İstanbul Kültür University

Civil Society Groups Keep Turkey-Armenia Rapprochement Alive | Menekşe Tokyay | SES Türkiye

Turkish and Armenian NGOs and civil society groups continue to pursue "second track diplomacy" to maintain momentum. Following official attempts at rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia in 2008 with so-called "Football diplomacy", civil society groups on both sides of the border began to engage more each other more actively.

While the immediate prospect of normalisation is gone after the collapse of the October 2009 protocols between the two neighbours, groups continue to make efforts to sustain the momentum of Armenian-Turkish rapprochement.

"The grassroots projects initiated at the beginning of the once promising process are continuing despite the failure of the process at the official level," Mikayel Hovhannisyan, programme manager of Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Armenia, told SES Türkiye.

"In this respect, perhaps the most important achievement is the fact that Armenian and Turkish NGO representatives keep collaborating around issues of common concern, which stimulates and keeps up the dialogue between the Turkish and Armenian societies," he adds.

But civil society projects have a greater impact in Armenia than in Turkey, where rapprochement with Armenia can fall off both the public's and policy makers' radar screens.

"Because of the obvious asymmetries -- physical size, population, economy, etc -- between the two countries, the subject has become much more prominent in Armenia than in Turkey," Vazgen Karapetyan, associate country director of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Armenia, says.

This asymmetry can eventually generate frustration, especially on the Armenian side. Turning the normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations into a much more popular issue at both the public and the political level remains an important challenge.

According to Burcu Gultekin Punsmann, who co-authored an Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) study on Turkish-Armenian civil society activities over the past two decades, civil society engagement is dependent on the perception of "permissiveness" of the state in both domestic contexts.

From Turkish side, people-to-people interactions are interpreted as a way of normalising the discussions over the events of 1915 -- something that is enshrined in the Armenian Constitution as "Genocide" -- while the Armenian side started to see that they can engage and negotiate with the Turks.

"The projects indeed have shown that a dialogue is possible with the other side and that there is someone over there with whom we can talk," explained Punsmann.

However, civil society efforts don't come without their own critique, as the interaction often remains contained.

"The positive benefits of such interaction is limited to a small circle and does not trickle down in a way to make a difference," says Salpi Ghazarian, director of the Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation.

When it comes to the financial sustainability of projects, almost half of the initiatives focusing on Turkey-Armenia rapprochement are financed by the United States, mainly through USAID channels.

"The grants allocated by European countries, at 26.32%, are much smaller in size than the American ones and represent mainly grassroots initiatives supported by German foundations and the Scandinavian embassies in Ankara and Yerevan," Punsmann explained.

However, since Turkey is not a beneficiary of American aid projects, most project designs are initially carried out by an Armenian organisation. Only after that are Turkish partners found to fit the design.

Susae Elanchenny, a project assistant from the Istanbul-based Global Political Trends Centre, one of the leading Turkish NGOs involved in various rapprochement projects, says Turkish projects need more support.

"More funding opportunities directly to Turkish NGOs would likely increase the number and scope of Turkish stakeholders in the process, who are presently underrepresented compared to the Armenian side," she notes.

Yet despite civil society efforts, Ghazarian says that these civil interactions cannot be seen as an alternative to official relations between Ankara and Yerevan.

"The borders must be opened by Turkey in order for all the rest of these efforts to have impact and be consequential," she told SES Türkiye.

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