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The Armenia-Turkey process: don’t stop now

Kerem Oktem
14 October 2009

"Stop the Protocols" is the headline slogan of one of the many websites that emerged soon after news got round of secret negotiations between Turkey and Armenia. Its explicit aim is to make sure that the cautious rapprochement between the two countries - symbolised by the deal agreed in Zurich on 10 October 2009 - is halted. The website classifies the signing of two protocols that day by Armenia's president, Serzh Sarkisian, as a sell-out to the Turks and a surrender of the historical fact of the genocide of 1915; and warns that supporting the normalisation process amounts to treason against the Armenian nation.

Kerem Oktem is research fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University. His books include  (co-edited with Kalypso Nicolaidis & Othon Anastasakis), In the long shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism (Brill, 2009); (co-editor, with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins) Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, forthcoming 2010); and Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, forthcoming 2010)

There is also an activist dimension to the project. "Stop the Protocols" serves as a coordination platform for the many protests (sit-ins, hunger-strikes and demonstrations) that have taken place in the United States, Europe and Lebanon in the period since the Turkey-Armenia diplomatic process was announced.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian and Vicken Cheterian, in their contributions to openDemocracy on the 10 October accord, share this critical view of the protocols and highlight what they see as the flaws in the document (for example, its proposals to restore cross-border links, and how these relate to the overriding issue of the genocide).

Yet their own position can be criticised, on a number of grounds. A preliminary one is suggested by the implication in either article that the author is able to speak on behalf of all Armenians, or at least those in the diaspora. But is it possible that the highly cosmopolitan Armenian diaspora, in 2009, can or would speak with a single voice? The answer is a definite "no"!

In fact "Stop the Protocols" and its political initiator (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation [ARF]) may constitute the most vocal political grouping in the diaspora - but it is not necessarily the most representative. The ARF is one of the oldest and most influential Armenian political organisations; few would question its role in re-establishing Armenian communities after the genocide. But it has become trapped in the cage of an old-fashioned, if virulent nationalism: retribution, compensation, and transfer of land to Armenia are central to its vocabulary.

But there are many other voices in the diaspora, with diverse views on a host of questions affecting Armenia and Armenians. These are represented in humanist organisations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the dioceses of the Armenian Churches of America and the Armenian Assembly of America. Many members of these groups will feel uneasy at the prospect that the recognition of genocide, a goal that ultimately unites all Armenians regardless of their political persuasion, might be the first casualty on the altar of an ill-defined "normalisation". They support it nevertheless.

The single block

But if there is a range of views among Armenians about the Armenia-Turkey diplomatic process, this leaves a further question to be addressed: why are serious observers such as Juan Gabriel Tokatlian and Vicken Cheterian so dismissive of it? A closer analysis of three dimensions of the genocide might help in finding an answer.

First, there is the destruction of the Armenian communities of the Ottoman empire as a historical reality. Whatever term is used to describe what happened - the juridical term "genocide", its Armenian equivalent meds yeghern (great catastrophe), or the term "crime against humanity" - the fact is that the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihat ve Terakki) used the state apparatus of the Ottoman empire to render large parts of central and eastern Anatolia (or historical Armenia and Kurdistan) devoid of Armenians. The Ittihadists, as they were also called, made use of regular army units, irregular Kurdish tribal groups and criminal gangs to evict from their villages and kill Armenian men, women and children. The subsequent state policies of the Republic of Turkey never broke with the anti-Armenian bias and continued to induce the remaining Armenians to leave. Houses, churches and schools were appropriated and often handed out to local notables, or simply destroyed. This grave injustice has to be acknowledged by Turkey and redressed in one way or another.

Second, there is the daily trauma of the genocide in the lives of the dwindling number of genocide survivors, their children and grandchildren, and hence, of most Armenians in the diaspora. The wounds that have been inflicted on every single one of the survivors and their offspring have been growing over the decades, as the destruction of 1915 was forgotten by most in Turkey and the world and overshadowed by the Nazi holocaust and the second world war. This burden of pain and oblivion has induced a heavy emotional cost: it includes anger at being denied the "closure" which is expected (perhaps in vain) from official Turkish recognition, and the difficulty of being caught between the experience of loss, fidelity to the past, and the frustrated desire to move on. Armenians all over the world have a moral right to be heard, and for their pain to be addressed and ameliorated.

