BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
ISTANBUL—Three weeks after his election into Turkey’s Parliament on the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) list, Garo Paylan spoke to the Armenian Weekly about his path to parliament, and the challenges of being an Armenian in Turkey’s political scene.
During the interview conducted in Istanbul, Paylan also discussed issues that are close to his heart, including the HDP’s politics and commitment to creating what he terms a “new world” founded on equality.
In recent weeks, Paylan has been trying to save Camp Armen, the former Armenian orphanage in the Tuzla district of Istanbul that is facing demolition. He has vowed to work on the cases of Hrant Dink, the editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos who was gunned down by an ultra-nationalist youth, and Sevag Balıkçı, the 25-year-old Armenian soldier who was killed on April 24, 2011, while serving in the Turkish Army. In both cases, justice has not been served.
A former, longtime member of an Armenian school board, Paylan is also deeply dedicated to working on some of the challenges facing Armenian schools—issues ranging from discriminatory laws that humiliate Armenian parents to ensuring that school administrators have a say in which teachers are assigned to their schools.
NANORE BARSOUMIAN: First, congratulations. Armenians all around the world, I think, are quite excited to see your name, because you’re not just an Armenian name in parliament, but you are a member of a [political] party that’s very open to Armenians and Armenian rights, and that is very important. So, let me ask you a basic question: Why did you decide to run for office?
GARO PAYLIAN: Actually, I was not trying to run for office. I was and still am an activist. It is what I consider myself—an activist. And I feel proud whenever someone calls me an activist.
Before Hrant Dink’s murder, I was an activist mostly struggling for Armenian rights. I was a board member of an Armenian school, and was thus concerned with Armenian schools and issues. Then I became a supporter of the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], a Kurdish party, and worked for their campaigns. I supported them because they were suffering as well, like us. Then, at the 2011 [parliamentary] election, we came together—a coalition of feminists, greens, etc. All the identities came together.
After that, we decided to create a congress, which we called the People’s Democratic Congress. I became the person representing the Armenians at the Congress. We put all the identities, all the leftist parties together, and we put all their agendas on the table. A new environment was born out of that. Step by step it developed; and everybody pointed at me to be a member of the Central Committee of the Congress. Sometime later, I became one of the founders of our party, HDP.
I was not going to run for any position, but the path opened in front of me, and everyone thought I should be the representative. And I was happy to be there because I was not only involved in Armenian issues, but other issues too. It healed me as well, because if you work only for Armenian issues, it’s a disease. I didn’t want to be that, but the situation forced us to speak only about Armenian issues.
With this new movement, the Kurds and other politicians also spoke about our problems, and I was involved with their problems as well. Anyway, we founded a new environment, and we came to this election with our message—and our message won.
So no, I was not trying to run for office, but we came together on this road, and we succeeded in these elections. Our discourse succeeded.
N.B.: The HDP received 13 percent. You were aiming for 10 percent. Why do you think you got such a good response from the people?
G.P.: Because it is a new world. Thirteen years ago, the AKP [Justice and Development Party] was willing to change the system. They said the conservatives and the Muslims are suffering because of the Kemalist system. They said they would change the system and create a democratic system that’s for everybody. In the first period—until 2009—everybody believed in them, that they would actually change the system. After the 2011 election, [it was clear that] they were not the ones to change the system. They were in charge, in power, but they didn’t change it.
Turkish citizens want the change—so they will vote for whoever speaks the new language for them. We wanted equality, and they heard us. It’s the radical democrats that for the first time are offering equality. We are radical democrats and we have everyone sitting at our table. This is why we have to struggle for LGBT rights, for the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Alevis. We have to offer equality to every identity.
Of course, we had some concerns. For instance, we were concerned that people were not ready to hear about the Armenian Genocide. Yet, we are vocal about the Armenian Genocide. We also support LGBT rights, and equality between men and women—everything that is considered radical about democracy. This is about [creating] a new world.
Many young people of every identity voted for us. And that is the important thing—that young people are voting for us. At least 90 percent of Armenians, young and old, voted for our party. [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan badmouthed us on several occasions. However, this message of equality was new, and people just opened their ears and hearts to us.
N.B.: So it wasn’t just those who are marginalized that voted for you. You think you reached out to the larger community.
