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Vilen Khlgatyan hosts event on historical Kurdish relations with Turkey and Russia

Vilen Khlgatyan, alumnus of IWP and Founder and President of the Global Research Center, hosted an event entitled “The Near East Boundaries after WWII and Today: The Case of Turkey and Kurdistan” at The Institute of World Politics on March 16.  The event involved a panel discussion with Haykaram Nahapetyan, the Washington, DC correspondent for the Public TV Company of Armenia, and Dr. Kirmanj Gundi, Professor at Tennessee State University.

Mr. Haykaram Nahapetyan began the panel by discussing the Treaty of Moscow of 1921, which was between the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. This treaty was unique in two ways; first, since neither the Soviet Union nor Turkey had been established at that time, this was the first international document to recognize Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the leader of Turkey, and second, this treaty formally determined the borders of the Turkish Republic, along with the borders of Soviet Armenia and Soviet Georgia.

Mr. Nahapetyan noted that in October of 1921, both Soviet Armenia and Soviet Georgia were forced to sign a similar treaty with Turkey, called the Treaty of Kars. This was a controversial treaty because it declared the boundaries of Armenia and Soviet Georgia without the consent of either, and, in turn, Armenia sent telegrams to Moscow complaining about the treaty. Vladimir Lenin responded to Armenia, saying that these treaties were only temporary.

The different treaties signed in the 1920s were the basis of the solid relationship between Turkey and the USSR: this changed by the 1930s. By 1934, the new leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, appointed Lev Karakhan as ambassador of the Soviet Union to Turkey. Karakhan was involved in negotiations between Turkey, Soviet Russia, and Germany between 1918 and 1920. The Turks greatly protested his appointment; this was the first sign of the dismantlement of Soviet-Turkish relations. The Stalin government believed by 1939 that the Soviet-Turkish relationship had completely dissipated, and, by 1945, Turkey was heavily criticized for involvement with Nazi Germany. In 1945, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, advised Turkey’s ambassador in Moscow that the Soviet Union was withdrawing from the earlier 1925 Moscow-Turkey non-aggression treaty.

The Soviet Union made two demands on Turkey in order for the 1925 treaty to be extended. The Montreux Treaty of 1936 gave Turkey control over the Bosporus Straits, and was later controversial because it debilitated the Soviet Union’s military access to the Mediterranean Sea. In 1945, Stalin demanded that the Montreux Treaty be revised. Stalin also demanded that Turkey allow a Soviet military base in western Turkey near Istanbul.

Turkey declined these demands at the Potsdam Conference of 1945 and sought aid from the United States. Turkey’s independence was in the United States’ best interest because of its ability to block Soviet’s advancement in the Persian Gulf and Suez Canal. Turkey was suspicious of the United States’ actions in aiding Turkey until 1946, when the USS Missouri Mediterranean Cruise came to Istanbul to bring back the body of the late Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., Mehmet Ertegun, who had died in Washington D.C. The presence of this ship also conveyed a message to the Soviet Union: Turkey, along with the U.S., was now at odds with the Soviet Union. This propelled the Soviet Union to prepare for war against Turkey. In the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the U.S. secured the borders of Turkey and the continued agreement of non-communist governments in both countries.

After Stalin died, Khrushchev declared the Soviet Union had no demands of Turkey. Armenians still pushed for the construction of an Armenian genocide monument in Soviet Armenia, and in 1965, on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Armenian protesters held a 24-hour demonstration in front of the Opera House. They demanded that the Soviet Union officially recognize the Armenian Genocide committed by the Turks. The authorities in Moscow allowed the construction of an Armenian genocide monument in Yerevan. Mr. Nahapetyan noted that in November 2015, Turkey’s destruction of a Russian war plane along the Turkish-Syrian border created new rifts between Russia and Turkey, and has in turn further strained U.S.-Russian tensions.

Dr. Kirmanj Gundi then discussed Turkey, Kurdistan, and the geopolitical landscape of these two countries after World War I. Dr. Gundi explained that when referring to the Near East, one can trace two distinct late historical periods: the period of Ottoman hegemony and the period of British and French imperial suzerainty. After World War I, representatives of Great Britain and France implemented the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Middle Eastern countries under the rule of the Ottoman Empire were to be divided between the British, French and Russians. As a result, Kurdistan was partitioned among Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

This division impacted every aspect of the Kurds and their identity. The Kurds were forced to assimilate into different hegemonic cultures, and at the time, were forced to carry four different passports. In essence, the Kurds lost their original identity. The Kurds became third class citizens and were denied rights, and to this day, some are still not recognized as a distinct ethnicity in Turkey. This situation has affected all of the academic, social, political, and economic aspects of the Kurdish people.

In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, replacing the Treaty of Sèvres. Under its terms, Turkey was no longer obligated to grant Kurdish autonomy, and this was, in the words on Dr. Gundi, constitutional genocide. In 1925, a Kurdish uprising against the new Turkish Republic was suppressed, and for more than a decade, thousands of Kurdish civilians were massacred. Turkey not only sought to suppress Kurdish culture, but also sought to diminish the significance of linguistic and ethnic distinctions. Turkey also claimed that the Kurdish language was a dialect of Turkish, but Dr. Gundi emphasized that this is clearly not true, as the Kurdish language is closely related to Farsi, an Indo-European language. Turkey’s claim would falsely imply that Farsi is a dialect of Turkish. Speaking Kurdish in Turkey, even until 1994, was considered an insult against the Turkish community and would have resulted in imprisonment and/or fines.

In Turkey in 1978, Abdullah Ocalan helped to create the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, to seek Kurdish independence. In 1984, under Ocalan’s guidance, the PKK turned to an armed struggle, with thousands of Kurds taking to the call. After five years of bloodshed in Turkey, the new President of Turkey, Turgut Özal, used the term “Kurd” – this rapprochement started a period of finding a peaceful, political solution for the Kurds. But upon his death in 1993, his successor continued with the tradition of suppressing the Kurdish people. Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, convicted of treason and separatism, and sentenced to death, with the cooperation of the Clinton administration, the CIA, and Israel. Dr. Gundi concluded that only in recent years have the Turks been open to conversation about the Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has given hope to the Kurds that they will be able to live in peace with the Turks. This idea, however, has still not been fulfilled, and the Kurdish people have been living under 93 years of Turkish oppression. Most recently, under the guise of anti-terrorism, the Erdoğan regime has begun a crackdown on Kurds living in southeast Turkey. Dr. Gundi emphasized that a non-violent struggle, similar to Martin Luther King Jr’s, is the best long term solution to change the situation in Turkey.