Late President Turgut Özal worked to solve ‘Armenian genocide’ dispute

With 19 years having passed since the death of former President Turgut Özal, known for his reformist policies, which paved the way for a more democratic and liberal Turkey, his close friends and aides shed light on Özal’s approach on the Armenian issue and said the former president was ready to compromise with Armenians to solve the decades-old issue before things got more complicated for Turkey in international politics.

Özal became prime minister in 1983 after a military regime handed power over to civilians. He struggled hard to liberate Turkey in terms of freedom of religion and freedom of expression and thought. Moreover, he was warm and responsive to the demands of minorities, Kurds and other groups to get more rights in a globalizing world.

Turkey made a transition to liberal economy during his term and opened to world markets. His policies on the economy and his views on minorities were known by the public. However, how he approached the Armenian issue is little known by the public. His close friends and advisors noted that if Özal were alive today, the problem might have already been solved.

Özal first faced the alleged Armenian genocide when he was in the US to study economics at Texas Tech University in the 1950s. He noticed the existence of a nascent but gradually growing Armenian lobby whose primary aim was to bring the issue of the alleged Armenian genocide to the US political agenda. He seized the opportunity to speak with several people from the Armenian diaspora in order to learn their views and aims. From his talks with Armenians, Özal concluded that some of them were inclined to return to Turkey.

When he became prime minister in 1983, the Armenian issue was one of the topics on his agenda. However, he faced tough challenges as the terrorist Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) intensified its brazen attacks on Turkish diplomats abroad in the early 1980s. The ASALA factor made it very difficult to take any bold steps in domestic politics with respect to bridging the gap between Turks and Armenians.

Behind closed doors, Özal defended the idea of holding negotiations with Armenians to settle a dispute that has had great potential to deal a serious blow to Turkish interests in international politics.

The close friends and aides of the former president spoke with Today’s Zaman over the weekend about Özal’s approach and proposal to solve the decades-old Armenian issue.

Vehbi Dinçerler, 71, a former education minister and a state minister in Özal’s Cabinet, said Özal sought to learn what Armenians wanted from Turkey through Americans. In 1984 he ordered his advisors to work on possible scenarios about the economic and political price Turkey would have to pay if Turkey compromises with the Armenian diaspora, an early Turkish acceptance of the term “genocide.” Another scenario was also prepared. This plan sought to gauge the political cost of a Turkish acceptance of genocide within 20 to 30 years if Turkey is forced to accept it one day. His aim was to solve the problem before it got too late and through few concessions after reaching a deal with the Armenians, Dinçerler noted.

However, strong opposition from some politicians from his party and from the military led to him delaying sharing the details of the plan with the public, and he decided to wait for a more appropriate time.

During a visit to the US in 1991 Özal unexpectedly said in a hotel lobby in front of a group of diplomats and journalists after a meeting with representatives of the Armenian lobby, “What happens if we compromise with the Armenians and end this issue?”

The audience was shocked at that time, as was the Turkish public.

The idea of negotiations with the Armenian diaspora itself was unacceptable and unthinkable in that period. When his statement was publicized in Turkey, it sparked criticism and fury among the public. Even deputies from the Motherland Party (ANAVATAN), which Özal established and led until he was elected president in 1989, reacted harshly to Özal.

However, Özal was determined and pushed the limit to resolve the Armenian issue to avoid facing harder challenges regarding the possibility that the alleged Armenian genocide would be recognized by state legislatures in the US.

Özal tried to implement substantial projects, including the Van Project. Süleyman Roman, who worked on several projects with Özal in the 1980s, said the former president had planned to return some lands to Armenians in Van. He added that Özal could not make concrete progress in the project, facing strong opposition.

Özal had the courage to confront the past. Dinçerler noted that Özal had developed several projects but that none had borne any fruit because of the mentality of state officials at the time.

“Özal said: ‘Let’s take the initiative and find the truth. Let’s pay the political and economic price, if necessary.’ However, the military strongly opposed such an approach,” he added.

Hasan Celal Güzel, who served in Özal’s government, said the military establishment perceived Özal’s moderate approach and policies on the Armenian and Kurdish issues as concessions. After Özal’s death, his policies of compromising with the Armenians were abandoned.

“They [the military] saw Özal as someone who makes too many concessions. They stood against his policies. However, Özal came up with the idea that Turkey could reconcile and make peace with the Armenians, who had earned the title ‘millet-i sadıka’ [loyal nation] during the Ottoman era. He wanted to open the door for a return of Armenians to Turkey. No one has made a move since. Had he not died, he might have solved this issue,” Güzel told Today’s Zaman.

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