G.P.: Yes, and the good thing is that 4 years ago, 90 percent of the country hated us. They thought we were marginal, and that we were terrorists, etc. Now what’s good is that although we earned 13 percent of the votes, we have 60 percent of people sympathetic to us. They are not ready to vote for us yet. Maybe in the following elections we can have their votes as well.
N.B.: What do you think changed in the Turkish reality that made these marginalized and radical ideas more acceptable for the general public?
G.P.: The system—as well as conservative Muslims—didn’t accept some identities, or didn’t accept them enough. After 2001, the AKP took over. They said we are firstly Muslims, and so let’s come together as such. To the Kurds, they said you are Kurds but you are Muslims, so we are brothers. They failed to understand that the Kurds also want a national identity. They want their identity to have that honor as well. The AKP thought that being a Muslim was going to be enough. But it wasn’t enough. The Kurds witnessed the developments with ISIS. Moreover, the government didn’t do anything for Kobane. After Kobane, the Kurds were disappointed, and most of them turned to us.
The AKP thought that insulting Armenians will gain them the Muslim votes, but it didn’t work. They tried to spotlight the fact that we had an LGBT candidate, thinking that it would affect the conservative vote, but it didn’t. There were other similar attempts, but they also failed. This is important. Our words won. We trust our words. This is what’s most important.
N.B.: That your message won them over?
G.P.: Yes, that HDP’s message won. This is the new world. The young citizens, they don’t know much about the 1980’s and the early 1990’s. They are the new Gezi youth. They want freedom. They all want freedom, and they are here, ready to hear about this new world. That is why we got their vote.
We received 13 percent of the total votes, including around 6-7 percent of the votes of the older generation, but we earned 25 percent of the votes of the young generation, the 18- to 25-year-olds. This is why we can say that if we continue this discourse [of equality], we can increase our votes in the future.
N.B.: What were the challenges of running for office as an Armenian?
G.P.: I didn’t encounter any challenges within my party. I don’t feel like I am Armenian Garo; I am just Garo for my peers. It’s what makes me normal, and I need it. Every Armenian needs it.
The AKP also has an Armenian candidate, as does the CHP [Republican People’s Party]. But they act as symbols. They are not really seen as equals. It allows the party to say, “See, we also have an Armenian in our party.” However, they are not really part of the politics; they are only Armenians at the table.
On the other hand, I am an equal member. I have my message and my politics. Of course, in some ways, if an Armenian issue is on the table, they ask my opinion. Similarly, if an issue pertaining to Alevis is on the table, they ask the Alevi colleagues for their input. However, in the broader issues like the economy, education, and politics, I have my say. They see me as Garo; and on those types of broader issues my opinion is valued. I suppose that this is what every Armenian needs.
Being an MP is new for me. Whatever the responsibilities are, if I am in it I will go all the way.
N.B.: What types of Armenian issues are you going to focus on in parliament?
G.P.: Nowadays, we are working for Camp Armen.
N.B.: And you were at the protest yesterday…:
G.P.: Yes. About a month ago, I heard the news that there is a bulldozer at Camp Armen. I was the first one to go there and stop the bulldozer. I simply talked to the driver, and told him, “This is the property of Armenians. Stop the demolition.”
N.B.: Describe those few moments. Did you run in front of the bulldozer?
G.P.: Yes. First, I thought to myself, I am going to die here. The bulldozer was still running and I was the one who stopped it. I just explained to the driver that this is the property of Armenians. It’s Hrant Dink’s property. I asked him to stop. I told him how the children constructed this building. Then, the driver stopped and said that he has children of his own, and that he can’t finish this job even if they offer him a million. And he just drove the bulldozer out of the camp. It really was something. It also shows something about the conscience of Turks. This was not about the past, it was about today.
They always say, leave [the Armenian Genocide] to the historians. But when it’s about the present…it’s a symbol of genocide again, and it’s why we say that the genocide is still continuing.
It’s been more than eight years since Hrant Dink’s [murder]. I am one of the organizers of the Friends of Hrant Dink organization. I will work on the Hrant Dink case. I will also work on Sevag Balıkçı’s case. It is hard to start with 100 years ago. I can start with today: Camp Armen, Hrant Dink, and Sevag. If we can be successful with these cases, we can perhaps go back further and further. Of course, I will do a lot on the genocide issue. After all, my party recognizes it, and wrote it in their program—that we have to ask for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. We are very open about it. And this is why I think I am the luckiest one really, the luckiest Armenian MP.
