Friday, May 1, 2015

On Armenia and Turkey after the genocide centennial

Armenian genocide commemorated in Qamishli, Syira.
Photo courtesy of AGBU facebook page.
Below are my notes prepared for “After April 24: Where Now for Armenia, Turkey, and the United States?” with Henri Barkey, Emil Sanamyan, Thomas de Waal organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on April 30. For the actually delivered remarks, plus Q&A, visit

“Many hearing of the Armenian genocide and efforts to raise this issue today wonder why we care so much about something that happened so long ago? There are two ways to explain this.

First, the magnitude of the genocide itself: it was a case of severe government repression against a minority that was significant not just for Armenians and Turks living in that particular region at that time, but for many others in other regions and later years. The fact that the genocide was largely unpunished and its consequences remained unaddressed make it a living cause today, even with all the other problems we all have to deal with.

Secondly, the issue reverberates today because the Turkish government policy towards Armenians and Armenia, while evolving, remains hostile; discrimination remains a problem inside Turkey and Turkey’s foreign policy challenges Armenia’s already precarious security.

The unforgettable history

The Armenian genocide is an extreme case of what the relatively powerful can do to the relatively powerless, what a paranoid leadership can do to its citizens. By the time of the genocide, Armenians had been stateless for over 500 years, while some individual Armenian families as well as the Church won favor with the Ottoman Sultan, on the whole the status of Armenians and other minorities were of an abused lower caste.

Like emancipation movements before and after it, activists for the rights of the Armenians turned to self-organization and to external powers to address their grievances. Those powers, principally the Western Europeans and the Russians occasionally turned their gaze to the Turkish Armenian matter, but most of their involvement remained on the margins and when pledges were made they remained mostly unfulfilled.

Case in point, in May 1915, as the Young Turks’ “crime against humanity and civilization” – as the Armenian genocide was referred to at the time – got underway, Britain, France and Russia pledged that “they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.” Subsequently, the Russian military helped evacuate more than 100,000 people from Van area and French worships picked up thousands more Armenians surrounded on a mountain on the Mediterranean (something replayed with ISIS and Iraqi Yezidis on Mt. Sinjar recently). But as was the case with the Holocaust during WWII there was no concerted effort to stop the genocide; for each country priorities of war were elsewhere.

By the time the Turks were defeated, the Russian emperor was overthrown, but the British and the French were there to occupy the Ottoman capital. Before they did a German u-boat spirited the three main criminals– Talaat, Djemal and Enver, the leaders of the Young Turks – to then German-occupied Crimea. The British did arrest a few dozen others held responsible for the massacres but ended up exchanging them for British POWs held by Ataturk, who fought to expel the allies – along with most of the remaining Armenians - from Asia Minor.

As a result, the Armenians took it upon themselves to hunt down the three main Young Turks and some other key Ottoman officials. All were killed between 1921 and 1922. The criminals who remained in Turkey were protected by Ataturk. Having signed peace treaties with the West and now Soviet Russia, the Turkish government hoped to put a lid on the Armenian matter for good, and for a while they succeeded.

More than a million people were dead, more than half a million survivors expelled from their homeland; their properties confiscated. With some one-third of all Armenians dead and most of the survivors living in poverty and under Soviet political diktat, the Armenians were silenced.

The 50th anniversary of the genocide – marked in 1965 - became a turning point. Even though there was no real common agenda between Diaspora and Soviet Armenia, beyond making sure the issue is not forgotten, in the last 50 years, the Armenian genocide became a political issue again rising to the occasional attention of presidents and national parliaments.

Vociferous denials by Turkish governments only made this recognition campaign more potent. The official Turkish rhetoric began to change in recent years. In April of last year, for the first time ever, a Turkish leader offered condolences to Armenians, while of course stopping short of any apology.

Coming together for the centennial

Now on this 100th anniversary, we are wondering what comes next? Will it be more of the same, are Armenians losing steam on this issue or will there be some kind of a transformation of this issue? There have been calls for a greater emphasis on legal efforts to win property restitution, and forget about recognition campaigns – as the genocide has already been recognized. But by their nature legal challenges are drawn out, exhausting exercises that are not a substitute for political activism.

What happened this last April 24 was a real pan-national event. Probably no other single event had focused the minds of so many Armenians and others on Armenians, perhaps not even the genocide itself. At commemorative events turnouts were very strong, there were of course huge crowds in Armenia, some 160,000 marched in Los Angeles (never before have so many Armenians come out together in LA – or perhaps anywhere else in Diaspora - on any known occasion), many thousands in Moscow, Paris, Istanbul, Tehran; small but remarkable commemorations took place in the besieged Aleppo and Qamishli in Syria and throughout Iraq: Baghdad, Basra, Erbil – basically places where ISIS hasn’t reached. And really everywhere around the world where there are Armenian communities. Many Armenians from the Diaspora went to either Armenia or Turkey to participate in commemorations there.

