In the past two weeks, brawls erupted in the Turkish parliament several times during the meetings of the commission on constitutional reform related to a legislation on lifting lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution.
Representatives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) came to each other’s throats each time. However, for some deputies, the fights were more than just about political rivalry.
HDP deputy from Istanbul Garo Paylan was subjected to a bigger share of lynch and attack during these fights, basically because of his Armenian identity, as he has stated in a press statement a day after the latest fight on May 2 in the Turkish Parliament. The videos that went viral on social media show AKP deputies pointing at Paylan specifically, hurling insults at him by calling him “Armenian bastard” and squaring him in a violent fist fight in the parliament room. Less than two weeks before that, Paylan displayed the photos of Krikor Zohrab and other late Ottoman Armenian deputies who got killed during the 1915 Armenian Genocide and demanded an investigation in their cases.
Paylan received a great amount of support and solidarity not only from his constituency inside Turkey but also from sympathizers around the world, especially from fellow Armenians. However, when it comes to the Bolsahay (Istanbul-Armenian) community, not all were satisfied by Paylan’s opposition and statements in the Turkish parliament, particularly the traditional voices of the Bolsahay community. Ara Kochunyan, the editor-in-chief of Jamanak Armenian daily, Turkey’s oldest published newspaper, seemed unimpressed by a reporter’s question about Paylan during a press conference in Yerevan on May 6. “I don’t get the purpose of his actions,” he said.
In his interviews, Kochunyan was trying to soften the hostile policies of the government of Turkey towards Armenia and Artsakh. In an answer to the reporter’s repeated questions about the attacks against Deputy Garo Paylan, Kochunyan compared the latter to personalities that existed 100 years ago. “The caliber of Krikor Zohrab in the Ottoman parliament 100 years ago is nothing to compare with today. We do not have any record about Zohrab participating in fights inside the parliament. Politics requires a certain level of propriety. That is not the image what Turkey’s Armenians would wish for themselves,” said Kochunyan, suggesting that Paylan was voluntarily involved or an aggressor in the fight, contrary to the video evidence.
After these incidents and statements, the age old question of minority politics in despotic societies resurfaced once again. Is the inclusion of minority representatives in active politics an expression of citizens’ rights or not? Is it welcomed by the society as a sign of movement from sectarian politics to citizenship? Would minority communities feel protected as their members participate in politics, moreover, in opposition and activism?
The violent reaction of the AKP deputies and the conservative approach of the traditional Bolsahay minority community voices distancing themselves from Paylan answers the aforementioned questions. This has become a repeated pattern in the case of the Bolsahay community. The larger traditional segments of the community always take a step back in fear and caution whenever there is an action by the community’s progressive members aligned with the Agos newspaper and various foundations allied with the democratic forces in Turkey.
The case of Garo Paylan is peculiar in the sense that he wasn’t elected with the votes of his community and the laws in Turkey do not grant parliamentary representation to minority communities. Paylan was elected on the candidates list of the HDP party’s Istanbul branch. His situation becomes twice more sensitive, considering that besides having an ethnic minority background in a post-genocide Turkey, Paylan is engaged with political minority groups. The HDP is not just a coalition of voices from ethnic, religious and sexual minority backgrounds, but most importantly it’s the voice of political minority thought in Turkey, supported and largely fed by the increasingly maturing Kurdish political powerbase.
Author of “Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey” Lerna Ekmekcioglu likened Deputy Paylan’s experience in the Turkish parliament to the “I can’t breathe” moment of Eric Garner, who has been racially profiled by NYPD and killed while being arrested in Staten Island NY, showing no signs of resistance.
“’I can’t breathe’. check out how he is not using his hands lest be seen as an attack. He is black,” said the MIT professor Ekmekcioglu, drawing parallels between the injustice against the African-Americans and the oppression against minorities, especially Armenians in Turkey.
Similar dilemmas exist in other countries in the Middle East too. Compared to those, Turkey marks a clear difference by having an elected parliament and multi-party system despite all setbacks in the recent years. For example, minority inclusion in parliamentary politics in neighboring Syria and Iran is a ceremonial procedure.
In both countries, one or two representatives are always elected to the parliament, either to show the “wisdom of the ruler” in one case and as a manifestation of the “mercy of Islam” in the other. Armenian communities exist in both countries. They enjoy considerable cultural and religious rights. Armenians are appointed to the decorative positions of the government and public service as a part of the country’s “beautiful mosaic”. And regarding parliamentary politics, their role is limited to being window dressing for the outside world. In the case of Syria, the country hasn’t had a domestic opposition for over half a century and it’s battling with a bloody insurgency for almost 5 years.
Some recent arrivals like the Kurdistan Regional Government also has deputies from minority communities in its parliament, but the experience looks very much in line with the neighborhood in general. Israel, despite its apartheid policies, stands out for having a political milieu that allows for Arabs to form parties, get elected in the Knesset, and compete among the opposition ranks. However, stripping Arab deputies of their immunity based on trumped up charges of treason has become business as usual in Israel. Further south, Arab monarchies still have no women in the parliament, some of them even don’t have a parliament yet.
Turkey appears to be following the regional patters very closely and copying elements from each one in its domestic field too. It is noteworthy that there are two other Armenian members in the Turkish parliament -Seline Dogan of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Markar Esayan from the ruling AKP. Ironically, Esayan was also present at the meeting where Paylan was being targeted and beaten for being Armenian. He was a few meters away from where the lynch and insults were taking place, but he was uninvolved and not disturbed at all. Esayan was a columnist in opposition newspapers before changing ranks and turning into an Erdogan aficionado and eventually getting an entry card to the parliament via the AKP.
The question about minority inclusion in parliamentary politics and the opposition is not one to be answered solely by the authorities and the political parties in Turkey. The heirs of traditional voices in the Armenian community have to make a decision between either dying out as a voiceless group that can be used from time to time as window dressing, or to allow its critical masses to be more vocal about issues that concern not only the community, but all the oppressed groups in Turkey, thus breaking the minority boundaries and becoming a part of a larger group that guarantees their universal rights and dignity as full citizens. It’s not an easy task in today’s Turkey, where reactionary forces are consolidating more power each day, but the future can be grimmer if necessary action for resistance isn’t taken today.
Mr. Kochunyan runs not only one of the oldest dailies in Turkey, but one of the oldest Armenian language and minority publications in the world. It requires a vision and courage to use such a legacy in building greater leverage and alliances for a better future for the entire society.