Ruined Armenian church near Kars, Turkey / photo by Sedrak Mkrtchyan (

Ruined Armenian church in northeastern Turkey / photo by Sedrak Mkrtchyan (

Reflections on Armenian-Turkish Relations and the Protocols: The Big Picture

by | June 20th, 2010 | 12 comments
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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.


  1. David says:

    Contrary to what the author claims, it is not just a matter of the Genocide that took place in Western (Ottoman/Turkish) Armenia.

    The fact is that both the Ottomans and Kemal Ataturk invaded and tried to destroy through outright massacre what was Eastern/Russian/Soviet Armenia and what is now the Republic of Armenia.

    Has Armenia forgotten THAT? I am sure the author would like to forget it. He wants Armenian distrust of Turkey to be confined strictly to those Western Armenians (who are, in his mind, hung up and psychologically damaged.) Implicitly, to the author, Turkey never laid a hand on Eastern Armenia.

    Finally, let me say this: from all I know, many of the people of Armenia do not know elementary Armenian history, even today. The Soviet system of educating people about their own national history was a disaster, and many of the old ways of teaching persist today.
    I tend to think that the author is happy that Armenian history is more or less neglected, in the service of “reconciliation.” The less people know what dangers Turkey poses (apparently the author has a great deal of trust in that country), the less inclined they will be to put forth any demands or to have any anxieties about Turkey.
    We must be anxiety-free, believes the author, in order to realize that if we just act like nice people, Turks will never harm us again.

  2. John Zenian says:

    The government of Armenia is playing the same game that American politicians are playing, using the Armenian genocide as a bargaining chip in their dealings with the Turks. The honorable thing for the Armenian government to do is to refrain from getting into any kind of accomodation with the Turks about the genocide. Instead they should leave this matter to the diaspora, who are the actual descendants of the victims of Turkish injustice. It is true that the Turks threatened Armenia in the past, and many residents of Armenia can trace their origins to the Ottoman empire. Nevertheless, Eastern Armenia has been part of the Russian Empire and the collective consciousness of Eastern Armenians has been influenced by their past association with Russia not Turkey.

  3. Sevag says:

    The author is stating that it is “highly improbable” that Armenians will get their usurped lands back. In his book published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, Kersam Aharonian stated that the Jews kept on saying “next year in Jerusalem” for 2000 years until they achieved said goal. He was hinting almost half a century ago that the path for the great dream (the book was called “Medz Yerazi Jampoun Vera”) will be very long, but nevertheless it is achievable. When a nation struggles for 2000 years first to preserve itself and then achieve its goals without having any of the tools provided in today’s world (most importantly all means of communication), I believe that we also can succeed. After all, aren’t we the ones who – although “highly improbable” – were able to stop the regular Ottoman army from slaughtering the eastern Armenians at Sartarabad, and weren’t us who were successful in resisting the turks in Van and Musa Ler?

    The author is implicitly advocating that not only we give up our rights in our lands, but that we also contribute to the Turkish economy by going to our lands as “tourists”. My sincere belief is that if we continue the struggle and consolidate our efforts, one day – probably not in our life-time – we will earn the right to go to our lands not as “tourists”, but as the rightful owner of the land for which Armenians lived and died for thousands of years.

  4. Anahit says:

    The author has some good points, but I am deeply offended by his statements that divide one nation into “those who suffered and hence did not forget” and “those who can afford forgetting because their ancestors did not suffer”.

    How dare you to make such a “gross generalization”? Who gave you the right to measure the “Armenianness” of those who live in Armenia? If nothing else, it is NOT YOU or NONE of the Diaspora Armenians, who live there, protect and build Armenia.

    Don’t you understand that such an approach is just contributing to what Turks are trying to do – “Divide and Rule” (c).

  5. Vikdor Arkatuni says:

    R Panossian is right when he says that if Turkey will recognize the genocide it is mainly because it fits with its democratization goals. Recognition certainly implies some form of reparation which should include restoration of Armenia’s memory in Turkey and restitution of landmark Armenian properties to their rightful owners. In short, Turkish democratization implies justice rendered to the remnants of the nation expelled from its ancestral land.

