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Gerard Libaridian

Gerard Libaridian
Gerard Libaridian

Gerard Libaridian, who holds the Chair in Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan, is one of the most eminent US scholars of Armenian background. As adviser (1991-97) to President Levon Ter Petrossian, Libaridian was the architect of Yerevan's policy vis--vis Turkey. Gerard Libaridian was also actively involved in the Workshop for Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS), which organised several meetings and discussions between Armenian and Turkish scholars between 2000 and 2006. In 2007, Libaridian and Muge Gocek presented a curriculum entitled "Armenian-Turkish relations beyond the 19th Century". Born in Lebanon, Libaridian comes from a family that survived the early 20th century Armenian massacres.

Much of Libaridian's research has focused on Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide. In Turkey, as he puts it, the issue has been "denied, trivialized or explained away."[5]

In a 2005 article entitled "The Past as a Prison, The Past as a different future", Libaridian argues that Turkish denial of the genocide will not make it go away. Just the opposite:

"The Turkish side, and especially officials and policy makers must realize that, however the events of 1915-1917 are characterized, there is no doubt that they brought to an end the collective existence of the Armenian people on their ancestral homeland. […] For the less traumatized progenies of the survivors in lands nearby and distant, the past is the present. Denial of the genocide is a denial of not only their past but also their present.

Furthermore, the sustained policy of denial of that past by successive Turkish governments only infuriates the new generations of Armenians; it makes it more difficult for them to focus on the historical context in which these events took place or to generate a desire to understand the position within which Turkish society finds itself. […]

The more the Turkish state denies the past, the more adamant the new generations are in asserting it. That part of the collective memory tends to take over as the determinant of their identity, more difficult to transcend, more important to have others recognize it. There are good reasons why the use of the term "genocide" has become so important for the Armenian side."

The onus is not exclusively on the Turks, however. The Armenians, says Libaridian, must also learn to understand and appreciate the trauma of the Turks' Ottoman past, as well as the effect it has on Turkey's policy towards Armenia.

"The Armenian side must recognize that the Great Powers did in fact prey upon the Ottoman Empire; until the rise of the Kemalist Movement the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia was probably the main reason why Anatolia did not suffer the same fate as Africa in their hands. The importance of the centrality of Great Power threat to the Ottoman state cannot be underestimated; nor can one underestimate the role of that threat in the rise of the modern Turkish state and in Turkish perceptions of the past.

That such historical facts are also used to justify a security oriented state, the role of the military in Turkish politics, and the use of force to settle political conflicts, is very much part of the ideology, just as the Genocide is at the basis of territorial demands from Turkey for some Armenian political parties.

Such territorial demands feed into the logic of denial: recognition of the Genocide, Turkish officials argue, will result in the demands for reparations, including territorial ones. Whether Turkey will face a real threat in this area is immaterial; what matters are that such fears find a receptive audience, are embedded in the political psyche, and are easily manipulated in a society educated in the historical threat of dismemberment."[6]

The Armenian nationalists' "coarse and indiscriminate" discourse, Libaridian writes in "Modern Armenia People, Nation, State", a 2004 book, "accused all Turks, past and present, of being party to the criminal action. It was, or appeared to be, a battle of all Armenians against all Turks […]. The policy of denial of the genocide was seen as the mere manifestation of the evil nature of Turkey and of Turks."

By linking genocide recognition to territorial claims, he adds, the nationalist discourse has proven counterproductive.

"Armenian political parties considered a Turkish recognition of the genocide as the first step and the legal basis for territorial demands from Turkey. Even if there were no other reasons, this linkage would have been sufficient for the Turkish state to deny the genocide at all cost."

Under Ter Petrossian's presidency, Libaridian believes, Turkey lost the opportunity for good relations with Armenia by indexing its relations with Yerevan to Armenia's withdrawal from Nagorno Karabakh.

"The Armenian Genocide was not put up as a problem, as a basis for relations with Turkey. This is very critical because the politicization of the Genocide had served, wittingly or unwittingly, to create the mentality and psychology that Turkey, through its nonrecognition of the Genocide, is likely to repeat it, that Turkey is the eternal enemy.

If Turkey is the eternal enemy, then Russia is the eternally necessary friend. And this then creates pressures on your policy of independence. Armenia set out to establish normal relations with Turkey without preconditions. This was the crux of the revolution in Armenian political thought. It defies most Armenians' view of their history, of the role Turkey has played and is likely to play in the future. In practice, however, Turkey did not accept the same basis of normalization of relations, that is, no preconditions, and although it recognized Armenia's independence, it has refused to this day to establish diplomatic relations."[7]

Robert Kocharian's (1998-2008) policies of making international recognition of the Genocide part of Armenia's foreign policy agenda, writes Libaridian, was tactical.

"Kocharian thought that by raising the question, a thorny one for Turkey, he would counter Turkey's insistence on the resolution of the Karabakh conflict before normalization proceeds. The corollary was that for Armenia not to raise the Genocide question, Turkey would withdraw its own precondition which, in turn, would weaken the Azerbaijani negotiating position and strengthen Armenia's economy and standing.

Kocharian believed that his tactical step would be welcomed in the Armenian Diaspora as result of which the Diaspora would multiply its investments in the country, thus solving Armenia's economic woes."[8]


[5]  Gerard Libaridian, 'Negotiate or not to Negotiate: The Past as Dilemma', April, 2005, Ann Arbor, Michigan, p. 1

[6]  Gerard Libaridian, The Past as a Prison, The Past as a different future, Turkish Policy Quarterly, vol. 4, No. 4, 2005, pp. 2-4

[7]  Gerard Libaridian, "The New Thinking Revisited", Libaridian speaks at Princeton University, May 9, 1998

[8]  Gerard Libaridian, Modern Armenia, Chapter 12, 'The Re-Imagined Future: Turkey-Armenia and Turkish-Armenian Relations since Independence'

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