Recognizing Armenia’s Past and Its Present

The Moscow Times
Friday, Apr. 23, 2004. Page 8

Recognizing Armenia’s Past and Its Present

By Kim Iskyan

Saturday is the 89th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, a dark episode of
history indelibly carved into the souls of the 5 million people of Armenian
descent scattered throughout the world and the 2.5 million people living in
Armenia today. Armenians can never forget or forgive the slaughter of some
1.5 million men, women and children at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.

But while continuing to honor the memory of genocide victims, Armenia today,
along with its vast and powerful diaspora and those in the international
community who support it, needs to ensure that future generations of
survivors of the 20th century’s first genocide have more to live for than
feelings of outrage and injustice.

Defining what happened to Armenians in 1915-1923 has evolved into a game of
high-stakes geopolitical grammar, with implications that stretch far beyond
the tiny Caucasus country nestled at the intersection of the Middle East,
Europe and the former Soviet Union. Armenia points to a vast number of
eyewitness accounts describing the systematic atrocities perpetuated against
Armenians to eliminate them from the Ottoman Empire. A legal analysis by the
International Center for Transitional Justice concluded that the episode fit
the (admittedly broad) definition of genocide in the United Nations
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Turkey contends that Armenian deaths were an inevitable consequence of war
and preventive measures necessitated by security and political concerns, but
which had no genocidal intent. The notion of exclusive victimhood is
particularly galling to Turkey, which points to the deaths of an estimated
2.5 million Muslims during the same period.

This is not merely a question of semantics or national pride. Turkey
regularly threatens geopolitical retribution against countries that
characterize the events during the period as genocide. In October 2000, for
example, Turkey threatened to deny the United States access to a Turkish
military base used for launching air patrols over Iraq if the U.S. House of
Representatives approved a resolution accusing Turkey of genocide.

For fear of alienating a critical NATO ally, and despite heavy pressure from
well-organized Armenian-American lobbying groups, the U.S. government
studiously avoids the term “genocide,” opting instead for less politically
charged terms such as “murder.”

Why is this issue so important? For Turkey, admitting that the country’s
forebears were guilty of genocide would contradict generations of official
indoctrination and could lead to uncomfortable questions about the
foundation of the republic. It could also open the door to potentially
massive territorial and financial reparation claims.

Many Armenians are passionate in their insistence that the genocide be
officially recognized. The issue is comparatively inconsequential for
Turkey, whose population is 25 times larger than Armenia’s and whose economy
is roughly 180 times larger.

The cultural and ethnic identity of Armenians — particularly those in the
diaspora — is formed in no small part by the trauma of genocide passed down
through the generations. Armenians seek acknowledgment of their suffering, a
sense of closure and, possibly, compensation. They are rankled that the
Holocaust is accepted as historical fact, while they still struggle for
recognition of the Armenian genocide. To deny the Holocaust is an act of
intellectual savagery, while in some circles refuting the Armenian genocide
is considered evidence of evenhandedness.

For all that, it is imperative that Armenia confront the reality of Turkey
today. Since the early 1990s Turkey has blockaded its border with Armenia,
originally as a show of support for Azerbaijan during the Nagorny Karabakh

The World Bank estimates that opening the border would give a 30 percent
boost to the Armenian economy. With this in mind, the Armenian Foreign
Ministry does not predicate relations with Turkey upon genocide recognition.
Istanbul is an occasional destination for wealthy young Armenians looking to
get away for a long weekend. Trade through mutual neighbor Georgia is

Meanwhile, many elements of Armenia’s diverse diaspora remain focused on
genocide recognition, often at the expense of issues of more immediate
impact on the country and region today. Few diaspora organizations uttered a
whimper of protest, for example, when the government of Armenian President
Robert Kocharyan brutally suppressed opposition demonstrations this month,
demonstrating a blatant disregard for human rights.

Genocide recognition is critical, but so is a sustained and genuine focus
on, say, reducing the 50 percent poverty rate in Armenia so that the
country’s youth might have something more to look forward to than a one-way
ticket out of the country.

Armenians should not and will not surrender in their battle to earn
historical recognition for their suffering. So long as the plight of the
Armenians is ignored, the risk of history repeating itself will remain. But
Armenia, its diaspora and the world community should be careful not to allow
recognition of the genocide to undermine the future of the country and the

Kim Iskyan, a freelance journalist and consultant in Yerevan, contributed
this comment to The Moscow Times.