What Does Karabakh Mean to a Turk?

Overview of Turkish Views on Karabakh

There is one common belief regarding the Karabakh region among most Turks: that the Karabakh region is a part of Azerbaijan that has been occupied by Armenian forces. Turks are aware of the fact that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been polarizing nearby nations based on their traditional and ethnic prejudices, interests, and goals, thus hindering the relations of these nations. Put another way, many Turks recognize that problems stemming from this conflict dim the chances to create political, economic and cultural cooperation and unity among the nations in the area.

However, there is a wide range of thoughts among Turks about how this conflict should be solved and what role the Turkish government should play, since they have different understandings and perceptions with regard to the role of nationality, religion, and cultural and political interests, in the conflict.

To begin with, not all Turks agree that the religious, historical, and cultural identity that most Turks share is sufficient to unite nations. Not even all of those who recognize unity among Turkic nations believe that this bond is strong enough to merit action across national borders on the Karabakh matter.

Also, whereas some Turks think that Turkey should play a larger role in the Karabakh problem and support Azerbaijan in their needs, others believe that Turkey should not meddle in the problem and should instead focus more on its own domestic problems. Moreover, whereas some Turkish citizens think that Turkic nations should increase their economic and political cooperation with one another in the East, others think that Turkey should turn toward the West and instead increase its efforts to enter the European Union. With all of this in mind, it is clear that there is not a common “policy” regarding Karabakh among Turks.

Personal Views on Karabakh

I have found that people respond in a variety of ways when asked what they know about the Karabakh region. They might think of the long history of settlement by various empires and communities. Or perhaps they think of the culture of the region, which is very rich in music, cuisine, and art. Or maybe they think about the political turmoil of the region, especially in recent times. Historians argue that the Karabakh region has been the cradle of many civilizations and empires. Caucasian Albanians, Romans, Armenians, Persians, and Turks, among others, have moved to, settled in, fought wars, and lived in the region (The European Azerbaijan Society, 2012).

Most Turks believe that the region is mountainous and hardly accessible with any agricultural production whatsoever. In fact, Karabakh has an abundance of natural resources and beautiful landscapes with rivers, forests, and mountains that allow the region to provide a large part of the agricultural needs of the people of the Caucasus. Moreover, many think that Karabakh region has remained as an underdeveloped area not only in terms of infrastructure but also fine arts. However, The Karabakh region has enriched world art through its rich music, dance and handicrafts, such as carpets and kilims. Carpets and kilims from this region are still highly valued throughout the world for their quality in material, colors, and design. Similarly, mugham music and various Azerbaijani poetic traditions have their roots in Karabakh, and the cultural influence of these traditions is felt to this day.

However, I can see that the region has been suffering from the political and military rivalry between Azerbaijan and Armenia that affects above all those who live in the region, as many have been forced to live in a state of emergency for more than two decades. A solution to the problem, however, has yet to be found.

Why Should Turks Care about the Situation of Karabakh?

There are many reasons why Turks should know more about the Karabakh problem than only the sole fact that Karabakh has been suffering under the occupation of Armenian forces. Ever since I started my higher education in Germany and the United States, I have regularly come across issues relating to the Karabakh region in my research and in class discussions. This has made me understand that simply knowing that the Karabakh region was a disputed land between Azerbaijan and Armenia without knowing details of the conflict was not enough to be able to engage in discussion of the issue.

In order to delve deeper into the conflict, I decided to do some research about the history of the region to be able to better comprehend the present situation. I understood that Turks should know the history of their own region better, especially the political, cultural, and economic situation before, during and after the Cold War. By doing so they will better understand the reasoning used to explain the occupation of Armenian forces of the area, as well as the stances of those in the international community, including those of Turkey and Russia. Equipped with a deeper knowledge of what has happened in the region, more people will play larger roles in demanding the needed actions to end the conflict. Turks in this case–especially those traveling abroad—could play a larger role in illuminating for the international community the situations of the occupied region and perhaps in asking for the world community’s support.

As Turkey has maintained its high GDP every year in recent years, the country is getting more prosperous, which enables and encourages more and more Turkish people to go abroad for touristic, work, and study purposes (Ogret, 2009). Those going abroad and becoming entangled in discussions about the Karabakh problem could actually become cultural and political ambassadors representing the needs and interests of those of the Karabakh region. This way they could increase an international call for a peaceful solution of the problem.

Today’s Realities

Unfortunately, whenever Turks get involved in the discussion relating to the current political relationship of the Caucasus, the focus of many of such discussions have skillfully been diverted to the incidents that happened almost hundred years ago. In other words, rarely do the “recent” topics of Azerbaijanis being oppressed or killed and their territory occupied receive much needed attention, although many alive have been suffering immensely from the current conflict.

