Moran was touring Turkey and Azerbaijan on a trip sponsored by the Turkish Cultural Center to educate American lawmakers at the state and national level about the two countries. On Sunday, May 31, Moran was at a dinner with colleagues in Istanbul when the meal was interrupted and the guests were evacuated. But Moran says he didn’t feel like he was in any immediate danger. “There was a commotion, and we could smell tear gas,” he said.
The protests were triggered when the government announced that a public park in Istanbul would be cleared to make way for the construction of a shopping mall. “That touched a nerve,” Moran explained. “With a population of 15 million, Istanbul is a big city – it’s city, after city, after city – there aren’t many trees. Knocking down a few trees may not seem like such a big deal to us, but it touched a nerve there.”
Moran and his associates took the protests in stride and the tour of the two nations went on uninterrupted, even though the protests spread beyond Istanbul. Although the government’s decision to bulldoze the park may have sparked the unrest, the focus soon shifted to the government itself. “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has been in power about 10 years,” Moran notes. “My sense is that his government is seen as a little too authoritarian – the government decided what it wanted to do with the park.”
Turkey has built a reputation as a secular, Western-style society with a democratic government. But Moran says some Turks are concerned that the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party of the prime minister is edging the country in another direction. “It’s still a very secular country, but there’s some concern that the government is headed toward more of a focus on religion, with laws regarding alcohol consumption and so on. So there’s some sense that he has been in power a little too long.”
Although there aren’t specific official ties between Turkey and Vermont at this time, Moran says one of Istanbul’s 39 municipalities is establishing a connection with Burlington through a sister cities program. “Of course, Burlington has a population of about 20,000, and this municipality has a population of about 500,000, almost as big as the whole state of Vermont,” Moran notes.
A local connection between Turkey and Vermont may be a bit more tenuous. Ephesus is the site of an ancient city on the Turkish coast that is the site of the house of the Virgin Mary, where she was purported to have spent her last days. A replica of the house was built in Jamaica by local residents Mary and Don Tarinelli. Apparently, the Tarinellis’ work was authentic enough to fool some of the locals. “I had some photos of Our Lady of Ephesus in Jamaica and showed them to people during the visit,” Moran says. “They said ‘How can this be? We don’t have snow here,’ and I explained that it was in Vermont.”
Turkey is an important player in US relations with a number of players in the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caucasus – including relations with neighboring Azerbaijan. “Azerbaijan is a democratic Muslim state that is pro-American,” Moran said. “And they share a border with Iran. So they’re a key ally for the United States to have in that area. Turkey is the same, a key ally in a strategic location.”
But another US ally in the area, Armenia, is in political and physical conflict with both Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenia’s political and diplomatic conflict with Turkey stems from a dispute over responsibility for the genocide of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the early 1900s. Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan is a territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabch region, which is currently under Armenian control after a 1988-1994 war between the two countries. “Technically, they’re still at war,” Moran says. “Armenia has a better relationship with the US, and one of the reasons the Azeris wanted to talk to American lawmakers is that there’s a provision that the United States can sell arms to Armenia, but not to Azerbaijan. They want the whole thing settled, and even though the UN has ruled in Azerbaijan’s favor four or five times, there’s still no resolution to the issue.”
Moran notes that, while there was significantly more security provided to the group during their time in Azerbaijan, the atmosphere wasn’t oppressive. “We had a whole entourage of police and secret service,” he says. “But if they blocked an intersection or something like that, the people got right out of their cars and in their face to argue. And there was no problem.”
Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country, thanks to large reserves under the Caspian Sea. Moran says the nation’s capital, Baku, which is located on the Caspian, is reaping the reward of its valuable resources. “The whole city is being rebuilt,” he said. “About 70% of the economy is the oil industry, but they’re trying to diversify and develop other industries, like tourism.”