Is Turkish History European Too?


22 April 2010

Nicolas Tavitian Armenian General Benevolent Union Europe Brussels.

The issue of international recognition of the Armenian genocide in
its current form is about a decade old. Yet the EU, and particularly
the European Commission, has gone out of its way to evade the issue,
probably hoping it would go away. It has not and will not. As you
noted in your special report on Turkey ("An agreement, but little
progress", 15-21 April), Turkey reacted strongly to one resolution on
the genocide in the Swedish parliament and to another by a committee
in the US Congress. And every year, on 24 April, the genocide will
be commemorated.

Europe now has a responsibility to address the issue.

The least the EU could do is to insist that Turkey treat Armenia as it
would a normal neighbour. The Union must begin to act on its mandate:
under the Copenhagen criteria, candidate countries should establish
normal relations with all neighbours. However, successive accession
partnerships with Turkey have contained no reference to Turkey’s
17-year blockade of Armenia. And although Europe spends about â~B¬600
million a year promoting development in Turkey, and funds a plethora
of cross-border projects, not one euro has gone on projects to promote
relations between Turkey and Armenia. This is policy, not oversight,
and it must be changed.

But that is not all. The genocide happened long ago and the dead
cannot be brought back to life. But the denial of the genocide is of
very contemporary relevance.

By the end of the 19th century, the Armenians were one of the
most successful groups in the Ottoman Empire and did much for its
prosperity, culture and intellectual life. Some Turks are rediscovering
this today. In 1915, a rich and vibrant civilisation was destroyed
in Turkey and its remnants scattered across five continents.

Few Armenians remain in Turkey itself.

In 1915, in response to US ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s protests at
the extermination of the Armenians, Talaat Pasha, Turkey’s interior
minister, responded that "hatred between the two races [sic] is now
so intense that we must finish them off, or fear their revenge".

Subsequently, denial of the crime and denial of Turkey’s Armenian
past became policy. Over the past 95 years, policy has morphed into
an attitude, and official lies into an official truth.

Anti-Armenian policies have been hard-wired into policymaking,
which is why it is so hard for the rather less prejudiced government
formed by the Justice and Development (AK) party to change course
today. This is the background that helps explain the threat, made
several weeks ago by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdogË~Xan, to expel
Armenian immigrants in Turkey and which explains the expropriation
of Armenian-owned buildings under the law on religious foundations.

Turkey’s policy should disturb EU citizens and Turks, not least
because it is so disproportionate. In 2010, confronted with foreign
parliaments’ resolutions on the genocide, Turkey refuses dialogue,
threatens to expel Armenian immigrants, takes the Republic of
Armenia hostage and threatens to suspend economic relations with
Western allies.

So what can Europe do? First, it should not itself practise genocide
denial. Genocide recognition by Turkey may or may not be one of
the conditions for accession. But the Commission and the Council
of Ministers should no longer bind themselves to the vocabulary of
denial. Enough with "the events of 1915" and "the 1915 tragedy" and
"leaving history to the historians". Say what happened, or never
again invoke the memory and prevention of war and genocide as a
justification for European unification.

There are anodyne forms of complicity in denial. In 2007, Olli Rehn
, the then European commissioner for enlargement, agreed to host
an exhibition, ‘My Dear Brother’, featuring Armenian everyday life
in Turkey 100 years ago. It had nothing to do with the genocide,
but simply invoking the memory of Armenians in Turkey was apparently
itself a step too far: José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president,
had it cancelled for fear of Turkey’s reaction. It will take a bit
more spine than that to change Turkey.

Now that the EU has taken on the project of integrating Turkey, it
will be bound to help to halt and reverse the destruction of Armenian
civilisation on Turkish territory. Much Armenian heritage there has now
vanished: churches have been destroyed, books burnt, sites renamed and
memories erased. However, hundreds of precious and ancient buildings
remain to be rescued and restored to their rightful owners, especially
the Armenian Church. In ten years’ time, many may have collapsed.

Turkey’s ability to show contrition towards Armenians, make a clear
break with past policies and help mend some of the damage should be a
litmus test of its maturity to join EU. This is all a matter of what
Europe stands for.

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