By Anna Saghabalian
Lech Walesa, Poland’s former president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, made on Thursday an emotional case for the recognition by Turkey of the 1915 genocide of Armenians, saying it should be a precondition for Ankara’s accession to the European Union.
“The massacres of Armenians in Turkey were the first genocide of the 20th century,” Walesa declared in a speech in Yerevan.
“Armenia is justly demanding that the recognition of the Armenian genocide be a precondition for Turkey’s membership in the European Union,” he said. “Without a universal acceptance of historical justice, we can not meet the challenges of the contemporary world.”
Walesa was addressing an international conference devoted the upcoming 90th anniversary of the start of the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. His visit came just two days after Poland became the ninth EU country to officially describe the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide.
A resolution adopted by the lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, says that the international community has a “moral obligation” to condemn the genocide. The resolution, which has already drawn protest form Ankara, is expected to be endorsed by the country’s Senate.
“The massacres of Armenians were started by the bloodthirsty [Ottoman] Sultan Abdul Hamid II,” Walesa said in his speech. “In 1915, the Turkish government ordered the slaughter of Armenian intellectuals and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians that either starved to death or were brutally killed by Turkish soldiers and Kurdish bandits.”
“If I or anyone else forget that crime, then let God forget us,” he added.
Walesa served as Poland’s first post-Communist president from 1990 through 1995, presiding over his country’s successful transition to democracy and the market economy. He is even better known as the legendary leader of the Solidarity movement whose 1980 campaign of civic disobedience precipitated the collapse of Communism in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. That role earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
The 61-year-old ex-president argued that the end of the Cold War has greatly facilitated international recognition of the Armenian genocide. “Until 1989 nobody wanted to anger Turkey which a was a strategic member of NATO and counterbalanced Soviet influence in the region,” he said. “But that role of Turkey has since decreased.”
Also appealing to Turkey to end its vehement denial of the genocide was Yossi Sarid, Israel’s former education minister and another participant of the conference. “Yes, it wasn’t your fault,” he said, addressing the Turks. “You didn’t personally take part in it and the direct perpetrators died long ago. But you should take responsibility for the Armenian genocide.”
Sarid has repeatedly lambasted successive Israeli governments for refusing to recognize the genocide for fear of jeopardizing Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey.
President Robert Kocharian likewise called for the Turkish recognition as he opened the two-day forum on Wednesday. Kocharian said his administration will continue to raise the issue in the international arena and encourage Armenian lobbying efforts abroad.
Kocharian’s predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosian, favored a more cautious lines, anxious not to further antagonize the Turks. Ter-Petrosian’s former national security adviser, Jirair Libaridian, also took part in the conference and defended that policy.
“Different periods require different policies,” he told RFE/RL. “In my view, the policy of the former Armenian authorities was right and that of the current authorities is a bit wrong.”
Libaridian, who is a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent, also noted that Turkish denial has actually contributed to recent years’ progress in the Armenian campaign for worldwide recognition of the tragedy. “They (the Turks) themselves put the issue under spotlight by saying that it didn’t happen,” he said. “So people wonder what didn’t happen.”