By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
President Robert Kocharian urged Turkey on Wednesday to join a growing number of countries that consider the 1915-1918 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire a genocide.
Kocharian argued that such recognition is essential for the reconciliation of the Armenian and Turkish peoples as he addressed an international conference in Yerevan dedicated to the approaching 90th anniversary of the start of the mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians.
“Recognition is important for Turkish-Armenian relations as it would provide answers to numerous questions dividing our two peoples and enable them to look to the future,” he said. “We remember the past with pain but not with hatred. It is difficult for us to understand the reaction of the Turkish side which manifests itself not only through the denial of the past but also the blockade of present Armenia.”
“We are faced with a paradox that needs to be reflected upon. For it is the party responsible for the tragic past which is embittered, rather than the victim,” Kocharian added in reference to Turkey’s continuing vehement denial of the genocide.
Successive governments of modern-day Turkey have maintained that the mass killings did not constitute a genocide, saying that the last Ottoman rulers did not seek to exterminate their Armenian subjects and that the Armenian death toll is grossly inflated. The head of Turkey’s powerful military reaffirmed this stance on Wednesday when he called on the Armenians to end their long-running campaign for international recognition of the genocide.
General Hilmi Ozkok was quoted by AFP as saying in a speech at a Turkish military academy that Turkey can not be held responsible for the killings during the dissolution of its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. The 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which established the modern-day Turkish Republic, "put an end to the baseless genocide claims politically and legally," Ozkok claimed.
Kocharian, however, made it clear that Armenia and its Diaspora will continue to campaign for a worldwide condemnation of their tragedy which is said is now on the cards “It is obvious today that the Armenian Question gradually ceases to be a hostage to geopolitical interests,” he said, referring to foreign powers’ reluctance to upset the Turks.
“We believe that international recognition of the genocide will help Turkey to come to terms with its past,” he said
According to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who also attended the opening session of the conference, Turkish acknowledgement would have a primarily moral significance for Yerevan. “Our main aim is the acceptance and condemnation of the genocide by Turkey,” he told RFE/RL. “As for issues like material or territorial compensation, let’s leave them for the future. I think it would be premature to raise such demands on the state level now.”
The two-day forum is attended by 50 scholars from Armenia and two dozen other countries, including Turkey. The two Turkish participants openly challenged the official Turkish version of the 1915 events. One of them, professor Murat Belge of Istanbul’s Bilgi University, dismissed Ankara’s recent call for the creation of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians that would look into the Ottoman-era massacres and determine whether they were indeed a genocide.
“We are beyond the time when it is necessary to start researching the subject,” Belge said. “I think everything is known.”
Asked by reporters whether he thinks Turkey will ever recognize the genocide, he replied: “I am sure that it will eventually do so.”
“If Turkey wants to be a democratic country it must admit past mistakes and rectify them,” agreed Taner Akcam, a prominent Turkish scholar known for his pro-Armenian discourse. In his conference speech, Akcam also made a case for the reconciliation of the two estranged neighbors, saying that they should learn to “listen to one another.”
Also attending the conference was Yossi Sarid, Israel’s former education minister who campaigned unsuccessfully for official Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide. Israel’s previous cabinet disavowed Sarid’s actions, fearing strong protests from Ankara.
“Relations between Turkey and Israel are important,” Sarid said. “But they must not be build at the expense of denying the Armenian genocide. That is unacceptable.”
Another Israeli participant, university professor Yari Auron, spoke of the Jewish state’s “moral obligation” to affirm the Armenian tragedy. “I think that if Israel recognizes the genocide, so will do the United States and even Turkey,” he said.