By Armen Zakarian and Nane Atshemian
President Robert Kocharian has received no letter from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggesting a joint study on the Armenian genocide, his spokesman said on Thursday, denying Ankara’s claims to the contrary.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul claimed on Wednesday that Erdogan wrote to Kocharian recently, proposing the creation of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians that would determine whether the 1915-1918 massacres of Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire constituted a genocide.
“It would be premature to comment on a letter which we haven’t received yet,” Kocharian’s press secretary, Victor Soghomonian, told RFE/RL. “Nor are we aware of its content.”
“I can only reiterate that we have not received such a letter,” he said.
Erdogan first publicly called for such a study on March 9, highlighting Turkish unease over renewed international publicity attracted by the issue amid the unfolding commemorations of the 90th anniversary of the start of the genocide. Yerevan rejected the offer at the time, saying it that casts doubt on the very fact of the genocide.
“I can’t say what the Armenian authorities will decide after receiving such a letter,” the spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Hamlet Gasparian, told RFE/RL. “I would just say that there have been such calls in the past and that Armenia said the fact of genocide can not be a subject of debate.”
The Armenians can only agree to “discussions on eliminating consequences of the genocide,” Gasparian added.
This position enjoys the backing of Armenia’s leading political groups, including those bitterly opposed to Kocharian. “If they want to discuss whether or not there was a genocide, then that is a non-starter,” said Tigran Torosian, a senior member of the governing Republican Party. “It is time for Turkey to accept that fact and try to improve its relations with Armenia instead of resorting to petty tricks.”
Torosian said an unconditional reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border by Ankara would be the first meaningful step toward improving the extremely strained bilateral relations.
A spokesman for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), another member of the ruling coalition that favors a harder line on Turkey, similarly argued that acceptance of the Turkish proposal would amount to questioning the genocide. “That is not a step toward dialogue,” said Spartak Seyranian.
According to Shavarsh Kocharian of the opposition Artarutyun alliance, the genocide study offer is aimed at easing the European Union’s growing pressure on Turkey to face it troubled past. He also said no Turkish historian selected for the proposed panel would dare question the official Turkish version of the 1915 events which denies a systematic effort to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
“The work of historians would be effective only if there is no political attitude that rejects realities obvious to everyone,” the opposition leader said.
Meanwhile, Turkey announced on Wednesday that it will formally ask the British parliament to reject the so-called Blue Book, published by the British government in 1916, which uses eyewitness accounts to conclude that Armenians were being systematically exterminated. Gul was quoted by Reuters news agency as telling the Turkish parliament that London will be asked to “recognize the Blue Book as invalid and baseless as a historic document.”
The 700-page book is a major source of reference for the Armenians in their campaign for international recognition of the genocide. The Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan has a special plaque dedicated to its main author, Lord James Bryce.
The United Kingdom has never officially referred to the slaughter of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians as genocide. Its ambassador in Yerevan, Thorda Abbott-Watt, provoked a storm of condemnation in Armenia and its Diaspora last year after publicly stating that the mass killings were not a genocide.
The British government faced domestic criticism in January 2001 when it attempted to exclude Armenians from official ceremonies marking Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day. It eventually yielded to pressure from prominent public figures and media.