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Not Even a Handshake: Erdogan Spins ‘Freakish’ Debacle in Kars

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A giant 100-foot-long stone statue, located in Kars, Turkey, about 30 miles from the Armenian border, rubbed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the wrong way earlier this month, and is now caught in the midst of a multilayered controversy—and faces demolition.

The statue consists of two figures—meant to be one—standing face-to-face, with one extending a hand to the other. It overlooks Kars, and can also be seen from Armenia. (Photo: Khatchig Mouradian)

The statue, the work of renowned Turkish sculptor Mehmet Aksoy, consists of two figures—meant to be one—standing face-to-face, with one extending a hand to the other. It overlooks Kars, and can also be seen from Armenia. It is, however, unfinished, and some judge it to be an eyesore. But its value rests in its symbolism rather than its silhouette.

With differing interests in the monument’s fate are those in Turkey who wish to take concrete steps towards improving ties with Armenia, and those who adhere to a densely nationalistic agenda and reject any form of physical or ideological concession. The latter views the monument as a portrayal of a repentant Turkey.

Erdogan sets off new phase of debates

In a Jan. 8 visit to Kars, Erdogan began a new phase of debates on the future of the monument when he declared it a “freak” and “abomination,” and called for its demolition and replacement with “a beautiful park.”

“They have placed an abomination next to the Mausoleum of Hasan Harakani. They erected a strange thing,” the prime minister was quoted as saying in the Hurriyet newspaper.

According to Aksoy, he created the sculpture to acknowledge the pain rooted in the division between Turkey and Armenia. The two figures, who are enemies, become one again, with an outreaching hand forming a bridge. His aim was to promote peace, brotherhood, and rapprochement between the two countries, and thus dubbed the monument “the statue of humanity.”

“We would not show any sign of disrespect against any artist or tear down and discard his work of art,” said Turkey’s culture minister, Ertugrul Gunay, in an attempt to whitewash the prime minister’s comments made a day earlier. “The theme of the monument is correct; it gives the message of friendship. But there has been a controversy over the location of it for several years.”

The current mayor, Nevzat Bozkus, also from the ranks of Erdogan’s AK Party, has claimed the monument lacks a zoning permit. Authorities have also claimed the monument stands on a historic 16th-century military site.

Erdogan didn’t quit there. A few days later, during a visit to Qatar, he began anew, discrediting Gunay’s attempted gloss over. “I know a thing or two about sculptures,” he reportedly said. “You do not have to hold a degree in fine arts in order to admire a work of art… We cannot allow a structure to overshadow these historical artifacts.”

“I used the word ‘freak’ to describe the monument,” he continued. “I warned the mayor when the monument was being erected. As a matter of fact, the Cultural and Natural Heritage Preservation Board has decided to tear down the monument. It is the mayor’s responsibility to implement the decision… Those who talk today have no respect for art, and they’re trying to give us a lesson in art. They say it themselves, there are thousands of Ataturk monuments, and only 5 or 10 of them have artistic value.”

Aksoy has retorted by likening the looming demolition of his “statue of humanity” to the Taliban’s relentless assaults on ancient Buddhist relics in Afghanistan. “This would lead to outrage they cannot even imagine. They will turn into the Taliban. Turkey will not want to have such an image,” he said.

Who is Hasan Harakani?

But who was Hasan Harakani? And what place does this 10th-century religious man hold in Turkish history and consciousness, that the “statue of humanity” could offend his memory through its proximity to the tomb? The Armenian Weekly posed these questions to Baskin Oran, a professor of Political Science at Ankara University and one of the initiators of the apology campaign by Turkish intellectuals.

Oran thinks Erdogan’s remarks were made to appeal to right-wing voters and had nothing to do with the Harakani tomb. “What do you want me to say? Who the hell is Hasan Harakani? First time I hear [the name],” he said. “Who has ever heard of him? He must be a male since he is Hasan, and since he has a visiting place.”

