The historical event that haunts modern international relations


The historical event that haunts modern international relations

By Harout Harry Semerdjian

April 29, 2012

WHILE the modern-day Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, eight
years after its Ottoman predecessors embarked on a massive and
systematic undertaking to rid the empire of its Armenian population,
the country today often finds itself in diplomatic spats with various
Western nations over its history. Outside the periphery of
geopolitics, it would be perplexing to most as to why an event that
occurred nearly one hundred years ago would impact relations between
Turkey and the United States and various European countries. The
answer lies in the annals of history.

During the First World War, while the Islamic Ottoman Empire was
fighting the Allied Powers on the side of Germany, its native
Christian Armenian population became a target of organised
deportations and massacres. Long having suffered from discrimination
and second-class citizenship, WWI provided the Young Turk government a
cover to reach a `final solution’ to the prevailing Armenian
question. Starting April 24, 1915, with the arrest and killing of the
Armenian intelligentsia, an entire civilization was uprooted from its
many millennia-old homeland and massacred outright, or driven to their
slow death in the deserts of Syria. The material and cultural loss of
the Armenians has also been enormous, with some three thousand
churches destroyed alone. It is estimated that out of a population of
two million Armenians, one and a half million were killed while
another half a million survived and dispersed to nearly every
continent, thus resulting in the creation of a large and dynamic
Armenian Diaspora.

This is where global power-politics unfolds. As offspring of survivors
of the genocide, Armenians throughout the world developed an ingrown
sense of patriotism and strong national identity over the years. With
the Cold War over and with a tiny, nevertheless independent, Republic
of Armenia in existence, the last two decades has seen a renewal of
the international drive for recognition of the genocide in light of
persistent Turkish denial. The Armenian refugees of 1915 who
eventually found themselves integrated and well-established into their
host societies, and frustrated with a lack of justice for the
genocide, often succeeded in bringing their families’ plight to the
attention of world leaders and onto the agendas of global Parliaments
and the US Congress. It is this very Armenian Diaspora that is so
feared and vilified by the Turkish government, which regrettably fails
to comprehend and accept the realities, needs and anguish of these
communities spread all across the world. An eerie reminder of the
policy of exile still in effect, visiting Diasporan scholars who have
written on the genocide, have also been deported from the country.

To date, over 20 countries and 43 U.S. States have officially
recognised the Armenian Genocide, often with high costs and difficult
political battles. In 2001, when the French Parliament officially
passed a resolution formally recognising the Armenian Genocide, Turkey
recalled its ambassador and threatened to cut off economic and
military ties with France. The two countries narrowly escaped yet
another political fallout earlier this year over a proposed bill that
would have criminalised the denial of the Armenian Genocide in France.
The French Constitutional Court, however, found the bill
unconstitutional and the measure eventually fell through.

Arguably the most influential Armenian Diaspora is that of the United
States, where powerful Armenian lobby groups often influence Members
of Congress to pass pro-Armenian legislation and secure large amounts
of Foreign Aid to Armenia every year. While successful on a number of
issues, the Armenian Genocide Resolution is yet to be passed by both
the House and the Senate – a measure that consistently fails due to
Turkey’s heavy pressure on the White House and threats to close down a
U.S. military base on its territory. President Obama, while a firm
supporter of Armenian Genocide legislation as Senator and later as
Presidential Candidate, has also not come through on his campaign
promise to recognise the 1915 events as genocide despite a
strongly-worded statement in acknowledgement of `Armenian Remembrance

With the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide fast
approaching, Turkey increasingly finds itself isolated on this issue
and under international pressure to finally recognise the wrongs of
its predecessors. Its official policy of denial has been a total
failure over the decades. Turkey has long relied on its military
strength and geopolitical location to get its way on this and other
issues including Cyprus and the Kurdish question; if its leadership
wants to seriously advance the country’s democratisation and
Europeanisation processes, as well as to set the stage for its rise as
a regional power, it ought to think along the lines of peace and
reconciliation with its neighbours starting with an honest
acknowledgment of its own history.

Harout Harry Semerdjian is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of
Oxford. He holds advanced graduate degrees from The Fletcher School
of Diplomacy at Tufts University and the University of California, Los

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