ANKARA (Hurriyet Daily News)–Seven members of Istanbul’s Armenian community are seeking parliamentary deputy posts, holding out the promise that the June general elections may see the group represented in Parliament for the first time in five decades.
“I am an Armenian, but I am also a part of the whole. If I join Parliament, of course I will bring my community’s problems to the fore. But I would like to represent the whole [country] as well,” Arev Cebeci, who has thrown his hat into the ring as a candidate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
“[My running] is kind of a challenge. I want some people to stick to their promises,” said Cebeci.
A total of seven Armenian figures are currently seeking parliamentary posts; six have been offered nominations by political parties, while one is likely to join the chase as an independent deputy nominee.
According to Cebeci, the Armenian community in Turkey has typically shied away from politics due to painful events in its past. “We have always been scared by our families,” he said. “They did not want us to be at the forefront. We have always led low-profile lives.”
The murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist and daily Agos Editor-in-Chief Hrant Dink in 2007 was a turning point, Cebeci said. “In the aftermath of the killing, a group of Armenians become more silent, believing that if you speak out, you die. Others, in large numbers, have begun to claim their rights.”
The election of Armenian-Turkish figures to Parliament would be a first since the 1960s, according to Ayhan Aktar, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University who is known for his research on minorities in Turkey. Noting that members of minority groups were not allowed to become civil servants in the Turkish Republic until 1937, Aktar said: “In the Civil Code dated 1926, the most important qualification for a civil servant candidate was to be of Turkish descent. Therefore, with this law, non-Muslims were clearly denied from civil service. The relevant article was amended in 1946 to include all ‘citizens of the Republic of Turkey.’”
With Turkey still pursuing European Union membership, the country’s Armenian community sees an opportunity to voice its concerns and find solutions to them, Cebeci said. “Our community, unfortunately, is not even aware of its rights granted in the Lausanne Treaty,” he said. “They have adopted a stance of ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ But I think this is very wrong.”
The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 defined three legally established minorities in Turkey: Greeks, Armenians and Jews. This definition was made at the behest of Western powers and obligated the new Turkish Republic to acknowledge the special status of these groups.
Though the CHP is currently courting some Armenian figures in the run-up to the elections, relations between the party and the community have not always been warm. Just prior to the local elections in 2009, CHP deputy Canan Arıtman issued a statement that infuriated both Armenians in Turkey and the broader public. Arıtman claimed that President Abdullah Gül supported an Armenian apology petition campaign and that he is of Armenian descent on his mother’s side. Armenian-Turkish Raffi A. Hermon, now the acting mayor from the CHP of Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, was also criticized for his involvement with the party following Arıtman’s statement.
Launched in December 2008, the “I apologize” campaign has drawn harsh criticism within Turkey, even as some 30,000 people, including many intellectuals and journalists, have signed the petition, which reads in part: “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915.”
An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered in the Ottoman Empire in the first Genocide of the 20th Century. Turkey denies the crime, committed during World War I, saying that any deaths were the result of civil strife that erupted during the war.
According to Aktar, Turkey’s minorities have suffered discrimination throughout the history of the Republic. “In 1935, the CHP formed a group called the ‘Independent Group,’ which also included non-Muslims. But they did not have a say on any issue,” he said, adding that the group normally had the task of serving as an opposition during the one-party period at the Parliament.
The professor also said non-Muslims were not represented in Parliament after 1960, though they reappeared in politics in 1999 with the election of Cefi Jozef Kamfi, who is of Jewish descent, to Parliament from the True Path Party (DYP).