Reflections on Armenian-Turkish Relations and the Protocols: The Big Picture
A couple of months ago, in December 2009, I had the opportunity to briefly visit Rwanda. In addition to the main Genocide Memorial in Kigali (where there is indeed a section dedicated to the Armenian Genocide), I visited another memorial, about 35 km south of the capital. At this site, the Nyamata Church, 41,000 people were slaughtered in a few weeks. Yes, forty-one thousand people.
The guide at the Nyamata Memorial spoke with a monotone voice. He was about 23 years old, tall and handsome. He explained how the exterminators came to kill the “cockroaches” in the church. They hacked and bludgeoned. Cut their limbs first to cause maximum pain. He described the unimaginable violence done to pregnant women, on the altar. He continued, with the same voice — the monotone voice of a museum guide — “and this pillar is where they tied my father and bludgeoned him to death.” The blood stains are still visible on the ceiling. My guide was eight years old when all this happened in 1994. He is one of the only seven survivors from the thousands of people who had sought sanctuary in the church. Below the church yard, thousands of skulls and broken bones are stored on shelves. A macabre reminder of human cruelty. I was visibly shocked, but the guide asked me to take a photo of the skulls and the bones. “Please,” he said, “be a good will ambassador, tell the world of what happened here so that our suffering is not forgotten … ” I remembered my grandmother. I remembered her because her stories of genocide, and of survival, ended with the same message: do not forget what happened to us!
This key message still resonates for most diaspora Armenians who are descendants of Genocide survivors — and it will continue to resonate for generations. For them, it is a question of recognition, of obtaining justice, and of a metaphoric or symbolic return to the ancestral lands now in Eastern Turkey. The drive for recognition comes from within, as part of their identity, and is transmitted from parents to children and through community structures and education.
This is not the case for most Armenians in Armenia. For them, largely descendants of Russian Armenians, the Genocide is a learnt injustice. It is part of a public discourse and ritual, part of history and politics. But it is not an inherent part of their identity on which their Armenianness is centered. I am aware that my statement, based on my research in the 1990s, is a gross generalization. Perhaps things have changed recently, but the lackluster mobilization against the Armenia-Turkey Protocols since October 2009 suggest otherwise. This is not to deny the fact that there are some very vocal voices in Armenia against the Protocols, and that many individuals in Armenia trace their family roots to Ottoman Armenia.
It is not surprising that Armenians in the Republic, and particularly its government, can look at the Genocide as part of a strategic calculation (that was also the case during the Soviet period). If the diplomatic tussle just prior to the signing of the Protocols on October 10, 2009 is an indication, the current calculation seems to be the possible trade off between the G word (and all that comes with it) and the Karabakh negotiations (particularly linking the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border with the Karabakh conflict). It is a government’s job to engage in such calculations in the interest of the state. Governments must choose between — and combine if they can — various factors in their calculations. The additional complication in the case of the Armenians is that state interests are not necessarily pan-national interests, given the size and scope of the diaspora.
For many in the diaspora, treating the Genocide as a mere “calculation” is a heresy. And understandably so. The Genocide for them is a question of identity, and identity is not meant to be negotiated with the perpetrators of the crime. Hence, the profoundly different approaches to the Genocide issue by the Armenian government, and more generally most Armenians in the Republic, on the one hand, and many diasporans on the other. This has an impact on other concerns. Everyone agrees on the challenges facing Armenia: economic development, the Karabakh negotiations, closed borders, geopolitical dynamics, the democratic deficit, etc. And yet the answers would differ based on what position one takes on “negotiating” about the Genocide.
This is not a question of who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps common ground could be found. But if there is no common ground, so be it. Armenia and the diaspora do not have to have the same “foreign policy” in this respect. Their strategies will hopefully be coordinated, but if their approaches to Genocide recognition differ, then each entity can pursue its own course of action. Of course, the diaspora itself is not a unified entity and there are many diverse views and divisions within it.
In this context, I would like to make three points, based on a broad perspective. The bird’s-eye view, so to speak, combined with a long-term historical outlook.
The first is a factual point, which nevertheless is taboo because it is, I admit, defeatist — and defeatism is not good for national morale. Armenians might not like to articulate it, but the Genocide was a near total victory for Turkey. The Young Turks achieved their objective of physically eliminating Armenians from historical Armenia, taking their lands and property. Turkey also solidified its gains through international treaties. As others have pointed out, Turkey is now engaged in the final act of Genocide, denial and consolidation. The question is then, what can Armenians do in this context, not in the pre-Genocide context of, say, 1914, which informs much of the diasporan political discourse and strategy. This leads me to the second point.
