COMMITMENT OR COSMETICS ?
August 2, 2002 is hailed as a historic day in Turkey because that datemarks the passage of the package of laws in the Parliament to qualify Turkey for membership in the European Union.
Heated debate in the Turkish media preceded the vote in the Parliament. The Turks identified each segment of the package with an individual or with a minority. The abolition of the death penalty would spare Ocalan's life, the head of rebel Kurdish Worker's Party, currently being tortured in Turkish jail. As if the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Kurds had not been sufficient at the hands of the army, the extremists have been demanding the execution of their leader as well. Laws proscribing respect for human rights were mostly identified with Kurds, which form one-third of Turkey's population of 65 million. The Kurds are not allowed to use their language, they are not allowed to sing their songs, nor assert their national identity. They have been simply baptized as "Mountain Turks". They either conform to that label or else.
What interests Armenians most is the law allowing minority charities (wakif) to own property. These are income-bearing properties to be able to finance schools, hospitals, old age homes and churches. This new law, whose proponent was former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, restores the rights of the minorities to buy or receive property as a gift or bequest. On the other hand, one of the members of the Parliament, Mehmet Gul, called this concession a "treachery", "giving away pieces of our homeland to foreigners". Who are those foreigners, if not the indigenous people of that very same land, Greeks and Armenians, whose homelands have been usurped by the Turks in the first place? During all these media debates, the ugly face of Turkish racism was revealed and insults were hurled at the minorities, and especially at the Armenians.
Contrary to the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which recognized the rights of minorities in Turkey, the government passed a law (Bayannameh) in 1936, and requested that all the properties of the minorities be registered with the state. Those churches or charities, which were late to act, forfeited their rights to their properties, which were confiscated without any question. Many Armenian charities suffered because this was a discriminatory law to weaken the Armenian community, which lost 50 pieces of valuable real estate to this Turkish ruse. The Greek community has even lost more. The total pieces of real estate lost in this scam is estimated to be 206.
From 1936 on, Armenians were denied to acquire new real estate. They had sustained so many heavy losses that they gave up seeking new properties, as they were posed to lose the old ones. Any properties deeded to the Armenian community charities were either confiscated or recorded in the names of prominent and trusted individuals. If a property did not show in 1936 Bayannameh, it was confiscated summarily. The government-issued deed was not sufficient proof of ownership.
With the passage of the new law Armenians are cautiously optimistic that they may record real estate acquired after 1936 in the name of respective charities and they may appeal for the confiscated ones under the terms of another law, which is supposed to respect human rights in Turkey.
The new law has a serious caveat. The minority may own property only if that property is approved by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Those who are familiar with Turkish bureaucracy and red tape are painfully aware what kind of an ordeal it means to have anything approved at any Turkish government office.
The Turkish laws have the dubious distinction of serving as double-edged swords. Indeed, way back, the Turkish government passed a law to delete the citizen's religious affiliation from their ID pieces. This was presented to the civilized world as a new democratic measure, which supposedly disallowed
any religious discrimination on any level of society. From all appearances, it looked like it was a democratic progress. Yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The hidden agenda behind the law was divulged when Armenian parents tried to enroll their children in Armenian schools. Another Turkish law mandated that in order to enroll the children in Armenian schools the parents had to prove that they were of Armenian Christian origin. Now that the religious affiliation was removed from the ID cards, the burden of proof rested on the parents' shoulders to appeal from one government agency to the other, who gave them the run-around, until the parents gave up and enrolled their children in Turkish schools. Thus, by attrition, the Armenian schools were closed down one by one. When schools with declining enrollment tried to consolidate, the government forbade cross-district bussing, creating another bureaucratic hurdle in front of the minority schools. This new law does not allow the building to be rented out when the school is closed down.
The appointment of Turkish assistant principals to Armenian schools was another legal travesty. The supposedly equal Turkish citizens of Armenian origin could not run their schools by themselves. The government assigns Turkish assistant principals - in reality, official spies - to make sure that the schools do not operate as Armenian educational institutions, but rather as Turkish propaganda machines.
The Armenian community, which has experienced all these machinations since the establishment of the Republican Turkey, cannot put too much stock in this new piece of legislation. To begin with, the law is not intended to provide the necessary relief to the minority institutions. It is rather a lip service to Europe to be able to dupe the European Union to admit Turkey as a member.
It remains to be seen how effective those laws will prove, and also, how much the European Union can read into Turkish duplicity and conniving.
Turkey, which has indiscriminately butchered the Kurds and has emasculated the other minorities through these Byzantine laws, was applauded recently by our very own Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, who praised the Turks for their "exemplary" treatment of minorities.
We do hope that European leaders have more brains and moral integrity to go beyond the veneer and see the true nature of the racist Turkish State and treat that country accordingly. European leaders and Armenian community members in Turkey can rightfully ask what the passage of this new law means. Is it a real step towards democracy, a true commitment to progress, or another layer of cosmetics to cover the true nature of Turkish society?
Mirror Spectator, August 20, 2002