Waiting for the word in Armenia

The WW1 massacre of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks remains a source of great contention, writes Ara Iskanderian. While there has been some recent reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey on government level, use of the “g” word is still firmly off limits.

On Saturday April 24th, Armenian communities around the world will gather to remember the one and a half million victims of the Ottoman Turkish government’s systematic policy of deportation and extermination – the Armenian Genocide. This year represents a particular landmark: the 95th anniversary of events that PM-to-be Winston Churchill labelled a ‘holocaust’, and which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkey, called “a shameful act”.

Kemal Atatürk’s description provides the title for Turkish historian Taner Akcam seminal book on the subject. Akcam, a historian by profession, is one of a growing number of Turkish historians and intellectuals who have broached the issue of the Armenian Genocide and concluded that it was just that – a genocide.

This is a conclusion that successive Turkish governments have repeatedly refused to accept. Indeed, administrations have actively lobbied foreign governments not to pass resolutions recognising the Armenian Genocide; and they have done so with some success. For his views, Akcam was subjected to countless character assassinations and unable to take up an academic post in his native Turkey. He now lives in the United States.

The subject of the Armenian Genocide remains a taboo in Turkey, with Ankara insisting that the Armenian Genocide is merely a myth peddled by Armenian nationalists wishing to carve up Turkey. Such a view feeds into the condition known as ‘Sevres Syndrome’ – a paranoid and irrational fear that assumes foreign and external elements are out to get Turkey. The ‘syndrome’ dates back to never-implemented Treaty of Sevres signed at the end of World War One, which envisaged a truncated Turkey existing alongside an enlarged Greece and independent Armenia.

It was against this backdrop of national dismemberment that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the modern Turkish republic and sought to make a definitive cut with the moribund and defunct Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal abolished the offices of sultan and caliph and worked hard to divorce the nascent Turkish state from its Ottoman predecessor. Part of this process was forgetting or ignoring the ghosts of Turkey’s past, whilst the Turkish identity was reformatted as secular and something to be proud of. The nationalistic sentiments formulated in Atatürk’s revolution have echoes in today’s Turkey where minorities like Kurds and Armenians are not wholly accepted – often encountering the glass ceiling of equality. Similarly the level of nationalistic furore carefully cultivated in the early years of Ataturk’s republic has been institutionalised even in Turkey’s penal code.

The notorious Article 301 of Turkey’s Penal Code makes it a criminal offence to denigrate ‘Turkishness’ and has been criticised by NGOs as curtailing free speech. Nevertheless it has been utilised by several Turkish ultranationalists including lawyer Kemal Kerinchsiz, later implicated in the Ergenekon scandal, to bring criminal charges against any Turkish citizen who dares mention what has been redacted to the seemingly less controversial ‘g-word’.

Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, fellow novelist Elif Shafak – whose own Kafka-esque trial centred around on her novel’s protagonists use of the word genocide – and translator Ragip Zarokolu have all been tried under Article 301. Despite winning their cases each of the above mentioned faced threats and intimidation. Consequently both Pamuk and Shafak now live overseas.

Perhaps the most tragic 301 case was that brought against the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. After losing his case and receiving a suspended sentence, Dink was later murdered on an Istanbul street in 2007 by a 17-year-old ultra-nationalist, Ogun Samast. Dink’s murder heralded unprecedented acts; his funeral saw ordinary Turks marching in solidarity under banners reading ‘We are all Armenians.’ Even Article 301 was watered down somewhat (albeit very much still in effect, despite recent assurances to the contrary by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu).

The culmination of this national outpouring of grief came in 2009 when an unprecedented online petition appeared, entitled simply: ‘we apologise’. Authored by Istanbul intellectuals, it was signed by over 30,000 Turkish citizens.

This single act was too much for some, too little for others (hesitant as it was in using the word ‘genocide’). When the incumbent President Abdullah Gül spoke out positively of the petition as exemplary of Turkey’s openness, he was denounced by opponents as being a closet Armenian. Gül’s views also seemed at odds with those of his Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, who suggested that further 301 trials – perhaps mass trials – might be called for. Though the trials never went ahead, Gül worked hard to distance himself from claims that he was ancestrally Armenian, as a growing number of people in Turkey now identify themselves as being.

April 24th is a symbolic date. It was on that day, 95 years ago, that Turkish police rounded up and deported over 250 Armenian intellectuals, clergy and leaders from Constantinople (Istanbul), the then Ottoman capital. The Armenian intelligentsia was taken to the Chankiri prison located deep in Anatolia. Here most of the deportees were murdered – an auspicious prelude to the much larger deportations and murders planned for the Armenians inhabiting the provinces further east of modern Turkey’s capital city, Ankara.