In the run up to the centennial and in the days since, many world figures spoke out on the genocide: Pope Francis, Putin, Obama, reports of resolutions and other official statements came from the European Parliament, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria (notably all three countries were WWI allies of the Turks), Ukraine, Chile and Ecuador, and Iraqi Kurdistan is reportedly deliberating. Remarkably, German president noted his country’s complicity in the genocide. Predictably, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials lashed out and even recalled a couple of ambassadors. But in another important progression of rhetoric, prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the Armenian deportations “a crime against humanity.”

All of this of course created what the Turkish officials anticipated would be a “tsunami” of media coverage of things Armenian, probably more Armenian coverage than at any point since the 1988 earthquake. And of course this is how it is for most small attention-starved countries, the only times they get a lot of attention is when something goes horribly wrong – as did this week in Nepal, for example. But in this case, the horrors were sufficiently far in the past to make the day about Armenian survival and togetherness. 

It was also a great distraction from the many things that have been going in a wrong direction for the Armenians.
The spillover of the economic crises into Armenia; the many ineptitudes of the Armenian government; the direction of Putin’s Russia and how it impacts Armenia and all of the former Soviet Union, such as the pressure to curtail ties with the West and crack down on “Western agents”; the horrific, unprecedented murder of a family in the city of Gyumri a few months ago; the devastation of Armenian diaspora communities in Syria and Iraq and to some extent in eastern Ukraine. Last, but far from least, the escalating “slow” war on the border with Azerbaijan.

Incidentally, that border had been remarkably quiet in the run-up to the genocide centennial. For whatever reason, Ilham Aliyev decided to take a breather after an unprecedented tempo of attacks in months prior. Perhaps, Aliyev didn’t want those attacks caught up in the stream of international coverage. Perhaps, he is expecting a return favor during the upcoming European Olympics in Baku in June. We have yet to see.

Turkey and Armenia: worrying trends

Returning to the topic of contemporary Turkish government policies, much can be said about the generally improving rhetoric of the Turkish officials, the greater acceptance of Armenians inside Turkey, the restoration of churches and returns of the few of the multitude of confiscated community properties. All of this is no doubt significant. But the most important test of Turkey’s attitude is its approach towards Armenia and here worrying trends abound.

First, there is no sign that Turkey seeks normal relations with Armenia and many indications it is using its outreach to Armenia and Diaspora to neutralize the embarrassing genocide recognition campaigns. The protocols – signed in 2009 and never implemented – were a prime example, and inviting the Armenian president to Gallipoli events intentionally scheduled on April 24, the most recent one. All in all, Turkey’s policy towards Armenia is the main cause of Armenia’s dependence on Russia for security, and by extension for Russia’s grip on the whole of South Caucasus.

But none of that justifies Armenia’s own passivity in terms of finding new ways of directly engaging with the Turkish political class and society, even without an embassy in Ankara. Turkey is a remarkable country, as far as Armenians are concerned, with all the legacies of the genocide, today’s Turkey probably has the largest proportion of Armenophiles anywhere in the world.

Second worrying trend is that Turkey has stepped up its military cooperation with Azerbaijan. Since last year their ground and air forces have conducted more joint exercises than ever before. Behind Russia and Israel, Turkey is the third largest supplier of weaponry to Azerbaijan. Last November, commander of Turkish special forces went to Azerbaijan and that trip was followed by a very discernible change in Azerbaijani tactics on the Line of Contact with Armenia. Some Armenian military officials even claim that Turkish personnel may be directly participating in some of the operations; no evidence of that has surfaced, but there are these suspicions.

And third, while Erdogan’s rise to power and his confrontation with the old elite has made the current level of discussion of Armenian issues inside Turkey possible, Erdogan’s consolidation of power and increased authoritarianism have begun and will continue to stymie all debate, including on sensitive matters such as the Armenian. The sudden “retirement” of Davutoglu’s adviser Etyen Mahcupyan, just days before April 24 and days after he publicly referred to the genocide, was notable.

The upcoming election in Turkey can give Erdogan the sort of majority in parliament that would open the way for a switchover to a presidential system. This would risk "putinization" of Turkey that can produce problematic outcomes both inside and beyond Turkey, including for Armenia.

Thank you.

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