Turkish statue fails to extend hand of friendship


A monument to rapprochement with Armenia is causing tension in Turkey

A HUGE hilltop statue looms over the eastern Turkish town of Kars, two figures standing face to face, frozen on the verge of shaking hands.

For Naif Alibeyoglu, the former mayor of Kars whose idea it was, the Monument to Humanity was supposed to represent the victory of peace over enmity, its flood-lighting visible from neighbouring Armenia, 40 kilometres away.

“For years, both sides have done nothing but pump up blood feuds,” he says, comparing Turkey and Armenia to two neighbours who do not know each other.

“Is he a terrorist? A mafioso? We needed to break the ice,” he added. Instead, despite the protocol signed on Saturday by Turkish and Armenian leaders aimed at restoring relations frozen since the early 1990s, the monument has become a symbol of the deep tensions underlying a rapprochement.

Foreseeing a start to diplomatic relations, the opening of a mutual border closed since 1993, and the formation of joint commissions including one to look into the Ottoman Empire’s wholesale ethnic cleansing of Armenians in 1915, the protocol has been opposed by nationalists in Turkey, Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

In Kars, opposition to the monument was led by Oktay Aktas, local head of the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP.

“Why is one figure standing with its head bowed, as if ashamed, Aktas asks. “Turkey has nothing to be ashamed of.”

In fact, the two figures stand ramrod straight. But Aktas insists the monument is “an Armenian statue” representing Armenia reaching out to embrace eastern Turkish lands that had a large Armenian minority until 1915.

“I said I would smash the statue down with my own hands, and I will,” he adds.

He may not have to. Last November, responding to his petition, Turkey’s Commission for Monuments ordered the statue to be demolished.

The fate of Alibeyoglu’s statue now lies with Turkey’s ministry of culture.

Today, it stands unfinished. Its three-metre high hand, supposed to join the two figures, was never attached. It lies fingers up in the gravel in front. “The decision was 100 per cent political,” says Kars-based architect Ali Ihsan Alinak. “It was the same commission that gave permission for the statue to be built in the first place.” But it wasn’t just local nationalists that Alibeyoglu managed to upset.

Like the twinning agreements he signed with cities in neighbouring countries and the 50,000 local signatures he collected in 2005 as part of a petition to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border, his statue appears to have unnerved Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government too.

An AKP member since 2004, Alibeyoglu was shunted out of the party in the run up to municipal elections this May.

The extreme sensitivity of the Armenian issue has marked Turkish politics since the rapprochement really got under way following the Turkish president’s visit to Armenia last September. Abdullah Gul was the first Turkish leader to visit Yerevan.

Earlier efforts to push the protocol through were dealt a blow this spring when Turkey’s prime minister said signing was dependent on a solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Roughly 15 per cent of Azerbaijan’s land has been under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s.

Turkey has now dropped that condition. But analysts say instinctual Turkish sympathy for Azerbaijan could make ratifying the protocol in parliament difficult.

“What needs to be underlined . . . are the improvements a stable southern Caucasus could bring to Turkey’s European bid, to its international stature and legitimacy,” says AKP deputy Suat Kiniklioglu, a spokesman for the foreign affairs committee.

In Kars, a town whose economy has been hit by the closure of the nearby Armenian border, the AKP mayor who has taken over from Naif Alibeyoglu, Nevzat Bozkus, is confident his party chiefs will steer the protocol through parliament.

Alibeyoglu is much less optimistic. “Small-minded people blocked the monument and they will block the peace process too,” he says. “You wait and see, it will end up like my statue: a statue without hands.”