By Emil Danielyan
More than fifty Nobel laureates from around the world appealed to Armenia and Turkey on Monday to unconditionally establish diplomatic relations, open their border, and step up contacts between their civil societies.
In an open letter, they also implicitly urged the Turkish government to acknowledge that the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted a genocide. They endorsed a 2003 independent study which concluded that the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 Ottoman Armenians fits into the internationally accepted definition of genocide.
“An open border would greatly improve the economic conditions for communities on both sides of the border and enable human interaction, which is essential for mutual understanding,” read the joint appeal signed by 53 prominent academics, writers, economists, and scientists who have won a Nobel Prize in their respective fields in the last three decades. Among them is Elie Wiesel, a world-famous Holocaust survivor, and Frederik de Klerk, a former South African president who presided over the collapse of apartheid in his country.
The signatories said the Turkish and Armenian governments should ease their lingering tensions “through additional treaty arrangements and full diplomatic relations” which they believe would facilitate bilateral academic links and student exchanges. They also called for the abolition of an article of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to “denigrate Turkishness” and has been used against dissident intellectuals questioning the official denial of the Armenian genocide.
“Armenia also should reverse its own authoritarian course, allow free and fair elections, and respect human rights,” the laureates added.
Their letter, addressed to “the peoples of Turkey and Armenia,” was initiated and drafted by David Phillips, a U.S. scholar who runs the New York-based Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He is also known as the former chairman of the U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission that operated from 2001-2004.
Speaking to RFE/RL from New York, Phillips said the open letter was prompted by what he sees as an anti-Armenian nationalist backlash in Turkey that followed the January 19 murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. “Whereas initially there was an overwhelming popular response in support of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, the blowback from ultranationalists gives rise to really serious concern about political trends in Turkey,” he said. “So we thought it would be important for Nobel laureates to join their voices in support of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, to acknowledge that the events [of 1915] constitute genocide, and to suggest steps that the governments of Turkey and Armenia can take to improve their bilateral relations.”
The outpouring of popular sympathy in Turkey for the slain editor of the bilingual newspaper Agos raised hopes for a rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan. However, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear that a normalization of bilateral ties remains conditional on an halt to the Armenian campaign for genocide recognition and a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Like many other observers, Phillips linked the Erdogan government’s refusal to drop those preconditions with Turkey’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. “The trends in Turkey right now are negative, and I hope that after they get through this political cycle cooler heads will prevail and that Turkey’s leaders will take a deep breath and reflect carefully on what’s in their nationalist interests,” he said.
According to Phillips, Armenia’s government is also to blame for the strained ties. “Clearly, the corruption and incompetence of Armenia’s current political leaders makes it difficult for Armenia to progress or for Armenian-Turkish relations to develop constructively,” he said.
The Nobel prize winners pointed out that the biggest obstacle to Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is a “huge gap in perceptions over the Armenian Genocide.” They said that in order to address this gap the two sides should look into a study commissioned by TARC from another New York-based institution, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), in 2002.
The ICTJ concluded in a February 2003 report that the Armenian massacres “include all of the elements of the crime of genocide” as defined by a 1948 United Nations convention. It said at the same time that the Armenians can not use the convention for making territorial and other claims against Turkey.
President George W. Bush has repeatedly cited the ICTJ study in his April 24 messages to the Armenian community in the United States. John Evans, the former U.S. ambassador to Armenia, likewise pointed to it when he declared in a February 2005 speech in California that the “Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century.”
“The analysis offers a way forward, which addresses the core concerns of both Armenians and Turks,” agreed the signatories of the open letter.
While stating that their calls will be “noticed” in Armenia and Turkey, Phillips was pessimistic about prospects for a major improvement in Turkish-Armenian relations sought by Washington. “It’s hard to envision dramatic progress given the mediocrity of political leadership in Yerevan and in Ankara,” he said.