Third, there is the genocide discourse, which is used by (among others) by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the "Stop the Protocols" website as a tool of governance and perpetuation of power. Here, the genocide is employed to control the political life of diverse diaspora communities and suppress dissent by rallying Armenians around the flag. In this discourse, everything short of full genocide-recognition by the Turkish state (including massive compensation and a redrawing of borders) is seen as treason to the nation and hence unacceptable.

I believe - together with the many Turkish and Armenian activists who have been working on all fronts to go beyond the maximalist discourses of their respective nationalisms - that the first and second dimensions of the genocide (the historical facts and the need to address the pain of survivors and successor generations) are not negotiable. The third dimension of the genocide discourse, however, is in my view half of the largest roadblock on the road to normalisation - the other half being, of course, its mirror-image: the Turkish denialist discourse, which has scared internal critics into silence by suggesting that any dialogue with Armenians would result in Turkey's immediate territorial disintegration.

The opening effect

This does not mean that the concerns of Juan Gabriel Tokatlian and Vicken Cheterian, including their sharp denunciations of Turkish policy and intentions, can be regarded merely as cynical or unfounded. Several important world players - the United States and the European Union, and now increasingly Russia - are pushing for stability in the Caucasus, in part to clear the way for energy transports via Turkey and in part to prevent another scenario of the kind that sparked war in Georgia in August 2008. There is little doubt that this is the driving motivation behind the protocols. Turkey is artfully exploiting this current geo-strategic reshuffle in order to downplay the issue of genocide recognition, while it pursues the foreign-policy objective of achieving good relations with all its neighbours.

The joint historical commission, which the second protocol proposes, is indeed a bad compromise, if not a complete sell-out. The fact that the commission needs the agreement of all concerned to reach a binding conclusion, and that it will lose its legitimacy and be disbanded if one side walks out, allows both countries to play it safe. It would be wonderful if both sides agreed that the events of 1915 constituted genocide, for this would both create the space for Turkish political leaders to sell this conclusion to their electorate and help relieve the suffering that is multiplied by Turkey's official refusal of recognition. True, this is not a very probable outcome in the short term. It is more likely that the commission will start to meet amid a big media fanfare, and then gradually dissipate into obscurity once the futility of the exercise becomes apparent.

So the ratification of the protocols by the two parliaments, against widespread opposition from nationalist circles on all sides and from Azerbaijan's government - if and when it occurs - will not bring immediate benefits. There will be no genocide recognition; no genuflection by Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Tsitsernakaberd, the site of Armenia's genocide memorial; no progressive or revolutionary shake-up in the region towards a new fraternity and solidarity. The decisive question, however, is whether the protocols will complicate or delay any such eventual result. I do not think so.

For the implementation of the protocols - and especially open borders - would mean that a lot would change for the better. Turks and Armenians could cross to the other side and get to know each other better; the few existing examples of cross-border municipal cooperation and cultural exchange could expand and multiply; the poor border regions on both sides could be revived; and new life could be brought to Armenia's derelict economy.

Perhaps most important of all, open borders could further contribute to Turkey's own painful process of facing its troubled past. This process might one day gather more than the 100,000 who mourned the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul in January 2007, and open the way for official recognition of the truth of 1915. But if in the meantime, Turkey can be helped by the protocols to become a country that is more hospitable to Armenians and able to accommodate their pain, then it is worth taking one step further in that direction.

This would also mean a partial loss of power for those actors who have long used the genocide to scare critical minds into conformity, to rule over their flocks as they pleased, and to claim the right to speak in their name.

Also in openDemocracy on Armenia, Turkey and genocide:

Sabine Freizer, "Armenia's emptying democracy" (30 November 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart,"Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey" (7 February 2006)
Sabine Freizer, "Nagorno-Karabakh: between vote and reality" (14 December 2006)
Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)
Hratch Tchilingirian, "Hrant Dink and Armenians in Turkey" (23 February 2007)
Taner Akçam, "Turkey and history: shoot the messenger" (16 August 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Armenia's election: the waiting game" (19 February 2008)
Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections" (4 March 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Armenia's mixed messages" (25 September 2008)

Fatma Müge Göçek,  "Hrant Dink: memory and hope" (17 January 2008)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Armenia: silence over genocide" (12 October 2009)

Vicken Cheterian, "Armenia-Turkey: genocide, blockade, diplomacy" (13 October 2009)

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