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Armenians Close To World Recognition 90 Years On, Or Are They?

By Emil Danielyan
Armenians around the world appear as close to getting the international community to recognize the genocide of their kinsmen in Ottoman Turkey as never before as they mark the 90th anniversary of the most defining and tragic episode in their long history.

Decades of Armenian campaigning have raised international awareness of the events of 1915 to an unprecedented level, with a growing number of countries describing them as a genocide.

But how far all of this will take the Armenians in their decades-long pursuit of historical justice remains to be seen. Some of them think that pro-Armenian resolutions by foreign parliaments will not mean much until Turkey itself admits to the genocide.

The process gained momentum in 2001 when France passed a special law affirming the genocide. Eight other member states of the European Union, including Italy and Poland, have followed suit since then, making genocide recognition a potential condition for Turkey’s membership in the EU. Germany, hitherto impervious to Armenian demands, is expected to add to the pressure by urging Turkey face its troubled past and even apologizing for its failure to stop the slaughter of up to 1.2 million Armenians during the World War I.

“In the course of the accession negotiations [with Turkey], France will ask for a recognition of the tragedy at the outset of the 20th century,” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier declared last December. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU’s executive European Commission, likewise promised a “frank and sincere discussion” with the Turks.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, seems increasingly reluctant to continue to block Armenian-sponsored congressional resolutions calling the 1915 mass killings and deportations genocide -- a politically charged term which the administration of President George W. Bush has so far been loath to use. Washington’s ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, signaled a possible shift in U.S. policy on the issue last February when he repeatedly and publicly referred to the Armenian massacres as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”

The wave of recognitions has prompted predictably angry protests from the Turkish government that have only heightened international interest in the subject. There have arguably been more genocide-related reports in the Western media in the past five years than during the preceding decades.

More importantly, the topic is no longer seen as taboo in Turkey where a growing number of civil society representatives openly question the official Turkish line. “The genocide allegations have now become an international political issue,” Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent Turkish journalist and a proponent of the denial policy, wrote in “The Turkish Daily News” on April 16. “It is almost impossible to prove we are in the right by producing photos and documents.”

So are the Armenians finally close to securing a universal acceptance of their tragedy after investing so much energy and so many resources in the endeavor? “I wouldn’t say we are close,” says Van Krikorian, the former chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, a lobbying group that has for decades been fighting for genocide recognition.

Krikorian argues that the United States and other world powers have their own national interests and foreign policy goals which they will never subordinate to the Armenian cause. Their “trade-offs” with Turkey have already left the Armenians empty-handed in the past, he says.

“I think one lesson we have learned from history is that international recognition is important but can not be counted on for long,” he explains. “Efforts at international recognition, in my opinion, do not really get Armenians to where they need to be unless they can also get Turkish recognition.”

While Turkey’s ruling establishment and mainstream media continue to flatly deny the genocide, they are clearly tolerating growing domestic discussion of the sensitive subject which is exposing ordinary Turks to facts hitherto hidden from them. One of Turkey’s most famous novelists, Orhan Pamuk, shocked many of his countrymen when he admitted in a recent newspaper interview that at least a million Armenians were wiped out in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire.

Another Turkish writer, Fethiye Cetin, caused a similar stir with a book that presented her ethnic Armenian grandmother’s harrowing accounts of Ottoman soldiers slaughtering Armenian men in her native village and forcing their wives and children on a death march to the Syrian desert.

Writing in the pro-establishment “Turkish Daily News” on April 17, columnist Elif Safak described how elderly women in her family feared openly talking about their fond memories of their erstwhile Armenian neighbors. “We need to listen to the suppressed memories of the Turkish grandmothers,” Safak concluded. “For, unlike the Turkish nationalists who keep reacting against every critical voice in civil society by systematically propagating collective amnesia, these elderly women do remember.”

Equally unusual was the participation of three Turkish scholars in an international conference in Yerevan dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the start of the genocide. “Without recognition of the genocide, there can be no solution for Turkey on its path toward the European Union and in its relations with Armenia,” one of them, Taner Akcam, said in a speech.

David Phillips, a U.S. scholar who chaired the former Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), sees very important changes in Turkish society. “Five years ago, you couldn’t raise Armenian issues in any circles of Turkey and get any Turk to respond,” he said in a recent RFE/RL interview. “Now it’s a constant topic of conversations not only among civil society groups but among Turkish officials.”

Official Ankara offered Yerevan last month to form a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians who would look into the 1915 massacres and determine whether they were indeed a genocide. The Armenian government rejected the idea, saying the genocide is a proven fact which can not be called into question. Most Armenian observers think that the Turkish offer was aimed at offsetting the worldwide commemorations of the genocide anniversary. There are also those who see encouraging signs in the move.

Krikorian, for example, feels that the Turkish government for the first time indicated its readiness to admit that “their historians may not be right and that there might have been a genocide.” “I thought it was a kind of signal,” he says. “There are clearly policy changes in Turkey.”

Fear of Armenian territorial and financial claims is widely seen as a major factor behind the Turkish denial policy. The Armenian position on the issue is rather ambiguous. The authorities in Yerevan say that they recognize Armenia’s existing border with Turkey and have no intention to seek any reparations from the latter. “We are not talking about compensations, this is only about a moral issue,” President Robert Kocharian told Russian television on Saturday.

However, influential nationalist groups in Armenia and the Diaspora, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), want Yerevan to keep the door open for future territorial claims. Earlier this month Dashnaktsutyun condemned the Bush administration for allegedly trying to have the Turks acknowledge the genocide “without any consequences.”

Critics point out, however, that none of the genocide resolutions adopted by about two dozen countries to date calls for any consequences. They say Dashnaktsutyun itself welcomed a 1987 resolution by the European Union which stressed that “neither political nor legal or material claims against present-day Turkey can be derived from the recognition of this historical event as an act of genocide.”

The controversy highlights a lack of debate in Armenia and the Diaspora on what exactly would constitute international recognition of the genocide and what should follow it.

“Debate is definitely needed and I think it has to include Turks,” says Krikorian. “It’s always easy to negotiate with somebody who is not in the room. But when the person you are expecting something from comes to the room, it’s a different situation. I think that discussion ought to take place more and more with Turkish officials, at the government-to-government level as well.”