  6. Armineh from Armenia says:

    I completely agree with all what Razmik Panossian is saying.
    And more I have to add: sitting at a negotiation table with the Turks should only be welcomed not condemned. We can never forget our history even if we want to. It’s in our genes, it’s in our blood. But if we want to be part of the 21st century globalized world we need to have open borders for God’s sake. Whoever our neighbors are we cannot get rid of them. We need to talk with them. We need to have working, active borders.
    Whatever is happening in Turkey today is a very interesting development and I completely agree with Razmik that time will come and they from within will fight with their hard-liners and they will pronounce the G word.
    About how Armenian history is being taught: YES, the Armenian history should be re-written not in the sense of what the commentator above is saying, but the contrary. We are too self-concentrated with no courage of self-criticism. We need to read and re-read all the Armenian medieval chroniclers and read in between the lines. We need to learn from THEM and not from the “noratukh” historians of our current times. Then we will see that all our misfortunes throughout the history was mainly because of US and only US: short mindedness, no diplomacy at all, egoistic approach to everything, no State mentality, etc. etc.
    One last comment: about the comparison with the Jews – after Israel was established, how many Jews from all over the world came to live in Israel? And now as a comparison: have you counted how many diasporan Armenians have come to live in Armenia since its independence? or in the liberated Karabagh? Do you know that the mere existence of this State(s) is under jeopardy because it is EMPTY!! Why don’t you think of preserving, populating and changing the quality of the existed State, Country, HAYASTAN instead of day dreaming about the lost lands…??? Enough is enough. Very soon it might be too late. And again we will start complaining of our destiny, our geography, our fate… Who is to blame now? Please think!!!

  7. David says:

    Dear Armineh:

    You say this: “Whoever our neighbors are we cannot get rid of them. We need to talk with them. We need to have working, active borders.”

    Armineh, are you sure you live on this planet?

    It was Turkey that tried to “get rid of” Armenia.
    And Armenia has never refused to talk to Turkey. Moreover, are you unaware that it was Turkey that closed the border, not Armenia?

    Also, Sevag says this:

    “Nevertheless, Eastern Armenia has been part of the Russian Empire and the collective consciousness of Eastern Armenians has been influenced by their past association with Russia not Turkey.”

    Yes, and so? In other words, Sevag believes Turkey can no longer constitute a real danger to Armenians. If this is true, why has “Russian Armenia” chosen to have Russian troops guard its borders against Turks?

    The answer: present-day Armenia’s consciousness is fully aware of the Turkish danger and Turkey’s centuries old ambition to expand to the east. Russia also knows this. Sebvag does not. Sevag, are you aware that Russia – knowing of the Turkish danger – does not want Turkish intrusion into the Caucasus and Central Asia and has worked to prevent it?

    “None are so blind as those who refuse to see.”

    • Dear David, Attacks on commenters or writers – such as “… are you sure you live on this planet?” – will not be tolerated on this site. We welcome disagreement but we expect all conversations and comments on Ararat to be civil or they will not be posted.

  8. I love the idea of ‘opening shop’ in Turkey and am all for it because it makes sense, but am not sure it will come from mainstream Armenian organizations, be them from Armenia or Diaspora, at least not in the near future, which is unfortunate. However, perhaps the time has come for new initiatives/platforms that might pave the road!

  9. Ed says:

    I am thankful to the author of this article for writing it, and it does have some good analysis. However there are few points which I believe are misconceptions: firstly, it is very unhelpful to divide us into “Western Armenians” who suffered Genocide, and “Eastern Armenians” who didn’t. Secondly, the author speaks of “foreign policy” of Armenian Diaspora – there is no such thing. Diaspora can lobby and can indeed have substantial political input, but it cannot have a foreign policy – only states have foreign policies. In the eyes of the host countries Diasporan Armenians are just one group of their citizens. The many and manifold problems in Armenia must be addressed and confronted – there is no other choice. Diaspora is needed by Armenia, and Diaspora needs Armenia – in different ways and to different degrees, but still the need is mutual.

    • Razmik Panossian (the author) says:

      Thank you all for the comments. They are much appreciated. In the spirit of debate — which Ararat magazine is trying to foster — let me address some of the points various people have raised.

      First, in no way am I saying forget history, and just concentrate on reconciliation. In fact, reconciliation is not possible without a thorough understanding and acceptance of truthful history by both perpetrator and victim. However, history is more than oft-repeated claims of unity, and of assertions that do not withstand critical scrutiny. Take for example the reaction by several people about the Genocide being a “learnt” injustice in Armenia, while in the diaspora it is an experienced reality. This makes people uncomfortable. But we cannot simply ignore it by saying it is offensive, or it divides the nation. By showing different threads of thought, different approaches and historical experiences, my intention is not at all to divide Armenians into “good” and “bad” (and besides such thinking insinuates that suffering genocide implies being a “good” Armenian! — something I completely reject. In fact, my academic project in the past has been to rebuff the notion of good/bad Armenians, and any notion of “measuring” Armenianness). But I do want to show — and accept — the diversity within the Armenian nation. Rather than being upset or offended at such diversity and mention of divisions, we should analyse the reasons, and apply the analysis to current political realities, and the strategies we need to develop. For instance, I believe that most Armenians in Armenia put their socio-economic well being, and the country’s security, ahead of the Genocide recognition issue. This does not mean that they want to deny the Genocide, or they necessarily like Turkey. But between an abstract political demand (and yes, I did choose the word abstract carefully…) and tangible economic gain, they are going to choose the latter. They are not being bad Armenians or good Armenians. They are being Armenians in a specific time and place, just as diasporans are Armenians in a specific time and a very different place. Diaspora Armenians have no right whatsoever to pass judgement on this, and vice versa.