Turks should know the current Armenian “Nagorno Karabakh” (the name the Armenians have given to the illegally occupied territory) policies to be able to speak more accurately on this critical current-events topic. For example, they should know that through successful settlement policies of Armenia, the number of Armenians in the Karabakh region has increased, despite having been in the minority throughout the history of Karabakh. Armenian officials have used the recent population statistics to construct the thesis that Karabakh belongs to Armenia. If Armenian officials were to conduct a referendum in Nagorno Karabakh, with these population statistics in mind, they easily could “demonstrate” the “willingness” of the population in Karabakh to become a part of Armenia. In other words, that Azerbaijani claim that Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan might become an inadequate fact that solely relies on historical evidence and does not represent the current situation.

Unfortunately, the education system and the school curriculum in Turkey do not cover this topic in depth, so people are not aware of the situation or have to conduct their own research to increase their knowledge about the Karabakh region.

Turkey’s pursuit of a neutral policy toward the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has resulted in Turkey distancing itself from Azerbaijan. In fact the Turkish Foreign Ministry, under the leadership of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has declared its “Zero Problems with Its Neighbors” initiative, so both Turkic nations have remained without any strong ally in the region until the last decade. However, Turkey’s economic success in the last decade has compelled Turkish foreign policy to apply more “hands-on” approaches to the events happening around its borders (Falk 2012). Although Turkish officials have aimed to maintain a good relationship with Turkey’s neighbors to sustain its economic success, Turkish officials were forced to get involved in the international matters due to recent wars, uprisings, and political unrest especially around its borders and throughout the Middle East. Turkey has been working hard to find ways to mitigate the problems and to stabilize the nations around its borders so that the countries can maintain healthy economic relations with each other.

In this time of unrest, Turkey has come to rely more heavily than ever on Azerbaijan and its rich energy supply. Thus, Turkish officials have increased their relations with Azerbaijan to secure a safe energy supply and work together to provide Europe with natural gas and oil through the Nabucco pipeline (Daly 2012). This enhanced relationship will most likely bring the two nations together, and they most likely work will together more closely to solve the problem related to the Karabakh region.

Moving Forward: A Call to the Turkish Community

The Karabakh problem cannot be solved on a sole political level without proper support from their populations and from the international community. Since Turks are not properly educated about the problem, they cannot make their own informed opinions about the relationship, which also hampers the chances for Turks to act in a unified manner. Thus, in order to increase the support of the population and international community, Turks should seek out more and precise information about the problem to let them become ambassadors for the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

They should seek out reliable history books, documents, and articles from reliable sources where they can learn social, economic and political developments of the region before, during and after the Soviet Union in order to be able to comprehend how the current situation has evolved. It would also be beneficial for any Turk to participate in conferences, panels, and talks related to the problems of the region. It is also important for Turks to be aware of the claims of the Armenians to the Karabakh region to be able to examine the rightfulness of both sides. Once they build their own mind based on historical facts, people will be free of blinders and biases. This way they will understand what needs to be done for the solution of the problem and actively participate in the process of the solution.

Post Written by Emre Elci, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador

Additional Resources

Daly, John. 2012. “Azerbaijan & Turkey Deepen Their Energy Ties” Oil Price. Available athttp://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/Azerbaijan-Turkey-Deepen-their-Energy-Ties.html. Accessed on June 13, 2012.

Falk, Richard. 2012. “Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Zero Problems with Neighbors Revisited” Foreign Policy Journal. Available at http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/02/09/turkeys-foreign-policy-zero-problems-with-neighbors-revisited/. Accessed on June 12, 2012.

Gafarov, Vaisif. 2012. “Territorial Integrity of Azerbaijan at the Turkish-Russian Talks of 1921 (The Moscow and Kars Conferences)” International Conference. Available at http://www.ca-c.org/c-g/2011/journal_eng/c-g-1-2/14.html. Accessed on June 7, 2012.

Ogret, Ozgur. 2009. “Turkey will enter EU, there is no other way” Hurriyet Daily News. Istanbul. Available at http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=8216-turkey-will-enter-eu-there-is-no-other-way8217-2009-11-20. Accessed on June 7, 2012.

Taskiran, Cemalettin. 2010. “Karabakh” Turkish World Research Foundation; Turkish Union. Translated from. Available at http://turkbirligi.net/Yazilar.asp?goster=dos&id=70. Accessed on June 13, 2012.

The European Azerbaijan Society. “Karabakh: Ancient History.” Available athttp://www.karabakh.co.uk/brief-history.html. Accessed on June 7, 2012

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