I recently wrote to Nareg Sererian, a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech University, US, who is also an old friend whom I know very well, bringing to his attention a website report by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs about different transcripts, “takes-on-history,” on the events of the Armenian genocide and its [possible] application to current events … and whether there exists any such nexus?
Any historian will tell you that the way modern Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora characterize history is highly-debatable. The Armenian Allegation of Genocide: the issue as presented in the above-mentioned report and Turkey’s “official take” and proffered facts flies-in-the-face-of most accounts. The topic is very controversial—at least according to the Armenians and their political base. There is no middle ground to this debate.
However, whose side you accept as being truer is moot right now in light of recent political and geopolitical realities. Trump purportly wants to get out of needless wars, and Turkey has its own domestic issues to deal with, including terrorism—both real and perceived.
But whose reality counts?
There are many reasons why many commentators are dismissive of the Turkish claims in the media however, an equal number of people are also willing, out of political expediency to accept them at face value.
Not to revisit the issue of the “alleged genocide” for the sake of reality, we should take a leap of faith and understand that are many alternatives and widely accepted historical perspectives that counter most Turkish narratives.
I had written to Nareg Sererian:
“Your research report is very well written, I was just wondering, if the US and other countries are REALLY upset with the actions of the Turks towards Kurds, or is that just paying lip service in response to the Turkish military being “illegally” on the territory of another sovereign country, and let’s not forget about Iraq too, and its leadership continuing to justify it by “basically” labelling Kurds as terrorists for the purpose of political expediency and domestic consumption.”
And Americans or friends of NATO to be criticizing Turkey is like the “pot to be calling the kettle black.” The US or the UK have no legal right to be in Syria—at least according to the textbook definition of international law.
Nareg Seferian’s response was almost immediate. He described that he had used that section of the Turkish ministry’s website extensively for a brief research project once upon a time. He added, have a look, my report titled “The Clash of Turkish and Armenian Narratives: The Imperative for a Comprehensive and Nuanced Public Memory” (if you have the time and inclination).
Very much so!
Perhaps if the best response could/should have been in response to recent events: Turkey, Syria, Iraq—and with the involvement of outside players, would be for some in the international community, academics and human rights activists would be just to lobby to recognize the Armenian genocide.
I then followed up to his first response, “can you give me a short abstract on your article, besides your executive summary–on how this topic relates to what is going on today, in light of Syria and maybe worth revisiting?”
“I am not sure how useful that piece of research is regarding the current goings-on. The main takeaway is that, regardless of objective historical accounts, popular perceptions and narratives drive behaviour and policy. The fact that Erdoğan invokes the Treaty of Sèvres, for example, is telling in this respect. For those who don’t know, “Sèvres” means “The Great Powers are trying to destroy our country, to break it apart for their own nefarious gains”.
Isn’t that useful shorthand?
Keep in mind that the Armenian narrative portrays the Ottoman Empire as a conquering force that brought suffering for centuries upon the Armenian people who struggled for their independence throughout. Like a thorn in the side of rising Turkish nationalism, the First World War offered an excellent cover for the genocidal plan that formed part of the Young Turk regime and its aim of creating a pan-Turkic empire.
The Turkish narrative ignores or downplays voluminous research on the Armenian Genocide and on other significant episodes such as the massacres of 1894-1896 and 1909. The Armenian narrative circumvents Armenian terrorist groups and militias in the run-up to the First World War and more recent events, such as the murder of Turkish Diplomats in the US in the 1970s by Armenian assassins. This is a topic that I have researched and written about in NEO.
It is worth noting that duelling historical narratives are present regarding every major historical event. For example, about the Civil War in the US. It is for this reason that a lot of effort is being made to rewrite history – to remove Confederate monuments and for public schools to stop reading Civil War literature in public schools, at least that which gives a wider view of historic events.
For Turks, one manifestation of frustration over “historical injustice” can be gauged by perceptions of territorial losses following the Treaty of Lausanne, besides ongoing perceptions of threats arising from the Treaty of Sèvres.
As recently as December 2016, both were invoked by President Erdoğan in a speech within the context of the regional security situation and the fresh memory of the coup attempt in July of that year.
“Where we will end up is the conditions of the Sèvres treaty if we happen to stop during this critical period when the world is being tried to be reshaped,” President Erdoğan warned and continued: “However, we are a nation that still feels the sorrow of our losses at the Lausanne. Let me be clear, Turkey is putting up its biggest struggle since the War of Independence. This is a struggle for one nation, one flag, one homeland, one state.”
In reading the speech, in retrospect, it is clear that all that is happening now was expected:
“Terror organizations are just the pawn in this fight. Our real struggle is against the powers behind them. These powers assail whichever point of ours they see as weak. They are trying to divide our nation over differences of ethnicity, origin or sect.”
I guess President Erdoğan is talking about the United States, Israel and other erstwhile supporters of the Kurds and Arab terrorists, including some of the same ONES that Turkey is now using for its own purposes.
I see elements of genius in Erdogan’s speeches but what it underlies is so pragmatic, however, what stands in the shadows is truly terrible. There is something in the Treaty of Kars about Turkey being allowed to intervene should the status of Nakhichevan (and Adjara) be threatened or changed.
The treaty regulated the border between the new Turkish republic and what was becoming the USSR. Hence it does not have an expiration date written into it. And in the case of Georgia, it was re-ratified back in 1993, almost a complete secret – a legistative act still unknown to the vast majority of the Georgian population.
Injury to insult
Turkey is taking flack over its actions in Syria and against Kurds. Talks continue about introducing a resolution in Congress about the Armenian Genocide. For many years, side-stepping the genocide question is the long-standing practice of the Department of State, regardless of apointee, of administration. The House of Representatives as this was going to press overwhelmingly adopted an Armenian Genocide Resolution. That might make a difference. It isn’t binding. But it sends a message certainly to Turkey in these invasive times. It might – just might – bring forth changes at the White House and State.
Things move from hour to hour, though. One only needs to read that two weeks before that President Trump has revoked the sanctions against Turkey.
It has only gotten away with it because the West needs to keep them on their side, and within NATO, so they don’t ally with the Russians. But now Turkey has done what was least expected.
Reproachment—that’s the real story – and perhaps best left to historians to write! But things are not so simple for the Turks.
A US Congressional resolution does not happen every year. Other kinds of commemorations do, of course. Many in the US are upset over Syria and the Kurds and are wanting to make a point. Trump withdrawal is more than just keeping campaign promises to get out of needless wars—and mostly about getting reelected.
This brings us back to the resolution over the Armenian Question is a declaratory statement by Congress. Keep in mind that it is not a piece of legislation. Such resolutions have been adopted twice before, in 1975 and in 1984. The push is to make it a regular occurrence, a normal part of federal policy.
The US president commemorates April 24, Armenian Genocide Day, annually. However, the use of the word “genocide” has been the sticking point. I am not sure either if that will necessarily change.
Sometimes such activities do more harm than good, drawing too much attention to one issue of identity politics. But keeping the genocide on the agenda is one way to demonstrate that the Armenian advocacy groups punch above their weight in Washington and the many allegations against Turkey are more than mere allegations—and not only in the sphere of human rights.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.