar and holistic views and perceptions of history and therefore a more empathetic approach to one another.

In a related manner, non-academic cross-border extracurricular activities aimed at engaging youth in cooperative dialogue oriented activities would further the prospect of engendering a generation of young Turks and Armenians fully on the path towards collective emotional healing and sustained reconciliation. A framework model for such cross-border cooperation among the youth is that of the NGO Volunteers for Peace (VFP), based out of Vermont in the United States. VFP serves to connect youth with cross-cultural exchange volunteer opportunities in various “work camp” placements in community settings all over the world. In a typical work camp young people from up to 6-10 different countries live and work together on community projects, with the goal being to promote international understanding, cooperation, engagement, and the long-term foundation for peaceful relations. The international development community could facilitate such exchange programs by providing funding for travel and accommodations for lower-income youths to participate, establishing the parameters of volunteer projects through extensive contacts and networking with local NGO and municipal government communities, and perhaps providing the psychological expertise to promote the types of extracurricular activities that recondition the aforementioned negative cognitive schema serving to sustain ill will between the two communities. The international community would be extremely short-sighted to neglect engagement with both countries youth on such projects.

In the event of a border opening, the international development community could further promote cooperation and cross-cultural understanding through facilitating the inevitable resumption of trade between local communities on both sides of the border. Before the border closure in 1993 a significant amount of cross-border trade and travel took place, most notably between the cities of Gyumri in Armenia and Kars in Turkey. The ensuing isolation caused by the border closure left vast swathes of rural communities without markets for their mostly agricultural goods, devastating local economies. There are a number of program areas the development community could engage in order to allow trade and multiple levels of social interaction to take place. For instance, by financing the restoration of the rail line connecting Gyumri and Kars, immediately efficient and mutually beneficial trade could commence. Capital assistance improvements on the rail crossing would significantly reduce the virtual isolation of much of the Armenian community, while simultaneously creating a plethora of market opportunities for goods from Turks in Anatolia. Moreover, there would also be the opportunity for the international community to program technical assistance workshops regarding standardized customs regimes, immigration checkpoints, border detection protocols, and the improvement of trade readiness of exported-oriented value chains. These types of workshops would serve to not only facilitate the professionalization and standardization of the necessary legal and technical skills for regional trade, but also generate the necessary social platform for discourse, dialogue, and constructive engagement between interdependent communities engaged in complex systems of exchange and cooperation. The international development community could provide the marginal expenses related to equipment and infrastructure, while also committing the necessary resources for competent implementing partners to provide the necessary training for such professional services. The multiple levels of social interaction necessary in sustained trade and recurrent economic transactions will inevitably lead to the inter-subjective exchanges so often celebrated by social theorist Jurgen Habermas, which lead to a convergence of understanding, behaving, experiencing, and social posture and gait.

The competent and socially responsible implementation of political processes at every level of society is an area of common concern to sovereign states across the world. Therefore, facilitating the development of good governance, rule-of-law, and competent parliamentary politics in joint programming across Armenia and Turkey is another potential point of engagement for the international development community to further our current agenda. For instance, by funding various conferences and workshops related to jurisprudence and issues pertaining to the European Court of Human Rights, Armenian and Turkish judges could engage in direct dialogue related to issues of common concern surrounding the rule-of-law. Furthermore, Armenian and Turkish prosecutors could be brought together for similar workshops in order to jointly work through complex case studies related to issues of human rights, war crimes, illegal immigration, and provide feedback and suggestions on domestic issues for the other side. This type of cross-cultural discourse on profound topics related to the principles of law, legal theory, and jurisprudence will inevitably lead to more understanding and tolerance of difference on issues vital to all democratic societies. A similar process has taken place with regards to legal standardization across the European Union, an aspiration both countries are keen to strive towards. Moreover, the implementation of a series of parliamentary exchanges between the two countries would greatly facilitate the process of reconciliation by standardizing the process of popular politics. With both countries parliaments playing such a vital role in the normalization process, the opportunity to get law makers from both sides engaged in constructive dialogue is not to be missed. As representatives of constituencies on the ground, regular contact amongst parliamentarians could serve to facilitate a better understanding of the concerns and anxieties of populations on both sides of the border regarding normalization, while serving as an informal platform for discussion on how to assuage those concerns through parliamentary spokespersons and public relations personnel. Collaborative participation in development projects related to good governance and rule-of-law has enormous potential to further the reconciliation agenda at the highest levels of government for both countries, inevitably trickling down and affecting popular perceptions of local communities.

The coming normalization of diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia, initiated on October 10th ,presents an unprecedented opportunity for the international development and diplomatic community to augment the prospects of sustained peace and reconciliation in the South Caucasus. By strategically programming the types of cross-border activities that promote dialogue and cooperation on an egalitarian and constructive international stage, development agencies can not only promote the cause of reconciliation and healing on both sides of the Turkish-Armenian border, but also promote sustained stability in a region becoming increasing vital to the Western world’s strategic energy supplies. This dark chapter in both Turkey and Armenia’s history now has the bilateral political momentum to be reconciled, creating a momentous opportunity for development agencies to implement long-term strategy for cooperation and engagement between the two countries’ communities. This urgent opportunity for peace and reconciliation in the South Caucasus must not be missed.