EXTENDING AN OLIVE BRANCH: REBUILDING TURKISH-ARMENIAN RELATIONS

The National Interest Online
April 23 2015

Fiona HillKemal KirisciAndrew Moffatt

April 23, 2015

One hundred years after the Ottoman-era atrocities against the
Armenians, a fierce battle is still being fought between Turkey
and Armenia over historical truth. In this war, politicians and
lobbyists have replaced the generals, and international legislative
bodies serve as battlegrounds where history and politics are mixed,
often irresponsibly.

On April 24, Armenians around the world annually commemorate the
mass atrocities that were perpetrated against them by the Ottoman
Empire during World War I. Most historians put the number of Armenian
Christians who perished at between 1 million and 1.5 million and
consider the events to have been genocide. Turkish authorities,
however, have contested these figures and rejected the use of the term
genocide. The official Turkish position instead attributes the deaths
and displacements to the broader context of the war, during which many
Muslims, Turks, and other minority groups also perished. Although the
scholarly record is not ambiguous, Turkish officials have advocated for
the formation of an international commission of historians to study
the matter before a definitive conclusion is reached. For Armenians,
Turkey's contestation of history and disavowals of responsibility
remain a source of deep bitterness.

This year's remembrance of the Medz Yeghern (an Armenian term commonly
translated as "Great Catastrophe") carries extraordinary weight and
expectations, as it is the centenary of the massacres. To commemorate
the events, Armenian leaders have invited world leaders to gather
later this week in Yerevan. Numerous ceremonies and other memorial
events have already been organized to bring international attention
to the tragic history. The Armenian diaspora's campaign to achieve
genocide recognition from local, national and multilateral governments,
newspapers, academic organizations and other policy makers has grown
in intensity. In recent days, Pope Francis and the European Parliament
called upon the Turkish government to acknowledge the mass deportations
and killings as genocide. On Monday, the German government retreated
from its long-standing avoidance of the term.

For the Turkish government, the term genocide is neuralgic and fraught
with legal and financial implications. Not surprisingly, Turkey
responded to these calls for recognition in an instinctively defensive
and uncompromising way, recalling its ambassador to the Vatican for
consultations and warning that such calls would harm relations. In an
acrimonious war of words, Turkish leaders have branded the Pope as part
of "an evil front" that is stirring hatred and using "blackmail" to
plot against them, and they lashed out against the "unfounded claims."

This harsh reaction was preceded by Turkey's decision earlier this
year to move a commemoration of the World War I battle of Gallipoli
from its customary date on March 18 to April 24-25 in order to compete
with the genocide remembrance activities in Yerevan. This political
maneuvering stoked considerable resentment on the Armenian side and
has forced world leaders, who might otherwise have participated in
both commemorations, to make an uncomfortable choice between the two.

These developments are regrettable because they come after Turkish
officials have made steps in recent years toward reconciliation
with Armenia and its global diaspora. The uproar negates the
symbolic goodwill that might have come out of the statement last
year by then Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and this
year's declaration by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, each of which
recognized the pain of the Armenians and extended condolences to the
descendants of those who perished. The revived discord also allows
hardline nationalists on both sides to persist in their categorical
demonization of the other.

Even more unfortunately, the tension overshadows the important
societal changes taking place in Turkey toward understanding the fate
of Ottoman Armenians. Less than a decade ago, the Turkish government
was still prosecuting citizens for describing the events of 1915
as genocide. Since that time, an awakening has begun regarding the
"Armenian issue"--several books have been published, international
conferences and televised debates have been held, and an online
apology campaign received over 30,000 signatures of support. Several
Turks have revealed long-hidden family secrets about their ancestors
being Armenians who were rescued from the death marches and taken
into their families. These developments have helped to stir this
particularly difficult and controversial history in the broader
Turkish consciousness.

It is now not uncommon for Turks, along with Armenians from around
the world, to assemble across Turkey on April 24 to commemorate the
fate of Ottoman Armenians. The anniversary date has also become an
occasion to remember the courageous Armenian-Turkish journalist,
Hrant Dink, for his struggle to get Turkish society to reconsider
its history and investigate how a once-thriving Armenian community in
Anatolia disappeared. Increasingly, the officially scripted narrative,
portraying Ottoman-era Armenians as traitors who were simply relocated,
is being questioned.

However, at the official level, the process of the "Turkish Thaw"--as
the author Thomas de Waal has labeled it--has been intermittent and
delayed at times by strong political winds. The genocide resolutions
come ahead of Turkey's highly contested general elections in June. The
outcome of the elections will determine whether the governing
political party and its former leader, President Erdogan, can rewrite
the constitution and transform the long-established parliamentary
system into a presidential one. Polls suggest a tight race, which
is spurring the government's need to woo nationalist votes. This
explains, in part, the harsh reaction in Turkey and the reflex to
see itself as the target of Western conspiracies. Furthermore, the
genocide statements come amid dire circumstances on Turkey's border.

The displacement and death in Iraq and Syria brings an added source
of contestation for many in Turkey. Erdogan has recently accused
leaders of the Christian world for remaining silent and heedless to
the sufferings of Muslims. The events that have been unfolding in
the Middle East and the persecution of minority groups are in many
ways very much reminiscent of 1915.

In this charged atmosphere, categorical public calls on Turkey to
recognize the Armenian genocide risk undermining the modest gains
the nation, and especially its people, have made with respect to
reconciliation. As Hrant Dink argued, history should not be legislated
by the parliaments of third countries or imposed on Turks from abroad.

Dink acknowledged that Turks and Muslims also suffered during World
War One. Awareness of the broader context of the war is relevant,
as is recognition of what Turkish officialdom has called the "shared
suffering" of the Turks. However, Turkish officials have at times
tried to use the context to absolve the Turkish state of wrongdoing,
formulating a moral equivalency regarding the events and their
victims. Although there was widespread suffering, the atrocities that
befell the Ottoman Armenian communities cannot be contextualized away
as collateral damage amid the chaos of war. Context can help foster
empathy, but it cannot exculpate.

Turkey and its people need to face and accept their history fully
and fairly. As they do, the international community can assist
by also expressing empathy for the pain inflicted on Muslims and
other groups during and after World War I while commemorating the
genocide of the Armenians. Recognizing the indiscriminate nature of
the violence taking place in the Middle East today against Muslims,
Kurds and members of ancient Christian communities would also go a
long way toward ending the vicious cycle of recriminations.

For their part, Turkish politicians should avoid further inflammatory
reactions and language that fuels "clash of civilization"
misconceptions between Turkey and the West. Most importantly,
how Turkey deals with the present will contribute to how it
addresses the past. To this end, Turkey should lift its embargo
and open its international border with Armenia--unilaterally, if
necessary--which would constitute a powerful symbolic gesture in
support of reconciliation.

Fiona Hill is Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) Director
and Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings
Institution in Washington, DC.

Kemal KiriÃ…~_ci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy
Program at Brookings.

Andrew Moffatt is Associate Director of CUSE at Brookings.

Image: Brookings Institution

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From: A. Papazian