Time for change in Turkish-Armenian relations

It is time for Armenian society and opinion leaders to step out of orbit the diaspora forced on them for nearly 50 years

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Yildiz Deveci Bozkus   | 25.04.2019
Time for change in Turkish-Armenian relations


The events of 1915, invariably placed high on the world's agenda every year, especially in late April, have again, and also quite expectedly, been brought to the attention of the international community this year too, particularly on account of the recent resolutions passed by the French and Italian parliaments. The events of 1915, known as the "Armenian question" today, date back to the Treaty of San Stefano, signed at the end of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. The Armenian question reached its peak in 1915, in the final years of the Ottoman state, and persisted into the Republican era, becoming an intractable problem of the new regime. The Armenian question underwent a major transformation process with the foundation of the republic and took on a different character with the onset of the Cold War era. Today, the events of 1915 have become an issue known the world over thanks mostly to the commemorative events organized every year around April 24. As of today, the Armenian question is a foreign policy problem for Turkey used and abused by the parliaments of numerous countries, which have so far adopted resolutions, bills, and legislations in order to manipulate their internal public opinions. What has also contributed to the worsening of the problem is the erection of monuments, statues, columns etc. dedicated to the events of 1915, even in seemingly quite irrelevant places.

Today the Armenian question has evolved into a grave problem bearing heavily on the Turkish-Armenian relations as well as Turkey's relations with many countries, first and foremost those in the West. International organizations frequently make references to the events in question, Turkey is subjected to various criticisms. The events of 1915 are cited in, for example, the European Union progress reports, European Parliament decisions, UN statements, and in the reports and statements of many other bodies. More importantly, the events of 1915 have been officially recognized as a genocide by more than 30 countries since 1965, and in some of these countries, it constitutes a crime even to openly say that such a genocide never took place. When we analyze the historical trajectory this problem has followed, we find two particularly important junctures standing out.

The first of these was the Treaty of San Stefano signed at the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 (famously known in Turkey as the "War of 93," in reference to 1293, the year in the Islamic calendar when the war took place). And the second was a resolution consisting of five articles adopted by the Uruguay Senate and its House of Representatives on April 20, 1965. Starting from that momentous date, the genocide allegations have been voiced increasingly loudly, beginning, over time, to have negative impacts on Turkey's relations with Armenia.

Eventually, two border crossings that connect Turkey to Armenia (the Akyaka and Alican crossings) were closed on April 3, 1993 due to the disputes over the events of 1915 and the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and also due to the resolutions passed by various parliaments about the said events, which are frequently brought up in the international community by the Armenian diaspora across the globe. These two border crossings remain Turkey's only land borders closed. These historical problems between the two countries have caused the diplomatic relations between them to come to a complete stop as well. Armenia is as adversely affected by this situation as Turkey. Diplomatic relations with Armenia are conducted through third countries (via Georgia). Armenia nowadays is a country that has access to the outer world mostly through Iran, since its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, and it is becoming more and more isolated in the region. When we look at the Armenian history, however, we find their relations with the great empires and civilizations in the region showing varying levels of progress. For example, Turkish-Armenian relations embarked on a particularly positive trajectory during the Seljuk period. Armenians previously lived under the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Arabs, but when the Seljuks conquered the region, they cooperated with the Turks to save themselves from the Byzantine oppression.

The relations of the Armenian community leaders (amira) with the Ottoman state administration, as well as the services and overall impact of the Armenian intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the fields of science, art, literature and in bureaucracy remain subjects that need to be thoroughly examined. Vartan Artinian, for example, notes that the majority of Armenian students who graduated from the universities of Rome, Padua, and Pisa in the first quarter of the 19th century were Ottoman Armenians, adding that these intellectuals, all of whom were graduates of the Muradyan College, were prolific writers, particularly in the field of education, and translated many works. Similarly, there was a large number of Armenian youth sent abroad for educational purposes during the periods of "Tanzimat" (the administrative reforms) and "Islahat" (the Imperial Reform Edict) in the 19th century, and the contribution of these young Armenians to the modernization of the empire is too extensive an issue to be dealt with in the scope of this article.

