Al-Jazeera: Armenian genocide issue still haunts Turkey, Qatar
April 24 2005

Armenian genocide issue still haunts Turkey
By Christian Henderson

Sunday 24 April 2005, 21:39 Makka Time, 18:39 GMT

Armenians mark what they call the genocide anniversary

On 24 April 1915 Turkish Ottoman authorities arrested and deported
250 Armenian leaders marking the start of what Armenians say was a
genocide that killed 1.5 million of their kin.

Armenians say they were victims of an ethnic-cleansing campaign
planned by Turkish nationalists as the Ottoman Empire crumbled amid
the first world war.

They say between 1915 and 1923 hundreds of thousands of Armenians
were forcibly marched through the Mesopotamian desert where they died
of dehydration and starvation.

Turkey denies this. It says thousands of Armenians and Turks died in
a civil conflict that erupted after Armenians sided with invading
Russian forces.

To this day, the historical events surrounding the killings remain
hotly contested.

Fierce debate

Many academics say the Armenian version of events holds water.

“Among most bona fide historians this is non-debate. Turkish
nationalist historians still reject this,” Donald Bloxham, a history
lecturer at Edinburgh University, said.

Historian Bernard Lewis (R) has
backed Turkey’s view of events

Bloxham, who has just completed a book entitled The Great Game of
Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman
Armenians, said: “The Turkish version just doesn’t stand on any

On the other hand, there are several historians, such as Middle
Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis, whose works support the Turkish
account of events.

“There is an explainable, understandable history of a two-sided
conflict. It was not genocide,” Justine McCarthy of the University of
Louisville wrote in the Turkish Daily News in 2001.

Pressure growing

However, there is increasing international and domestic pressure on
Turkey to recognise the killings as a genocide, suggesting that, in
this instance, history is not on Turkey’s side.

Last week a record 32 US senators and more than 100 legislators wrote
to US President George Bush asking him to recognise the genocide.

“The memory of the Armenian genocide underscores our responsibility
to help convey our cherished tradition of respect for fundamental
human rights and opposition to mass slaughters. It is in the best
interests of our nation and the entire global community to remember
the past,” the senators wrote.

Armenians hope George Bush
will use the term ‘genocide’

The Armenian lobby in the US is hoping Bush will use the word
genocide in a speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1915

“The overall aim of the community is to get recognition of the
genocide,” Elizabeth Chouldijian of the Armenian National Committee
of America said.

Whether Bush is willing to offend an important strategic ally in
order to appease a relatively weak domestic lobby, remains to be
seen. Turkey has traditionally been an important Nato ally and a key
military partner with the US.

“The president speaks of moral clarity over international issues and
we ask him to have moral clarity over this issue too,” Chouldijian

European voices

Pressure on Turkey is also growing elsewere.

The Polish parliament and the Russian Duma have adopted resolutions
that will call on the international community to recognise the
genocide. In Germany, officials have said they will urge Turkey to
acknowledge the incident as such.

France’s Jacques Chirac visited a
memorial to the dead in Paris

In France, home to the largest Armenian community in Europe, French
President Jacques Chirac accompanied Armenian President Robert
Kocharian to a monument for victims of the killings in Paris on

In Belgium, the parliament voted on Saturday to make denying the
Armenian genocide illegal.

In addition to international pressure, there are an increasing number
of Turkish intellectuals and academics who are breaking a taboo and
calling for the events to be recognised as genocide.

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk received death threats after he
recently told a Swiss newspaper that “no one dares say that a million
Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey”.

Tense relations

The issue has strong resonance in the foreign affairs of both Turkey
and Armenia.

Relations between the two countries are tense. Ankara refuses to
establish relations with Yerevan because of the genocide row and
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 because of its war with
Azerbaijan, depriving the tiny, landlocked country of a key trade

Armenia says that as long as Turkey fails to recognise the genocide,
then it will feel threatened by its neighbour.

“Without recognition of the fact of genocide and an admission that it
was wrong, we cannot trust our neighbour, which has a tangible
military weight,” Armenia’s foreign minister, Vardan Oskanyan, said.

Harry Tamrazian, head of the Armenian service at Radio Free Europe,
said: “This is very important for Armenia. The very fact Ankara
refuses to recognise the Armenian genocide is very disturbing for
Armenian security.”

Armenians say they want to seek compensation for the genocide,
something that observers say unnerves Turkey.

“When any genocide is committed, it is a crime and there must be
repercussions. Once the genocide is recognised, then the next step is
looking into what the consequences are according to international
law,” Chouldijian of the Armenian National Committee of America says.

Crucial to EU talks

Tamrazian echoes Chouldijian.

“They are afraid of dealing with the consequences. Once you recognise
the genocide, they think Armenians will ask for compensation,” he

As Turkey prepares for EU accession talks, the Armenian genocide is
something Ankara cannot avoid.

Turkey is a key US strategic
partner and Nato ally

“There is a European moral standard that says if you want to be a
member of the Western world, then you have to allow a discussion, a
debate, of the past, and second you have to be ready to rectify the
wrongdoings of the past,” Turkish historian Taner Akcam said at a
recent conference on the genocide in Armenia.

Some EU members say Turkey must examine its past before it joins the
bloc, something that irks Turkey.

To which Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer responds: “It is wrong
and unjust for our European friends to press Turkey on these issues.

“These claims upset and hurt the feelings of the Turkish nation. What
needs to be done is research and investigate and discuss history,
based on documents and without prejudice.”

Turkey has offered to open its Ottoman archives to a joint commission
of Turkish and Armenian historians to research the genocide issue,
something that the Armenian government has dismissed, saying that
incriminating documents have been removed.

Kurdish issue

The Armenian issue also raises questions over the nature of the
Turkish state.

“The Armenian genocide issue is a living one,” says Edinburgh
University’s Bloxham.

“Turkish ethnic nationalism was the ideology behind the genocide, it
is this same ideology that has been behind its problems with the
Kurdish population,” he said.

“So to question this ideology and the genocide would also confront
ethnic nationalism, and Turkey would then have to confront its
relationship with the Kurds.”

Hidden agenda?

For their part, Turks say European countries are using the Armenian
genocide issue to hinder Turkey’s attempt to join the EU.

Pulent Akargly, an MP with the Turkish National Party, says: “Turkey
will never accept genocide allegations just because European and
American parliaments say so.”

Armenians in Yerevan observe
the anniversary of the events

Akargly says Turkey has the strength to dismiss such demands.

“They can make pressure but this will not have any serious impact on
Turkey. Because Turkey is a country of 70 million with a strong army
and a strong market in a strategic area, I believe that more and more
the EU and the US need Turkey more than we need them.”

Akargly also accuses Europe and the US of gross hypocrisy, saying:
“The Western world has to recognise genocide with what they have done
in Latin America. Then what has been done during the Crusader period,
then what has been done in black Africa and Arab Africa and during

Different voices

But as Turkey undergoes EU-driven reform, many in the country say
that challenging the nationalist historiography will become easier.

“I think we will hear different voices,” Etyen Mahcupyan, a Turkish
journalist of Armenian descent, recently told Radio Free Europe.

“We will see that at least part of the public thinks differently –
very differently, in fact – from the state. We will then obligatorily
see a discussion take place between state and society. This is, in
fact, democratisation.”

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