If Turkey is ever going to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the drive is going to come from within. The prospect of Turkey coming to terms with its past truthfully is linked to the nation’s democratization, which is always an endogenous process. Outside pressure and assistance is important in supporting this process, but it is not the central driving force. So, the objective should be the further transformation of Turkish society, academia and intellectual discourse in a more open and critical direction. What can Armenians do in encouraging such a process? The Protocols, the opening of borders and a possible “historical commission” must be viewed from this perspective, i.e. from the perspective of ultimately preventing the complete consolidation and denial of the Genocide and salvaging at least a sliver of victory from the defeat of 1915.
(If I may digress briefly from Turkey and Armenia to illustrate the point further: The U.S. and Canadian societies and politicians came to terms with their genocidal pasts vis-à-vis the indigenous population only after the profound social changes, and the related human rights reinforcement, of the 1960s and 1970s. The Canadian Charter of Rights, for instance, further enhanced and framed this honest re-examination of the past.)
The third point has to do with the economic integration of the South Caucasus region into European and Central Asian economic dynamics. Even though many people in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan do not necessarily want to see themselves lumped together as part of a “region” (they prefer bilateral ties with Europe, for example), they are being seen and treated as such by far bigger economic players, particularly in the natural resources sector. Whether we like globalization or not is not the issue. The point is that economic integration is taking place, and it will continue to take place. Armenia is part of this dynamic of integration – and economically too insignificant to resist it in the long run. The most advanced “club” in this respect is the European Union. And if that is an indication of the future, we see that borders are increasingly “eliminated,” at least within the “club” and its immediate periphery. The EU has shown that it is easier to eliminate the significance of a national border than to change it. What are the long-term lessons in this for Armenia and Turkey? It seems that the question is not if the border is going to open, but when and under what conditions.
Certain conclusions flow from the above three points. First, it is highly improbable, to put it mildly, that Armenians will get their usurped lands back from Turkey. It is possible that some form of (symbolic) reparation might occur. It is most likely that within a decade or so the border between Armenia and Turkey might be rather porous, if not ultimately rendered meaningless. What is being done to prepare for this eventuality, with all the opportunities and challenges it will bring? It will certainly mean that many Armenians from the diaspora and the Republic will visit their ancestral lands, as tourists. Being a tourist in the land of one’s forefathers is certainly rich in irony, and of course richer in injustice. But, again, if the objective is to prevent the consolidation of the Genocide and its denial, then would it not make sense to physically go to the land, even if as tourists, and declare loudly: This is the land of our forefathers!
Secondly, if we accept the proposition that it is important for Turkish society, historians, journalists and public intellectuals to accept the Genocide (as a precursor to change in state policies), we must then ask: Are Armenian organizations — diasporan or from the Republic — brave enough to set up shop in Turkey to assist in this process? Some Genocide scholars already go to Turkey for lectures and events. Perhaps the time has come to make such presence permanent. Security would be an issue, of course, but in a post-Protocol world, if negotiated properly, such presence might become a possibility. The price to pay would be a parallel Turkish presence in Armenia.
Finally, economic integration (i.e. globalization) has a dark side to it, particularly pertaining to labor rights, work conditions, land ownership, domestic industrial production, and so forth. Mitigating against these negative consequences is a real challenge that requires progressive and innovative public policies and their effective implementation.
Elsewhere I have said that Armenians should not be “hung up” on the historical commission mentioned in the Protocols. Such initiatives can be rendered ineffective and dysfunctional, if necessary. My point here is that we should view Armenian-Turkish relations (which are much bigger than the Armenia-Turkey relations), the Protocols and the associated possible commission, from a broader and longer-term perspective, and strategize accordingly. Instead, much of the current public discourse in the diaspora does the reverse: looks at the relationship from the narrow parameters of the historical commission. It is understandable, given that the commission is the code for examining the Genocide. If the Armenian government feels that it needs to negotiate about the Genocide, then that is its prerogative. Importantly, with this prerogative comes the responsibility to respect the rights of the opposition to voice its concerns. But it is also the diaspora’s prerogative to assert its own diverse views and pursue policies regarding Genocide recognition, irrespective of Armenia’s calculations. Both are legitimate pursuits, and one does not exclude the other.