A woman reacts as people hold placards reading "We all are Hrant, we all are Armenians" in front of the offices of Armenian weekly newspaper "Agos" during a rally commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, in Istanbul, on January 19, 2017. Photo: Ozan Kose / AFP

ISTANBUL — Elen has felt uneasy moving around her father’s native Istanbul since war broke out over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh on September 27.

Born to a French mother and Turkish-Armenian father, she grew up between the two countries, was educated in Turkey and deeply influenced by her father’s Armenian culture. As a consultant architect in a multinational office in Istanbul, she had not been fully confronted with a feeling of a conflict of loyalties – until now.

At first, when fighting began, Elen hoped it was a minor border skirmish, intermittent since Nagorno Karabakh Armenians seized autonomy following the breakup of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

“The first few days we knew almost nothing, we were waiting, thinking that it was maybe one more episode where each one provokes the other, like in 2016, or even last summer. It would get rough, then would soon go down again,” the young woman told Asia Times.

But it quickly became clear this was a major Azerbaijani offensive, aimed at seizing back a territory once home to an Azerbaijani minority and which the United Nations recognizes as part of Azerbaijan’s Soviet-delineated borders.

When neighborhoods in Stepanakert, the largest city in Nagorno Karabakh, were bombed from the very first week of the battle, the mood in Turkey — the unabashed ally of Baku — became increasingly polarized.

Turkish and Azerbaijani nationalists began to parade in the streets, with honking horns and bellicose slogans.

“All the Armenians in Turkey felt the weight of the conflict and I must say it scared me,” said Elen.

The two-and-a-half week war has already seen more than 500 Armenian troops killed, offering a clue to Azerbaijani military losses, which are under strict censure. Dozens of civilians have been reported killed on either side.

Aybeniz Khasanova (L), the mother of 29-years-old soldier killed during clashes with Armenia, reacts next to his grave, near Agdam city during the military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh on October 15, 2020. Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP

Grey Wolves unleashed

In the week of October 5, which preceded the first ceasefire negotiations in Moscow under Russian patronage, ethnic tensions in Istanbul reached a climax.

Marches of the Grey Wolves – the Turkish extreme right-wing group which regularly attracts attention for its involvement in aggression against progressives – got steadily closer to Istanbul’s historic Armenian quarters.

Elen recalls panicking when she heard them pass nearby her home on Halaskârgazi Avenue one night in Osmanbey, a traditionally Armenian neighborhood.

“I took my cat, my laptop, and I was ready to flee with just a jumper over my pyjamas. I really saw myself trapped, like a rat. It was a false alarm. But this was the first time that I’ve experienced such thing.”

The situation of Armenians in Turkey has never been completely alleviated, nor has that of all other minorities in this former empire, multicultural by definition.

While Muslim minority communities, such as Kurds and Alevis, are de facto integrated into the majority group, those of other faiths are categorized as minorities. Those include the Armenians, the Greek Orthodox, and the Jewish community. This situation often relegates them to the position of a kind of domestic enemy, in a country where nationalism is always by definition overlaid with belonging to Islam.

“It was not so long ago that Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos, was killed in broad daylight,” said a former editor of an independent TV channel that was banned in the crackdown after the failed coup of 2016, who wished to remain anonymous.

“It was precisely on Halaskârgazi Avenue in 2007, at a time when nationalist groups were behind a series of assassinations. The Grey Wolves seemed to be beyond the control of the authorities then, although it knows how to use them when it comes to pressuring demonstrations of opposition.”

Turkish nationalist protesters flash the “Grey Wolf” sign during a protest on June 2, 2016 in front of the Germany consulate in Istanbul after the German parliament labelled the World War I massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide. Photo: Ozan Kose / AFP

Property left behind

That things are degenerating in Turkey is what frightens Gasbar, a 40-year-old Turkish-Armenian who recently returned from London to get his mother out of Turkey.

“I don’t think the government would orchestrate or allow pogroms,” he told Asia Times. “But the street is something else, the fascists are warmed up by years of aggressive speeches at the highest levels of the political class.”

His family was due this year to move to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where any ethnic Armenian resident can obtain citizenship.

“We were waiting until we could sell the house, but due to the economic situation and the price of the lira, at the moment it’s worthless. So, we go and hope there will be no seizures for those who have left, if overnight we are declared enemies to the security of the state. This has already happened in history.”

The Istanbul pogroms of September 1955 saw a two-day rampage by nationalist mobs targeting Greek-owned properties, which claimed more than a dozen lives and sparked a new exodus of Greeks. The event also affected the Armenian community.

The Armenians of Turkey, concentrated in Istanbul and numbering only around 60,000 today, once constituted a third of the population of Anatolia. Turkey to this day denies that 1.5 million Armenian citizens of the former Ottoman Empire were subject to genocide, and maintains that the massacres and deportations must be viewed in the context of World War I.

Turkey’s Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past sought to tie the cleansing of the republic’s minorities to his secular predecessors. But as his political star has sunk amid the economic crisis, he has reverted to a staunchly nationalist stance at odds with Turkey’s minority communities.

Gasbar’s mother had been alone since other young men of his family left for Armenia with the intention of fighting for Karabakh, known by Armenians as Artsakh.

For those Armenians who stay behind, the mistrust between communities is becoming unbearable.

“At the office, I used to have lunch with an Azerbaijani colleague. Since the bombings have also hit civilian areas on his side, I don’t even dare to greet him anymore,” says Elen, who was preparing to leave Turkey for good hours after being interviewed by Asia Times.

Following the rapid collapse of the Moscow-brokered ceasefire on October 10, she fears the Karabakh conflict will become bogged down for years as it was in Ukraine.

“After the past few weeks, when I have never felt so bad because of what I am, I don’t want to live in a multicultural environment again,” Elen told Asia Times.

She now plans to make a life for herself in Armenia.

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