From 1915 onwards, the two million Ottoman Armenians were systematically rounded up and marched to makeshift concentration camps or slaughter fields in the Syrian Desert. The deportations were officially sanctioned by the then Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha. Many died along the way from starvation, disease or attacks by brigands. The rest were slaughtered. In all, over a million perished.

The survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their descendants gradually rebuilt their lives and communities in exile from their ancestral lands. Eventually these people formed the bulk of what became the Armenian Diaspora – an umbrella term applied to a largely disparate group of communities connected for the most part by familial ties. The Armenian Diaspora, which is neither uniform nor entirely comprised of genocide descendants, is principally a by-product of the Ottoman Turkish government’s attempt to wipe out its Armenian population en masse.

Members and descendants of this Diaspora have consistently campaigned for the appropriate recognition of the trauma they bore witness to. They argue that it should be rightfully termed the twentieth century’s first genocide. What vindicates the usage of the term genocide, only coined in 1948 with the passing of the United Nation’s Genocide Convention, is that the author of both the convention, and term, the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, cited the Armenian example as a case necessitating effective legislation.

What remains a bone of contention is whether the 1948 convention might be applied retroactively and, if so, is there a legal recourse for Armenians and Armenia to claim territorial and/or financial compensation. The latter plays into the earlier mentioned fears embodied in the Sevres Syndrome.

Turkey remains unconvinced, and refuses to appropriately label the events, or indeed create an atmosphere conducive to greater openness on the matter. Turkish journalist Cengiz Aktar has noted that the issue has become so politicised and vitriolic that even the word ‘diaspora’ has taken on a wholly negative connotation and referring solely to “a group which is known as the eternal enemy of Turkey.” According to Aktar, it’s even impossible to refer to the substantial Turkish community of Germany as a Diaspora.

The view from Ankara is that the Armenian Diaspora — with its constant efforts to get host countries to recognise the Armenian Genocide — is actually hurdle to better bilateral relations with Armenia, a country which few Diaspora Armenians have links with. In this view, normal relations between Turkey and Armenia are upset by the counter-productive Armenian Diaspora. It is a narrative recounted annually to prevent individual foreign governments passing bills to officially recognise the Armenian Genocide.

Thus every April 24th, when the Armenian Genocide emerges as a bill in the American Congress, Turkey pleads with America not to jeopardise the Turkish-American alliance. On numerous occasions, Turkey has threatened to end American access to the strategically vital airbase of Incirlik, a major supply route for American adventurism in the region. Turkey has also threatened to withhold its support in any possible containment strategy for Iran. Yet more shocking is the pressure Turkey places upon Israel to sidestep the issue.

In each of their respective electoral campaigns the then candidates George Bush – both senior and junior – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all pledged to recognise the Armenian Genocide on election. Each successive president went on to renege upon their earlier promise, caving in the face of significant lobbying in Washington by ex-senators and congressmen in Turkish employ. It has been a case of history being sold for American interests.

When the nearly two million strong American-Armenian community awaited with baited breath President Obama’s recognition in the annual April 24th address they were disappointingly offered a watered down Obamaism. The recently inaugurated President termed the events ‘Meds Yeghern’, an interesting piece of PR where an American authored neologism for the Armenian language meaning ‘big massacre’, and never used in Armenian circles, was used in place of genocide. Once again neither side was satisfied: Turkey saw it as a tacit recognition and Armenians as backtracking.

The bullying tactics don’t end there. Provoked by fears that America might be creeping closer to passing a resolution using the “g” word, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan threatened to expel 100,000 Armenian nationals working in Turkey. Raising the spectre of the 1915 deportations, this threat raised caused outrage, and Prime Minister Erdogan was forced to revise his figures, suggesting a smaller number to be deported would suffice to make the point. Elsewhere in Europe when Sweden passed a bill recognising the genocide, the Turks recalled their ambassador and Erdogan cancelled a state trip to Scandinavia.

Armenia-Turkey: Non-Existent Neigbours

The modern republic of Armenia is only a portion of the historic Armenian homeland, reflecting its past as a part of the Russian Empire rather than province in the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, and after a brief spell of independence, the short-lived Armenian republic was Sovietised and became a constituent republic of the USSR. Independence was ultimately regained in 1991 following Gorbachev’s failed policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.

Levon Ter-Petrossian, the first president of a newly independent Armenia, strongly argued the case for seceding from the USSR by stating that Turkey was no longer an enemy, nor a country to fear. In fact, according to Ter-Petrossian, a mutually beneficial economic relationship could emerge between the two countries that would end Armenia’s traditional reliance upon Russia, and justify Armenia’s exit from the Soviet Union as well as incremental westernisation.