“Elections are approaching,” Oran continued. “AKP needs to fish for the votes of the right-wingers. Hell… Foreign Minister [Ahmet] Davutoglu is constantly being sabotaged by the prime minister, especially on the issue of Armenia.”

“And this AKP is the best we have for the moment. Kemalists are definitely worse,” Oran finished.

Understanding the Azeri factor

The sculpture has weathered criticism and even calls for its demolition in the past. Kars’ former mayor, Naif Alibeyoglu, a man who actively sought to improve ties with neighboring Armenia, commissioned the work in 2006, and almost immediately faced resistance. It has been rumored that in the end, Alibeyoglu’s efforts resulted in his removal from the AKP; in 2008, he joined the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The change in priorities is clear between the former and current mayors. Whereas the former hoped to see Kars’ old charm and cosmopolitanism restored through festivals and preservation efforts, including caring for historically Armenian structures, the new mayor has reversed these efforts, in what some characterize as a personal vendetta against his predecessor’s legacy.

And so, work on the “statue of humanity” was suddenly halted as the new mayor took office. The 10-foot-tall hand, meant to join the two figures, was never mounted, and still rests by the monument’s base. The figures remain divided. Other missing features include a fountain, where water, like teardrops, would run down the fronts of the figures and pool at the base. The statue’s adjacent restaurant also sits incomplete.

Observers have noted that the large percentage of ethnic Azeris, who make up roughly 20 percent of the city’s inhabitants, continued to oppose the construction of the statue, as they had opposed Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, due to the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict.

In a 2009 Eurasia.net article, Nicholas Birch wrote about the local opposition. “The man who led opposition to the statue, local head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Oktay Aktas, remains skeptical about the project,” he wrote.

“Why is one figure standing with its head bowed, as if ashamed,” Aktas told the journalist. “Turkey has nothing to be ashamed of.”

“In fact, the two figures are standing straight. But Aktas, an ethnic Azeri…insists the monument is ‘an Armenian statue’ representing Armenia reaching out to embrace eastern Turkish lands that had a large Armenian minority until 1915,” noted Birch.

An ultra-nationalist party that believes that all Turks share the same ancestry, the MHP has a strong foothold in Kars’ neighboring Igdir, where a genocide monument and museum were erected in 1997 in memory of Turks killed by Armenians.

Alibeyoglu said he had commissioned the “statue of humanity” as an alternative to the monument in Igdir and Armenia’s Dzidzernagapert Genocide monument, both of which “promote a bad relationship and are designed to divide the two people,” Alibeyoglu told the Southeast European Times.

“I said I would smash the statue down with my own hands, and I will,” Aktas had declared in 2009. This time around, Aktas, speaking with the Hurriyet Daily, boasted about how he “was the one who took the issue to the Council of Monuments.” He also reiterated his conviction that there was a hidden motive behind the construction of the monument. “Those peace talks are just a big lie,” he said. “Why don’t they explain the real intent behind this monument? This monument is just the Armenian Diaspora’s propaganda. They want to include Kars as part of Armenian territory.”

Aside from its embassy in Ankara, Azerbaijan has consulates in Istanbul and Kars. Although economically weak, Kars is a key city for Azerbaijan. It is on the Armenia border, and many locals, especially businessmen, hope for the opening of the border and an upturn in the local economy.

In the past, the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi (cities in Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, respectively) railway linked the two countries. However, the Kars-Gyumri section was shut in 1993, after Turkey closed its border with Armenia, in support of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has stood firmly in opposition of the railway’s reopening. Instead, a Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway is scheduled to be completed in 2012, without the financial assistance of the EU or the U.S., who oppose it on the grounds that it is intended to bypass and further isolate Armenia.

According to Birch, many Kars inhabitants believe that Kars’ Azerbaijani consulate, which opened in 2004, “played an active role” in the former mayor’s downfall—the man who had advocated for the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border and had commissioned the “statue of humanity.”

