By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hovannes Shoghikian
Tens of thousands of people silently marched in Yerevan on Tuesday in an annual remembrance of some 1.5 million victims of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
The day marked the 92nd anniversary of the start of the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations that affected virtually the entire Armenian population of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Nearly two dozen countries, among them France, Canada and Russia, have recognized the massacres as the first genocide of the 20th century.
As always, the official commemoration of the anniversary began with a prayer service at the genocide memorial on Yerevan’s Tsitsernakabert Hill that was led by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Garegin II, and attended by President Robert Kocharian and other top government officials.
Ordinary Armenians laid flowers around the memorial’s eternal fire throughout the day. The stream of people walking to the memorial was thinner than usual due to heavy snow which is highly unusual for this time of the year in Armenia. Mourners were again joined by representatives of foreign diplomatic missions in Yerevan.
In a written address to the nation, Kocharian evoked the increasingly successful Armenian campaign for international recognition of the genocide. “The international community has realized that genocide is a crime directed against not only a particular people but the entire humanity,” he said. “Denial and cover-up of that crime is no less dangerous than its preparation and perpetration.”
“A strong, democratic and prosperous Armenia must be the Armenian people’s response to the masterminds, perpetrators and deniers of the Armenian Genocide,” added Kocharian.
In a separate statement, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian said genocide recognition will remain on the Armenian government’s foreign policy agenda. “We remember our past, but Armenia is moving forward, seeking to establish normal relations with all of its neighbors,” he said, effectively reaffirming Yerevan’s support for an unconditional normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties.
The Turkish government, which vehemently denies that the 1915 mass killings constituted a genocide, says the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border is contingent on a halt to the genocide recognition drive.
In his statement, Sarkisian voiced solidarity with dissident Turkish intellectuals recognizing the genocide. He also urged Armenians to use the occasion for again paying tribute to the assassinated Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink who also challenged the official Turkish version of the bloody events.
Leaders of Armenia’s main political parties also visited the genocide memorial. “A state can not live by denying its past,” said Hrant Markarian of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). “Turkey must recognize the Armenian genocide as soon as possible for the sake of Turkey’s future.”
“For us, genocide recognition is, first of all, a matter of dignity and historical truth and also a matter of Armenia’s national security,” Markarian told RFE/RL.
Dashnaktsutyun branches in the worldwide Armenian Diaspora have for decades been lobbying the parliaments and governments of Western states to officially recognize the Armenian massacres as genocide. The nationalist party controls one of the two main Armenian lobbying groups in the United States that look set to push a genocide resolution through the U.S. House of Representatives this year.
While praising Armenian efforts at genocide recognition, Raffi Hovannisian, a U.S.-born opposition leader, sounded a note of caution. “I believe that we must not excessively concentrate on or be very buoyed this spate of recognitions because the Armenian genocide and the loss of our people’s homeland is a fact affirmed by many historians,” he said.