Forget Constantinople: When will Armenians stop focusing on genocide

April 22 2004

Forget Constantinople
When will Armenians stop focusing on genocide?
By Kim Iskyan

Every year on April 24, people of Armenian descent organize blood
drives, picket Turkish embassies, and celebrate special church
services to commemorate the anniversary of the 1915 arrest of several
hundred prominent Armenians in Constantinople, which was the
beginning of the genocide in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians
were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923.

The Turkish government, meanwhile, calls the loss of life “a grim
story of serious inter-communal conflict, perpetrated by both
Christian and Muslim irregular forces, complicated by disease,
famine, and many other of war’s privations.” And it emphatically
denies that what happened nearly nine decades ago was genocide.

What may sound like a discussion more suited to the likes of Noah
Webster is a sharp stick in the eye of Turkey, and an obsession for
people with roots in Armenia, a Maryland-sized country in the
Caucasus at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and the former
Soviet Union. The endless arguments over the implications of
nomenclature contribute to heightened passions in a region that is
already a geopolitical tinderbox. The debate over whether what
happened was genocide or simply a series of wartime deaths that had
no ethnic motivation makes American battles over, say, abortion or
gun control seem by comparison like minor disagreements to be settled
over tea and biscuits.

The genocide camp cites extensive eyewitness accounts of the
extraordinary violence that was inflicted upon Armenians and equates
those who claim that the events didn’t constitute genocide with
Holocaust deniers. “Save for the Turkish government, a few American
academics holding professorships funded by Turkey and the shameful
denials of the Israeli government, there is today not a soul who
doubts the nature or the extent of this genocide,” wrote British
journalist Robert Fisk. This position is supported by a recent
analysis by the International Center for Transitional Justice, which
determined that the events fit the U.N. Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’s definition of the term.

Turkey doesn’t own up to genocide, first and foremost, because “there
was no such genocide. Turks killed Armenians and Armenians killed
Turks in the world war and in inter-communal violence, not genocide.”
This is the view of the University of Louisville’s Justin McCarthy,
who has been the subject of harsh criticism for his stance on the
issue. Another academic says an anti-Muslim undercurrent is at work:
“Turks feel that they are blamed far more because they are Muslims.
Turks greatly resent the tendency of outsiders to accept without
question the claims of Christian groups, while ignoring suffering and
death of Muslims at the hands of Christians and Christian states.”
Louisville’s McCarthy contends the conclusions of the ICTJ study are
all but worthless. “The U.N. definition of genocide [used in the ICTJ
study] is so general that it can be applied to all combatants in all
theaters of World War I.”

For Turks to officially concede that their forefathers were racist
murders, they would have to overcome generations of indoctrination,
and many analysts contend that the issue is of tertiary importance
for Turkey today. Turkey, mindful of the massive damages Germany and
German companies paid out to Holocaust victims, is wary of the
reparation claims that would likely be made by numerous Armenian
organizations at the first indication of any admission of guilt.

Turkey doesn’t hesitate to throw around its weight – as a key NATO
member straddling the European and Muslim worlds – to rebuke countries
that support the Armenian version of events. Turkey warned the United
States in October 2000 that it would prohibit U.S. fighters from
using a Turkish air base to patrol northern Iraq if the U.S. House of
Representatives approved a resolution that called the events of
1915-1923 a “genocide.” (The members of Congress backed down, at the
request of President Bill Clinton.) A few months later, Turkey
cancelled lucrative contracts for French companies operating in
Turkey after the French National Assembly passed a resolution
recognizing the genocide.

In turn, Armenia compensates for what it lacks in geopolitical party
favors with an influential global diaspora that is focused on winning
genocide recognition. While roughly 3.2 million people live in
Armenia (or closer to 2.5 million, according to unofficial estimates
by developmental organizations operating in the country), more than 5
million Armenians and their descendents live in the United States,
Russia, Lebanon, France, and elsewhere. The Armenian-American lobby
in the United States is powerful enough to ensure that Armenia
receives, on a per-capita basis, more development aid than almost any
other Third World country.

Critically, genocide recognition is closely linked to cultural
self-identity for many hyphenate-Armenians. “The Armenian diaspora
finds the basis for its identity more in the issue of Genocide than
in Armenian culture, homeland, or history more generally. … [T]he
touchstone for being Armenian [for many in the diaspora] is the fate
of Armenians in 1915 and the persistent denial of their experience by
the Turkish government,” Ronald Grigor Suny, a professor at the
University of Chicago who has written extensively about Armenian
history, told me in an e-mail interview.

Toward that end, Armenian diaspora organizations spearhead campaigns
to encourage U.S. politicians to commemorate and recognize the
Armenian genocide and parse obscure State Department documents and
Web sites like so many tea leaves to detect subtle shifts in U.S.
policy toward genocide recognition or genocidal slights. There’s also
the those-who-don’t-know-history-are-doomed-to-repeat-it angle of
genocide recognition: “If a country does not recall history with
clarity, then it cannot prevent the crime from recurring,” said Ross
Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

While diaspora organizations focus on a range of issues relating to
Armenia, including extensive humanitarian programs, the preoccupation
with genocide recognition at times seems out of step with the reality
of life in Armenia and in the Caucasus generally and with the
shifting environment of the developing world. “Armenians in [Armenia]
have many other sources for their identity [besides genocide
recognition] and are, therefore, less dependent on the Genocide
alone, though this has become important to them as well in the last
40 years,” said Suny.

Meanwhile, though, Armenians who live in Armenia understand that they
must deal with the reality of Turkey today. In the early 1990s,
Turkey blockaded its border with Armenia in a gesture of sympathy
with Azerbaijan during the war over the disputed enclave of
Nagorno-Karabakh. The World Bank estimates that the reopening of
trade relations with Turkey could boost Armenia’s GDP by 30
percent – and the official Armenian government stance is that genocide
recognition by Turkey is not a precondition for diplomatic relations.
Until now, Turkey has acquiesced to Azerbaijani wishes that its
border remain blocked, but Armenian diplomatic circles are
intermittently atwitter with rumors about the supposedly imminent
removal of the blockade.

While it can never turn its back on its history, Armenia today has
problems of a much more immediate nature: Roughly half the population
struggles in or on the edge of poverty, and the country has lost 20
percent of its population over the past 15 years, due to massive
post-Soviet migration. While distrust of Turkey runs deep, and few
Armenians are prepared to forgive – to say nothing of forget – there is a
growing sense that unless Armenia shifts its focus more into the
present, and out of the past, it won’t have much of a future to look
forward to.

Thanks to Holdwater for his thoughts.

Kim Iskyan has spent the past eight years in the former Soviet Union
as an investment banker, consultant, and journalist.