Erdogan sues Taraf editor over columns

Thin-skinned but bold, Erdogan’s tolerance for criticism is fairly low. So much so that when daily Taraf’s chief editor Ahmet Altan—in a column titled “Erdogan and Empty Bullying” (“Erdogan ve Kof Kabadayilik”)—criticized Erdogan’s recent shortcomings and accused him of “stealing” votes from the MHP, he got served with a lawsuit.

Charged with “assaulting the personal rights” of the prime minister and “hurting” not only Erdogan but the media and society as whole, Altan, if convicted, faces a fine of 50,000 Turkish liras, according to sources. Altan’s ire-rousing commentary asked whether Erdogan would say the same if the statue were of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “Have you ever criticized a statue of Ataturk or a mosque over their aesthetics, and demanded their demolition? Are you courageous enough to speak against a statue of Ataturk on the grounds that it is not aesthetic? Are all the statues in your country beautiful?”

Two districts wish to play host

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, goes the old cliché. And so, Hacibektas (Hajibektash), a small district in the Central Anatolian province of Nevsehir (Nevshehir), has asked that the monument be moved to its district. Hachibektash mayor Ali Riza Selmanpakoglu said Aksoy’s statue would complement Hachibektash’s own “monument to humanity,” which was erected in memory of Ottoman soldiers who froze to death during World War I, in a battle against the Russians. The mayor sent written requests both to the Kars mayor’s office and the to Ministry of Culture and Tourism, report Turkish sources.

Another request has come from Mayor Cevat Durak of Karsiyaka (Karshiyaka), the Aegean district of Izmir, to have the monument transferred to his area. “We would cover all the costs. The monument would eventually be placed in Karsiyaka’s nicest neighborhood, Zubeyde Hanim, thus bringing a solution to the problem,” he was quoted as saying.

Armenian FM expresses regret

Meanwhile, on Jan. 14, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, while talking to journalists, said, “Instead of putting new building blocks on the foundation for normalizing bilateral relations, these kinds of statements and actions could only cause damage,” referring to Erdogan’s statements. “The international community has not forgotten the most recent statements of this kind, and a new one is being added to them. One can only express regrets.”

“I said I would smash the statue down with my own hands, and I will,” Aktas had declared in 2009. (Photo: Khatchig Mouradian)

Days later, Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, in a speech delivered to the Cyprus House of Representatives, accused Turkey of fostering “neo-Ottoman” aspirations, and of reverting to its pre-protocols positions. “What had the Ottoman Empire given the peoples under its yoke apart from massacres, tyranny, and plunder?” he asked.

“A country that has kept the border with Armenia closed since its independence under different pretexts and has been blackmailing my people cannot aspire to regional leadership,” he added.

***

The fate of the “statue of humanity,” like a compass, could point to where the current Turkish government intends to head. Has Turkey abandoned its recent “zero-problems with neighbors” mantra? So it seems. In fact, Erdogan appears to have found a use for the “statue of humanity”—as a “freakish” gravestone on the tomb of the short-lived normalization process.

8 Comments on Not Even a Handshake: Erdogan Spins ‘Freakish’ Debacle in Kars

  1. Only an ignorant will claim that Erdogan’s motive is to try to appeal to the powerful!!! MHP votes in Kars. Even a quick look at the two latest general elections will show that DEHAP (the Kurdish party) got the most votes (19%) during 2002 elections, but could not send representatives because of the threshold, AKP was around 2 points less at the time. And in the 2007 elections AKP got close to 42 % of the votes, increasing its share almost 2,2 times in comparison to 2002, whereas MHP increased only from 11 to 19 %. Some Turkish intellectuals do tend to explain anything and everything with rather cliches about what Erdogan is doing, which by the way is not necessarily backed by solid data. If anything, AKP was able to convince pro-DEHAP people, otherwise one would have a hard time to explain the rise both in AKP and MHP votes. In the national ballot MHP can’t come close to AKP, the municipalities are a different matter, but the latest elections were on 2009 and even if MHP shows a wonderful track record in the next months, the municipality in Kars is from AKP as well -still 5% ahead of MHP… And AKP has a wonderful track record of holding on strong in places where they already guaranteed municipalities.

