By Emil Danielyan
The 1915 genocide of Armenias in the Ottoman Empire is a key contentious issue to be tackled by the recently formed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission, according to sources close to the intitiative, which is causing growing controversy among Armenians from around the world. The four Armenian members of the ten-member body, accused of contributing to Turkish denial of the genocide, believe that it is possible to lay the foundation for a major turnaround in Turkish attitudes to the tragic events of the past.
A private initiative to end the long-running feud between the two peoples has left many in Armenia and its Diaspora divided over one of the most important issues preoccupying them for decades. Fierce criticism and accusations of a sellout, that have followed the announcement of the news on July 9, are putting a big question mark over the success of the commission comprising former government officials and members of the Armenian communities in Russia and the United States. Some Armenians believe that the initiative, reportedly encouraged by the US State Department, is just a ploy designed to undermine their ongoing campaign for international recognition of the genocide.
But supporters of the effort insist that it will actually facilitate that recognition. “The Armenian genocide is obviously on the agenda, and preparing Turkish society to accept it is obviously part of this commission’s work,” said one informed source. Its Armenian members, including former foreign minister Alexander Arzumanian and former Russian presidential advisor Andranik Migranian, are “proceeding on the basis that there was an Armenian genocide” and will not seek to “determine whether it’s true or false” during further discussions with their Turkish colleagues, the source told RFE/RL.
In an interview with the Groong online news service, Migranian said they will try to convince prominent Turks that the recognition of the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide “would be the shortest road to reconciliation of our two peoples and two countries.” “Through and with the Turkish Commissioners, we will have direct access to Turkey’s elite and public at large in order to prepare them for acceptance of the genocide,” he said.
Yet precisely how the commission will address the genocide issue is unclear. Its members say they will not aim to determine the validity of either side’s position. “The intent is not to find what the truth is, but it is to open new horizons for the future and enhance mutual understanding,” one of them, Ozdem Sanberk, told “The New York Times” last month. Sanberk is the executive director of a private foundation in Istanbul and a former Turkish ambassador to Britain.
In its founding declaration issued in Geneva, the ten-member Commission said it will strive “to promote mutual understanding and good will between Turks and Armenians and to encourage improved relations between Armenia and Turkey.” This will be done through “contact, dialogue and cooperation” between their civil societies. The commission said it will submit appropriate recommendations to the two governments which have no diplomatic relations. However, details of the commission’s activities, including when and where it will hold its next meeting, are kept confidential.
The reaction from the Armenian public has been largely negative so far. Many politicians, public figures and scholars in Armenia and the Diaspora say that Ankara wants to stem the wave of recognitions by Western legislatures of the Armenian genocide, by showing that it is engaged in a dialogue with the Armenians. Most Turkish members of the commission, they say, had spent much of their diplomatic activities on the denial of what many historians believe was the first genocide of the 20th century.
But the Armenian commissioners counter that the very fact that the Turkish government is now willing to discuss the genocide issue is a clear signal to the international community that Ankara may at last admit crimes committed by its Ottoman predecessors. “The Turkish government had one hundred percent opposed any discussion of the Armenian genocide,” said one source familiar with their thinking. “Now, with the formation of the commission, people understand that the Turkish government is starting to change its policy to at least allow discussion of it by some very serious guys.”
The Armenian Assembly of America, an influential lobbying group whose chairman Van Krikorian also sits on the reconciliation commission, strongly denies allegations that it has promised Ankara to suspend its anti-Turkish initiatives in the US Congress. “The Assembly is and will continue to be the leading proponent of the issue in the US,” Krikorian told Groong on August 4.
It remains to be seen how the Turkish government would react to more pro-Armenian resolutions. Ilter Turkmen, a former foreign minister and also a commission member, told RFE/RL last September that Turkey will not normalize its relations with Armenia as long as the latter supports and encourages the recognition campaign.
Official Yerevan, meanwhile, appears to be skeptical about the success of the US-backed initiative. “I believe that we are not going to suffer from this commission’s existence because I am convinced that there will be no progress on the genocide,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian declared at a recent meeting with leading Armenian historians. “On the contrary, this process may stall over that issue, and that will allow us to show the United States and other countries that Turkey is unable solve issues through such dialogues and that international recognition is the only way out.”