Unfortunately Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union was also marked by its entry into a conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the Armenian inhabited territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was disengeniously awarded to Azerbaijan by Josef Stalin. Turkey, which shares ethnic and linguistic ties with Azerbaijan, rather than assume the mantle of impartial peace broker, sided outright with Azerbaijan in the conflict. The then Turkish President Turgut Ozal went so far as to suggest direct military involvement, thereby pushing Armenia straight back into the Russian camp and protection.

The Nagorno-Karabakh war ultimately ended with what is now the world’s longest-running self-monitored ceasefire. Currently there exists an uneasy no-war, no-peace situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of whom have vastly increased their war-making potential. Out of solidarity with oil-rich Azerbaijan, Turkey closed the border with Armenia in 1993, it remains shut and has never once been reopened. All trade conducted between Armenia and Turkey is unofficial, despite regular meetings by businessmen on both sides, and is conducted via Georgia.

Despite considerable international pressure Turkey has demanded that Armenia drop non-existent territorial claims against Turkey, and end calls for genocide recognition. Policy makers in Ankara have either knowingly or unwittingly confused the more hawkish demands of members of the Armenian Diaspora with Armenia’s own foreign policy, which demands normalisation with no preconditions.

Added to these demands Turkey insists that total bilateral normalisation is only achievable following a lasting peace agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh, something that has proven elusive. Armenia’s economy suffered terribly as a result. Nearly one million Armenians left the landlocked republic adding to the global Diaspora, whilst post-Soviet collapse was further compounded by an illegal blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia was also deliberately excluded from regional initiatives such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. This is the main reason why its economy was described by The Economist as ‘levitating’.

Things changed in 2008 when the Georgia-Russia war showed how quickly seemingly frozen conflicts, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, can flare up to the detriment of regional peace. Turkey, which was caught unawares, was forced to rethink its policy towards the South Caucasus. For landlocked Armenia, nearly totally reliant upon Georgia as an access point to the outside world, the war drove home its isolation. Serendipity played its part as well: that same year Armenia and Turkey were drawn against each other in a football match. The newly elected Armenian President Serzh Sarkissian invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül to the Armenian capital Yerevan to watch the game. Gul eventually accepted the invitation and became the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia. There, on the sidelines of the match, the two discussed rapprochement and thus was born a new term ‘football diplomacy’. The following year Sarkissian went to watch the return game in the Turkish city of Bursa.

The result of this thawing of relations was the so-called Turkey-Armenia protocols. A step-by-step plan to normalise bilateral relations which envisaged the establishment of a joint historical commission, to be appointed by both sides, and to address conclusively the issue of the Armenian Genocide. The Protocols seemed to ignore the earlier American authored Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Committee (TARC), a track two diplomacy initiative which had already presented the issue of the Armenian Genocide to the International Centre of Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in The Hague (the ICTJ concluding that though the jury was out no the legal recourse for compensation, the use of the term ‘genocide’ was wholly justified). The resolution predated only by a matter of months the official recognition granted by the prestigious International Network of Genocide Scholars.

On a whistle-stop tour of Armenian Diaspora centres, President Sarkssian failed to sell the Protocols, instead he was met by protests stating that he had sold Armenian history. A triumphant Gül also failed to gain domestic support. Turkish parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Erdogan, refused to support any Protocols that did not make resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a precondition to bilateral normalisation.

On his own visit to the Azerbaijani capital Baku, Erdogan insisted that there would be no open borders without a lasting peace. Seemingly frustrated at the lack of movement on the Turkish side, President Sarkissian has stalled his own parliament’s ratification process two days before April 24th. Sarkissian concluded in a national address: “Turkey is not ready to continue the process that was started and to move forward without preconditions in line with the letter of the Protocols.”

So every April 24th the incumbent American President addresses American-Armenians, uses some synonym for genocide to save political face, and comes under pressure to not jeopardise Armenian-Turkish rapprochement by voices in Ankara. This year the noises coming from Yerevan and Ankara suggest those non-existent relations are in no danger of jeopardy, a first. Another first is a demonstration that will be taking place at Haydarpasha Station in Istanbul, the departure point ninety-five years ago for those unfortunate Armenian leaders murdered at Chankiri prison. The slogan for the commemorative event reads simply: “Never Again!”

Ara Iskanderian is an Armenian journalist working in London

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Robert Fisk, Holocaust and Genocide The Independent, 5 August 2000