  2. Baskin Oran says, “This AKP is the best we have for the moment. Kemalists are definitely worse.” That is absolutely true and should be noted by the Armenian press.  Erdogan is very easy to mock, but those waiting in the wings are much, much worse. We shouldn’t necessarily think that giving Erdogan a black eye is a good thing for Armenians. This is election season in Turkey. Celebratory echoing and publishing of what the anti-AKP forces in Turkey are saying about Erdogan has serious risks. Their criticisms, while often accurate, are every bit as political as Erdogan’s absurd stances.

  3. i believe in peace, i am a practising artist and hold a degree and worked at new york city’s meropolitan museum for four years during which time the taliban was destroying buddha stautes in afghanistan….i love this piece of art whether it is about us or not.
    please i hope it stands and truly does help our two nations build friendship.

  4. This is a great, balanced and very informative article Nanor.
    Thanks for bringing the background so completely to our attention.
    AST

  5. Last time, I wrote a similar comment in an Armenian website and people didn’t believe me I was Turkish but I’m really sincere. I have read a lot about this issue and I’m totally convinced that a terrible genocide occurred. I’m really ashamed of every part of this including the denial. I’m really on your side and I’m in favor of reparations or other types of compensation. I’m now writing a Turkish language blog about this issue and trying to educate people. I hope, one day, we will resolve this issue and we can have good relations as neighbors.

  6. Cihan thank you for your support.  Where can we see your blog?

  7. “What had the Ottoman Empire given the peoples under its yoke apart from massacres, tyranny, and plunder?”

    This seems to be a total denial of centuries of Armenian history.  I am not suprised that there was no mention of the Greek president (not Cyprus) later telling him how they shared the same fate in the hands of “barbarians”.  Such nice and friendly people!  Why they can not get along with Turks is a mystery!

    As far as statues, Mr. Erdogan has not missed another opportunity to put his foot in his mouth it seems, but that is what politicans in heat do.  He is free to have opinions and tastes (I doubt) but what statesman makes such public comment?  None of his business of course, not that I am crazy about these statues abd it is in the eye of beholder but gesture itself is what matters in this case.

    I am all for full normalizations without any preconditions and blame AKP for dropping the ball, but extreme Armenian positions such as above, animosity of the diaspora, and total lack of any movement in Karabag issue are also to blame for the lack of progress here. After all, it takes two to tango.

  8. Murat:   It takes two to tango, but one to slit the throat of the other. “Extreme” Armenian position, as you call it, but demand for justice, as we call it, is derived from Turkish failure to repent. “Animosity” of the Diaspora, as you call it, but righteous indignation of Armenians both in the Republic and the Diaspora, as we call it, is derived from Turkish denialism for their crime. And the issue of Artsakh (Karabakh) that pertains to Armenia’s relations with a third country has no relation whatsoever with the normalization of bilateral Turkish-Armenian relations. As for what you call “total denial of centuries of Armenian history” related to “What had the Ottoman Empire given the peoples under its yoke apart from massacres, tyranny, and plunder?”, for Armenians it’s a history of colonization. You’re making foolish statements because you are not at the receiving end of the nomadic Seljuks’ conquest of sedentary Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other peoples inhabiting Asia Minor. If you think Armenians exaggerate their “penthouse life” under the Ottomans, do some research and see with your own eyes that Armenians and other indigenous Christians were made rightless millets under the Ottomans. They were unbearably taxed; their witness accounts in the courts were outrightly disregarded; they were barred from the right to bear arms to defend themselves from the tyranny of the Turks; their villages were pillaged and plundered by attacking Turkish and Kurdish bands; their national liberation aspirations advanced by a few revolutionaries, not the entire 2-2.5 mln innocent people, were drown in blood by Bloody Sultan Abdul Hamid, and then the Ittihadist and Kemalist mass murderers in 1915-1923. If physical annihilation of the ancient races, cultures, civilizations is not barbarian, then what is it?

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