By Gayane Danielian
Yeftan Turkyilmaz is the first and so far the only Turkish scholar given access to Armenia’s state archives and he believes the reason for that is more simple than one might think.
“There are no people in Turkey who can work with these archives,” the young doctoral candidate explains in perfect Armenian. “I just don’t know of any other Turkish scholar who speaks Armenian. That is the main obstacle.”
Turkyilmaz, who was taught the language by an Armenian teacher in Istanbul, pursues a Ph. D. in history at the University of North Carolina. His doctoral thesis will focus on the creation and activities of Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian nationalist parties during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. He began looking for relevant documents kept at the Armenian National Archive on May 2 and says he has had no trouble accessing and photocopying them.
“Interestingly, people in Turkey believe that Armenia’s archives are closed, especially for Turkish citizens,” says Turkyilmaz. “That is not true. Here I am easily working with them.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certainly one of those people. As part of his government’s efforts to counter international pressure for Turkish recognition of the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians as genocide, Erdogan has repeatedly stated in recent weeks that Ankara has declassified its Ottoman-era archives and urged Yerevan to follow suit.
Armenia, however, maintains that its archives have always been open to Turkish and other foreign researchers. “Many foreign scholars have used them to date and none of them was Turkish,” an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman said just days before Turkyilmaz arrived in Yerevan.
The Armenian archive director, Amatuni Virabian, reiterated in an RFE/RL interview this week that any Turkish scholar can have unfettered access to its approximately 12,000 genocide-related documents. Most of them contain information on tens of thousands of genocide survivors that found refuge in Armenia between 1915 and 1918.
Turkyilmaz says that as far he is concerned, Virabian and other Armenian archive officials have been true to their words. “They have helped me a lot and I have no problems interacting with them,” he tells RFE/RL.
Armenian historians, for their part, remain skeptical about Turkey’s regular pledges to open its Ottoman-era archives. They also suggest that the Turkish archives have long been purged of any incriminating evidence.
“Sadly, young people in Turkey know nothing about the subject,” Turkyilmaz says. “All they know is nationalist things written in school textbooks. And because they lack that knowledge, they believe that the Armenians plot bad things against their country.”
Will Turkey recognize the Armenian genocide in the near future? “No, it won’t,” says the Turkish scholar. “But maybe future generations will address the subject in a more reasonable and calm manner.”