      Second, whenever I speak of differences within the Armenian nation, particularly the East/West divide, or the Armenia/diaspora divide, I am confronted with the “myth of unity” — that we are one nation, one people, one culture, etc., etc. Yes, we are one nation, but that’s about it. We have different languages, different cultures, different outlooks, and different politics. Denying this, in my view, is sticking our heads in the sand. Rather, let’s acknowledge it and work with it. Let’s ask, what unites us, what divides us, and in light of these realities, what strategies can we pursue to advance the interests of the nation. Let’s not wait for some mythical moment that we are all united. That will never come, because it has never existed in Armenian history (we have a very long tradition of decentralised power, politics, culture, etc.). Even the zartonk, the national renaissance of the 19th century, had multiple centres: Bolis, Tiflis, Venice, Moscow/St-Petersburg.

      Third, in some comments there is clearly the idea that Turkey is Armenians’ perpetual enemy, out to destroy us, and Russia is the saviour. This is rather simplistic. There is no such thing as perpetual enemy or friend. Instead of making such assertions let’s ask: when, where, why did Turkey commit genocide against the Armenians. Have the conditions changed? Under what circumstances the conditions would change, what can we do to mitigate/prevent genocide, etc., etc. The old adage, “keep your friends close, and keep your enemies even closer” speaks to this. What do we really know about Turkey, and what can we do to learn more? I am afraid the equation Turkey only/always equals genocide is good for nationalist sloganeering, but not good for strategic thinking or national interest. A propos, there has been an important thread in Armenian political thinking about the dangers of Russia. It is no accident that Roupen Tarpinian’s Rusagan Vdanke, first published in 1920 in Yerevan, was republished in 1991 in Yerevan. This line of thinking influenced the ANM and the Armenian independence movement in the late 1980s and early 90s.

      Fourth, the example of Israel always comes up. After 2000 years, etc., etc…… I am afraid, the example of the Jews is the exception that proves the rule. A more appropriate example, in my view, is what happened to the indigenous peoples of North America after the European conquest. The lands of historical Armenia are empty of Armenians, but they are not empty of people. Indeed, how many Armenians from the diaspora have emigrated to independent Armenia, and how many toast every year “next year in Yerevan” or in Van, or in Bitlis, etc.? I don’t want to be flippant about it, by any stretch of the imagination. The more important point I want to make is that Israel was founded at a specific moment in history, after the Holocaust, when specific historical conditions and wider global trends favoured the creation of nation states. The global trend in the foreseeable future is for economic integration, along with further cultural fragmentation. In other words, we are — and will be — seeing a world in which greater and greater regions are being integrated while more and more cultures assert their identity without necessarily tying it to a specific and concrete land. I believe this is the direction the Armenian diaspora is going as well. Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball, and maybe in 200, or 2000 years our descendants will recreate Armenia. But today’s politics, and today’s needs and strategies cannot be governed by something that is so abstract. Perhaps I am too much of a realist lacking a national vision of 2000 years, but somehow I doubt Jews in the Middle Ages organised their politics around return to Jerusalem (the Zionist movement – i.e. Jewish nationalism – was, like other nationalisms, a product of the 19th century).

      Finally, the point about diasporas not having a “foreign policy.” This is true in the traditional sense of politics. Foreign affairs is the prerogative of states. However, I don’t see politics from an exclusively state-centric perspective. I believe diasporas can and do have their own “foreign policy,” but I always put the words “foreign policy” in the diasporan context in quotation marks to delineate the difference. Political parties and their affiliated institutions that organised and led the post-Genocide Armenian diaspora acted as “governments-of-exile” (this point was first made by Khachig Tololyan some 20 years ago) who did have a “foreign policy” that was different from the Armenian SSR. Similarly now, diasporan organisations do pursue policies which can be characterised as “foreign policy” separate from the policies of the Republic of Armenia.

      Sorry for the long reply. I hope I managed to clear some points and not obfuscated matters more! We do need as much critical debate as possible in the Armenian world! I do welcome your comments.

  10. Great article Razmig. By proposing to set up shop in Turkey, you are suggesting that Armenians begin to engage Turks. I think it is necessary at this point (perhaps in another article) to expand on the nature of that engagement. In light of continued denial, what would constitue a “proper” engagement? Is it possible to define it? Should there be some parameters or is that not necessary?