Armenian genocide and Turkey: then and now

The destruction of the Ottoman Armenians began on 24 April 1915. Almost a century later the contemporary political relevance of the "great catastrophe" remains undiminished, says Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
24 April 2010

For Armenians everywhere, 24 April is a day of special commemoration. It marks the beginning of the genocide of 1915: the uprooting or killing by the leading figures of the Ottoman state of almost all the 2.2 million Armenians who lived in historic Armenia, using the circumstances of Europe’s “great war” as a pretext.

The ninety-fifth anniversary on 24 April 2010 finds the issue as potent as ever in the global consciousness as well as in the Armenian world. It is discussed in the international arena at all levels of political, diplomatic, historical and cultural life; its recognition as a historical reality has become a factor in the deliberations of many legislative bodies, such as the United States house of representatives' foreign-affairs committee and the Swedish parliament (both in March 2010).

This reflects a shift in the balance of argument about the genocide. The outright negation of its truth is becoming rarer; more often, those who oppose official recognition of the genocide tend tacitly to admit that it did happen but that it would be politically inconvenient to say so as this would anger Turkey - an increasingly powerful and influential country, an important Nato member, and a strategic partner of the west (albeit one more than ever inclined to follow its own course) (see Carsten Wieland, "Turkey's political-emotional transition", 6 October 2009). The implication is that it is still, ninety-five years later, too soon to face reality.

A related but distinct case is that what happened in 1915 belongs to the past and should be left to historians.

Both the “too soon” and the “too distant” cases are wrong, as brave voices in Turkey too are beginning to affirm (see "Turks urged to mark Armenia's 'great catastrophe' in Istanbul", RFE/RL, 22 April 2010). The debate about the Armenian genocide is about politics, and about people living today. In this short article, I make four points that underline the contemporary political relevance of the genocide.

The closed frontier

The first point is the very existence, almost a century later, of the Armenian diaspora: the grandchildren of the genocide survivors. Their persistent mobilisation in search of recognition and justice is fuelled by the continuous denial of the Turkish authorities (alternating with assertions that if there were deportations and massacres, it was the fault of the Armenians themselves).

This generation is not going to disappear, forget, or be silenced. They will not be at peace until modern Turkey - the successor state of the Ottoman empire - recognises its responsibility (see The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians [Oxford University Press, 2005]).

The second point is that the shadow of the genocide of 1915 is still hanging over the contemporary politics of the Caucasus. When in 1988, during the last years of the Soviet Union, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh - the enclave inside Azerbaijan - raised the peaceful demand to be transferred from (Soviet) Azerbaijan to (Soviet), the result only weeks later was an anti-Armenian pogrom in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait. It was followed by half a dozen others, from Kirovabad (now Ganja) to Baku. The message was clear, and sometimes explicit: both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis understood it as a reminder of 1915, and a warning of its possible repeat. 

In the troubled era of the Soviet Union’s slow disintegration, the fear on one side and the threat on the other re-emerged. If by that stage Turkey had recognised its responsibility in the destruction of the Anatolian Armenians, the political conflict over Karabakh might in principle have been solved in a non-violent way. In the event, the conflict erupted into open war in 1992-94, following the Soviet collapse; this was won by the Armenian side, despite Turkey’s military assistance to its Azerbaijani ally and its subsequent blockade on Armenia in an effort to squeeze both its economy and its support for Karabakh (see Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War [NYU Press, 2004]).

This is the last closed frontier of the cold war, and an unresolved conflict that could yet explode once more. The “protocols” signed by Armenia and Turkey in Zurich on 10 October 2009 agreed that the neighbours would normalise diplomatic relations and open the border between them (see Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Armenia and Turkey: forgetting genocide", 12 October 2009) Since then, the process has hit a series of obstacles, among which Turkey’s insistence on Armenian concessions over Karabakh (which is not included in the protocols) ranks high. In response, Armenia on 22 April 2010 suspended the parliamentary ratification process.

The Azerbaijani leadership today continues to threaten Armenia with military action to regain the territories lost in the 1990s. The Azerbaijani defence minister has even declared: “If the Armenian occupier does not liberate our lands, the start of a great war in the south Caucasus is inevitable.” Again, if Turkey recognised the genocide - and took a neutral position in the Karabakh conflict - this would greatly ease tensions and decrease the risk of yet another war in the Caucasus (see War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier [C Hurst & Columbia University Press, 2009]). 

The opened book

The third point that highlights the genocide's contemporary political relevance is about Turkey itself. After the vast majority of the Armenians were eliminated, the Republic of Turkey from its foundation in 1923 pursued a strictly unifying ideology that turned an intolerant (and often violent) face towards internal minorities and dissidents: Kurds, Assyrians, Greeks, Alevis, trade-unionists, human-rights activists. Some of the most intense violence came during the conflict between the Turkish military and the (Kurdish) PKK guerrillas in the 1980s, when as many as 3,000 villages in eastern Turkey were destroyed and their inhabitants forced to migrate west to major cities.

This one-party system, historically dominated by the military (and often mistakenly described as “secular”) is today crumbling, and in a way that opens the possibility of democracy and pluralism (see Bill Park, "Turkey and Ergenenkon: from farce to tragedy", 10 March 2010). In this struggle, the Armenian question has again become a subject of public debate - in great part thanks to journalists, scholars (such as Taner Akcam) and activists who have risked their lives to challenge official taboos. Some have paid a heavy price for this audacity; not least the journalist Hrant Dink, assassinated in January 2007 in the street outside the offices of his newspaper (Agos) in Istanbul.

More recently, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised the rhetorical stakes and engendered new fears in his response to the Swedish parliament’s resolution, when he spoke about expelling “100,000 Armenians” from Turkey (see "'There can be no talk of genocide'", Spiegel Online, 29 March 2010). Once more, Turkey’s recognition of the genocide of 1915 would be a great step towards erasing the fear and violence that has long characterised Turkey’s internal political life (see Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility [Henry Holt, 2007]).

The fourth point is that the official acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide is about everyone, not just Armenians and Turks. For it raises the crucial question: how is it possible to talk about the transformation of international relations and the peaceful resolution of 21st-century conflicts if the first major genocide of the 20th century is denied?

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