I will also focus on Armenian schools. I know every detail about Armenian schools. The first day I really got to work with the Minister of Education, we discussed so many problems. He just gave me his word that he would address some of the problems. Yesterday, we dealt with two very important issues for the Armenian schools. Of course, we have more problems, and I will give reports to the new Minister of Education. I know these issues because I worked for the schools for 15 years, and I know every detail about them.
N.B.: What were the two issues you brought up that were signed?
G.P.: Unfortunately, there is an identity code in Turkey. It is a vicious thing.
N.B.: The three codes that citizens are assigned based on their identities.
G.P.: Yes, those codes. Armenians are number “2’s”. If you are to send your child to an Armenian school, you have to prove that you are in fact Armenian. You have to submit a form, and they look if you are a number 2 or not. But there are many Islamized Armenians, and children of mixed marriages. Our parents have so many problems with the coding system. It’s actually humiliating. I argue that we know each other; we know who is an Armenian and who is not. You have to give us that permission. So [the Minister of Education] just signed it—it’s no longer going to be based on the code. We are going to decide who can attend our schools.
I will still open another case about the coding, because it’s not just about the education system. Whenever we go into military service or apply for public service positions, they look at the code again. We have to get rid of that code. Luckily, we got rid of the code in the education system. Our parents won’t have to prove that they are Armenian anymore.
There is another important issue. [The government] sends Turkish language and history teachers to our schools. The teachers can stay at our schools for 5 years each. We are arguing that there are some teachers that we are quite happy with, and 5 years are not enough. [The Minister of Education] just signed that if we are happy with a teacher, we can keep that teacher for longer. This is also important. They were sending us these teachers without our input. Perhaps we prefer Ayse, or Hasan, so now we can choose the teacher before they approve.
N.B.: Is that the same procedure with every school, or just the Armenian schools?
G.P.: This is the situation for the Armenian, Greek, and Jewish schools. Our demand is that we don’t want certain teachers. We don’t want you to send the teachers. We have to change the law. There is a law that gives the Ministry of Education the right to send the history and Turkish-language teachers, because they don’t trust us.
N.B.: The educational issues are very important, as the educational system can implant prejudices and discrimination in society. We know that in Turkish textbooks, for instance, Armenians are painted in a very bad light. They are portrayed as treacherous. Do you plan on working on this issue as well?
G.P.: Some things have changed. Let’s say there were 100 [negative] sentences 7 years ago, now we have 10-12 bad sentences. We still have to get rid of them. We need to instead show that we used to live together, and that something bad has happened. We need to show that Armenians are part of this land. Armenians belong here. The young generations don’t even know that Armenians used to live here, or they still live here, and they are part of the history. We need to get rid of the negative language, but we also need to replace them with positive language.
However, I don’t want to be involved only in Armenian issues, but in everything, and especially in issues pertaining to the education system. The Alevis, the Kurds, and the Armenians have the same problems. Also, the Armenian school system needs reform. We need to invest more in the Armenian schools. If we have autonomy—especially for the Armenian or Kurdish schools—it will be significant. It would be very significant if we can change the legislation on it.
When I go on television shows, sometimes I want to say more, but I stop and think to myself that I don’t have the right to cause more fear to my people—to the Armenians.
N.B.: Are you concerned about your own safety?
G.P.: Not at all. However, today, I went to an Armenian high school graduation party where everybody was afraid that something bad would happen to me. I don’t have any such fears. But I do have the fear in the sense that I don’t want them to go through something again. Everyone says that we lived through Hrant Dink, and we don’t want to live through it again. So, no, I have no fear because I am on this road, but I fear disappointing them; that’s why I am careful sometimes.
We need more people from the young generations. We need more people from the diaspora to come here. We need more [political] actors that work on these issues, and we need more Armenians to be more politically active. If I am the only target, that’s not good. Hrant Dink was a phenomenon. And being a phenomenon is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. It’s not good to put all your expectations in one man or one woman. You have to have many [political] actors. I’d like to work with new groups, and with more people. I’m trying to give that courage to the younger generations. I hope that in the coming years we’ll have more people in politics.