By Hrach Melkumian and Karine Kalantarian
Armenia commemorated on Thursday the 88th anniversary of the genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, with hundreds of thousands of people paying their respects to some 1.5 million victims of the tragedy which still holds a powerful grip on their consciousness.
An incessant stream of people silently marched to Tsitsernakabert Hill in Yerevan throughout the day to lay flowers at the country’s main genocide memorial. Official remembrance ceremonies, as always, began in the morning, with President Robert Kocharian and the other Armenian leaders attending a prayer service held by Catholicos Garegin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, by the memorial’s eternal flame.
April 24 is marked by Armenians throughout the world as the start of a campaign of mass killings and deportations that wiped out the Armenian population of the former Ottoman Empire by 1917. The slaughter began with the arrest and subsequent execution of hundreds of Ottoman Armenian intellectuals ordered by the regime of the Young Turks shortly after the start of the First World War.
In a written address to the nation, Kocharian stressed that his administration will continue to pursue international recognition of what many historians believe was the first genocide of the 20th century. He also indicated that Armenia will at the same time continue to seek to improve its strained relations with modern-day Turkey which emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
“We have a sincere intention to maintain normal relationships with all of our neighboring countries,” Kocharian said.
Successive Turkish governments have vehemently denied that the 1915 massacres constituted a genocide, saying that Armenians died in large numbers as a result of internal strife, not a premeditated policy by the Ottoman authorities. Ankara says Yerevan’s strong support for Armenian Diaspora efforts to have major Western powers recognize the genocide is one of the reasons why it refuses to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia.
The Turkish denials were dealt a major blow last February when the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization, concluded that the mass killings fit into the internationally accepted definition of genocide. In a study commissioned by a group of prominent Armenians and Turks, the ICTJ found that they “include all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined in the [UN] Convention, and legal scholars as well as historians, politicians, journalists and other people would be justified in continuing to so describe them.”
Last week, an Armenian presidential commission on human rights proposed amendments to Armenian law that would make genocide denial a crime. Kocharian’s opinion on the proposal is not yet known. But his prime minister, Andranik Markarian, spoke out against the idea on Thursday, saying that there is no need for such punishment.
A senior member of Markarian’s Republican Party, Galust Sahakian, also disapproved of it. “We should not suspect ourselves [of genocide denial],” he told RFE/RL.
The idea, however, is backed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), another major pro-Kocharian party whose Diaspora branches have for decades campaigned for international affirmation of the Armenian Genocide. One of its leaders, Hrant Markarian, argued that several European countries have already enacted laws punishing those who deny the Jewish Holocaust.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s largest opposition alliance led by Stepan Demirchian led a separate procession of several thousand supporters to Tsitsernakabert. “It was a crime against humanity and must be recognized and condemned by the entire world, including Turkey,” Demirchian told RFE/RL.
“We must respect the memory of the genocide victims with concrete actions; by creating a state where the citizen has the highest value,” he added, in a veiled jab at the Armenian authorities whose legitimacy is strongly challenged by the opposition.
Demirchian’s comments were echoed by another prominent opposition figure, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. “We should establish justice in our house and then use that justice in the realization of our goals,” he said.