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The historical event that haunts modern international relations

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  • 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