Turkey, Armenians and Armenia
ESI report: Noah's Dove Returns. Armenia, Turkey and the Debate on Genocide (21 April 2009)
Video: Orhan Kemal Cengiz – Human rights of Christians in Turkey (August 2011)
No single topic poisons relations between Turks and Armenians more than the 1915 destruction of the Armenian communities of Anatolia, and the question of whether it constituted genocide. For Turkey, the fight against genocide recognition on the international stage has been a central goal of foreign policy. For Armenians, the genocide and the resulting loss of a traditional homeland is a defining element of their national identity. At present, the two countries have no diplomatic relations. The border between them remains closed. In recent times the first signs of a rapprochement have appeared, with the political leadership on both sides making conciliatory gestures. For a normalisation of relations to take place, however, both sides will have to overcome some deeply entrenched prejudices.
Turkey has gone through profound changes in recent years under the influence of the EU accession process, reforming its constitution and reducing the role of the national security establishment in civilian affairs. Democratisation has enabled, for the first time, an open debate in Turkey on the Armenian question. For years, official Turkish history asserted that the rebellious Armenian population, siding with the Russians during World War I, was the main aggressor and the architect of its own destruction. Those who questioned the official line were labelled traitors and risked criminal prosecution. Since 2000, however, Turkish civil society has begun to look at the history of Ottoman Armenians in a new light, in the process breaking numerous taboos.
Over the same period, Turkey's foreign policy has evolved dramatically. Under the motto "zero problems with neighbours", the current Turkish government has moved to resolve a series of long-running disputes, cementing Turkey's position as a strategic player on the regional and international stage. So far, however, Armenia has remained a blind spot in this vision. Turkey also continues to invest considerable political capital in resisting international recognition of the Armenian genocide.
Yet this is a battle that Turkey cannot win. Resolutions commemorating the 1915 genocide have now been passed by more than 20 countries, including many of Turkey's close allies. With the new US President and most of the senior figures in his administration on record recognising the Armenian genocide, it seems only a matter of time before the US follows suit. Contrary to the fears of many Turks, however, this is not a sign of growing anti-Turkish sentiment or of the lobbying power of the Armenian diaspora. More than anything, the growing tide of recognition reflects an evolving understanding of genocide among scholars and legal experts. The consensus is now that genocide – attempts to destroy, in whole or in part, a distinct national or ethnic group – was committed on numerous occasions during the 20th century, in almost every corner of the world. There are hardly any reputable scholars in the field of genocide studies who doubt that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 constitutes genocide. However, it is also clear that modern-day Turkey is not legally responsible for genocidal acts committed nearly a century ago, and that acknowledging the genocide would not bring into question the established Turkish-Armenian border.
This is also a time of intense debate among Armenians. For decades, anti-Turkish sentiment and dreams of a Greater Armenia have been unifying themes among many Armenians, both in the republic and the diaspora. Since the early 1990s, however, maximalist demands for return of historical lands have had to compete with a more pragmatic official view that recognises improved relations with Turkey as a strategic imperative for the isolated and landlocked Armenian republic. Successive Armenian governments have called for a normalisation of relations with Turkey without preconditions. Armenians today face a choice: either treat Turkey as an eternal enemy, or re-engage with its western neighbour in the hope of one day sharing a border with the European Union.
This is a critical period for both countries. Restoring diplomatic relations and opening the border, though only first steps towards reconciliation, would marginalise extremist voices on both sides, enabling a more reasonable and measured debate to go forward. Turkey should stop trying to stifle discussion of the Armenian genocide both at home and abroad – and avoid over-reacting if, as might well happen, any more of its allies recognise the events of 1915 as genocide. For their part, Armenians must accept that recognition of the genocide will never pave the way for challenging a territorial settlement that has stood for nearly a century.
Picture story: Armenia-Turkey: A Difficult Rapprochement
ESI manual: Turkey-Armenia Manual