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Most ordinary Turks support their government’s strong denial of the Armenian genocide despite a growing realization of the need to address the sensitive subject, according to an Armenian diplomat who worked in Istanbul for three years.

Arsen Avagian, an Armenian Foreign Ministry official, suggested on Thursday that only a small group of liberal Turkish intellectuals would now openly describe the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of more than a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. “As one member of this group has said, there are just a few dozen people thinking like that,” he told a seminar on Turkish-Armenian relations in Yerevan.

Last May, a group of Turkish historians challenging the official line on the issue cancelled a planned conference in Istanbul under government pressure. Justice Minister Cemil Cicek accused them of “stabbing Turkey in the back.”

Avagian, who headed Armenia’s permanent representation at the Istanbul headquarters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization from 2002-2005, said he believes the vast majority of Turks agrees with official Ankara’s version of the events of 1915-1918. It holds that Armenians died in much smaller numbers and only as a result of civil unrest.

In Avagian’s view, the main reason for the Turkish genocide denial is a psychological one. The Turks, he said, fear that they will perceived by the outside world as “barbarians” if they recognize the Armenian massacres as genocide.

David Phillips, a U.S. scholar who chaired the former Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), suggested a similar explanation in a book published earlier this year. “Turks refuse to acknowledge the genocide because acknowledgement contradicts their noble self-image,” he wrote.

That might explain why a halt to the increasingly successful Armenian campaign for international recognition of the genocide is one of Turkey’s preconditions for normalizing relations with Armenia. Senior officials from the two countries held secret talks in Vienna last month in yet another attempt to improve bilateral ties. They reportedly failed to make any progress, however.
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