The writer is an assistant professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He served in the Armenian government from 1991 to 1993 as an analyst and a foreign service officer.
Next Friday Armenians in this country and around the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the most calamitous event of their history — the mass murder of their ancestors in the Ottoman Empire. There will be solemn speeches, ceremonies and rallies. There will be impassioned calls on governments that have not recognized the murder of Armenians as genocide to do so. And there will be denunciations of the Turkish policy of denial.
The anniversary is also a good opportunity for another kind of reflection. The Armenian politics of memory has not been without its controversial aspects, which are rarely discussed openly and honestly. Such a discussion is long overdue, especially if Armenians do not want the politics to harm Armenia and are interested in Turkey someday recognizing the genocide.
First, if we are genuinely interested in not just the rest of the world but also Turkey recognizing the Armenian genocide — and, at least to this Armenian, that is the recognition that matters — we must fundamentally revise our attitudes toward Turks, as emotionally understandable as these attitudes may be. Specifically, we must stop treating criticism of or even antagonism toward the Turkish state as interchangeable with hostility and hatred toward Turks themselves.
Ordinary and decent Turks should be our allies in the struggle for recognition by the Turkish state. Yet we can hardly hope to win their solidarity if we continue to indulge in anti-Turkish rhetoric, glorify the Armenian terrorists who killed Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s or portray Turks as a race of bloodthirsty barbarians to our children in schools and summer camps. It is high time we reconsider these attitudes, not only because they are politically self-defeating but also because they are wrong.
Second, we must decide what exactly we want from Turkey — recognition of the genocide or territorial restitution? It is no secret that some of the most important Armenian organizations in the diaspora espouse an overtly revisionist ideology and argue that recognition of the genocide by the world and Turkey is only the first step in the process of reclaiming our ancestral homeland and establishing Armenian sovereignty over parts of eastern Turkey.
Under pressure from such organizations, even Armenia’s government decided to include allusions to such claims in its recent declaration on the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Putting aside all kinds of thorny issues related to international law and treaties that have determined the territorial status quo, it should be painfully obvious the Turkish state will never soften its stance on recognition in the face of these claims. Therefore, if it is recognition that we want, and I do believe that recognition should be the priority, we must renounce them.
Third, if the diaspora cares not only about the memory of Armenians who perished in 1915 but also about the security and well-being of Armenians living today, it should stop pressuring Armenia to adopt an aggressive posture toward Turkey. Armenia can ill afford such a posture. In fact, normalization of relations with Turkey, frozen because of the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh, is a vital interest for landlocked, poor and vulnerable Armenia.
Yet, when the first post-communist government of Armenia adopted a course for normalization with Turkey, it became the target of a vicious campaign by some organizations in the diaspora, including the most powerful one — the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Proponents of normalization remain the most despised targets for these organizations. The corollary of this problematic attitude is the diaspora’s willingness to support any regime in Armenia as long as it takes a hard line against Turkey, no matter how corrupt and anti-democratic that regime is.
I am not naive enough to think that if Armenians fundamentally transformed their rhetoric and renounced territorial claims against Turkey, the Turkish state would revise its position overnight and Turkish society would fundamentally transform. That will not happen quickly, and it may never happen. But it is my firm conviction that if there is any likelihood of such a transformation, the Armenian campaign, with its traditional rhetoric, demands and ideology, is only creating obstacles in its path.
Turkey, in fact, has undergone some important changes with respect to the “Armenian issue.” Literature on the Armenian genocide is freely available there, many Turkish scholars and intellectuals have acknowledged and condemned the genocide, commemoration ceremonies are held annually in Istanbul and the Turkish state has even moved from its preposterous position of flat denial to acknowledging the Armenian tragedy and offering condolences.
Armenians can and should encourage a deepening of this trend. They must also impress upon organizations in the diaspora that support or opposition to the government in Armenia must depend on more than its rhetoric vis-à-vis Turkey. Business as usual will only delay recognition by Turkey, exacerbate the problems between Turkey and Armenia and contribute to bad governance in Armenia.