In the Ottoman era, Armenians worked in almost every official position in the service of the Turkish state, proving themselves a very hard working and capable community. They assumed significant positions as members of the senate, deputies, foreign ministers, ministers of the Private Treasury, members of the Council of State, consular officers, interior ministers, provincial governors, ministers of public works, ministers of forestry and agriculture, ministers of the PTT (post office), finance ministers, and they also worked in gunpowder factories, and in the fields of education, press, architecture, customs, art, trade, law, music etc. Many of the Armenians in these positions came from a highly refined and versatile Armenian intellectual class. Zeidner points out in this respect that Armenians occupied one-third of the official positions in the Ottoman state. Marchese and Breu draw attention to the fact that Armenians, in the vacuum generated by the Greek independence war against the Ottomans, began to play a more active role in the Ottoman elite circles, in the economic middle class, in the production of gunpowder, in the judiciary, in the field of architecture, and so on, since they were known as millet-i sadika, or the "most loyal nation.”

Foundations of modern Armenia

The foundations of the state now called Armenia were laid down through the settlement of a large Armenian population in and around Yerevan in the 19th century with the help of Russia. One of the oldest inhabitants of the region, the Armenian community has a very long history and has been an important factor in the history of the region. However, the fact that the Armenian community lived in a region dominated by the most powerful empires of the region, such as Russians, Persians and Ottomans, necessarily caused them to be affected by the struggles between the three. At this point, it is time for Armenians to draw a new road map by distancing themselves from the manipulations of the diaspora as well as Western countries at a time when Turkey, Russia, and Iran -- currently as well as historically the leading actors in the region -- are moving closer together toward common goals. Although doing what has so far not been done and trying what has not been tried yet contains elements of risk, change has always been an exciting process due to the inherent possibility of success.

With Turkish-Armenian relations entering their second millennium, more parliaments passing new resolutions just no longer triggers the intended reactions from Turkey. Such parliamentary resolutions, on the contrary, render the matter at hand more and more ordinary while also disrupting the normalization process between the two nations. Western countries passing new resolutions about the events of 1915 does not mean anything for Turkey. Just like in the first parliamentary move in this direction by Uruguay in 1965, all the subsequent legislations mean nothing to Turkey and are void of any legal basis. Additionally, there has been no ruling delivered so far by an international criminal court regarding the events of 1915.

As will be seen below, by far there have been nearly thirty resolutions passed in this process that began in the Cold War period. And we are highly likely to see more of such resolutions in the future. But in terms of Turkish-Armenian relations, it is time to do the undone, and try the untried.

Isn't it worth taking such a step, or taking such a risk, based on the millennial historical relations between the two peoples? So far all other methods have been tried by the two parties; why not employ the language of peace this time and walk the path of reconciliation? Otherwise, looking at the current trajectory, we can surmise that the lobbying work to have more states recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide will continue, and as a result, their number will accordingly continue to increase one by one.

It must also be known that the recent decision taken by President Emmanuel Macron in France -- the cradle of democracy -- has no legal basis. Just like the April 24 resolution, which violates the decisions of both the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the French Constitutional Court, the events of 1915 have no legal basis, either. The reason is that the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is based on the 1948 Convention. And since this convention does not and cannot cover the time before 1948, the Armenian genocide allegations cannot be legally brought to the ICJ. In addition, this matter has already been legally resolved between Turkey and Armenia through the treaties of Moscow and Kars, and the Treaty of Lausanne. [7] Therefore, the recent resolutions adopted by the French and Italian governments have no legal bases, and are merely intended to advance a certain agenda. And it must be known that against such efforts, Turkey will continue to maintain its firm stance.

In France, the Jewish lobby has the strongest position, and the Armenian lobby comes after that. As in the resolutions passed in the parliaments of other countries, Armenian lobbies played a significant role in the passing of these resolutions in France and Italy. The current course of relations has been benefitting neither Armenia nor Turkey, and it will continue to serve only to further cement the image of "victimized Armenians" as opposed to that of the "oppressive Turk/Turkey.” Such resolutions also result in the incitement of more hatred and breeding of more rancor between the societies in question. This, despite the continual admonitions to the parties involved from the EU, the EP, the UN, and several other international organizations regarding the promotion of efforts toward a reconciliation between the two societies, taking steps to achieve a lasting peace, and eradicating all hatred. The repeatedly emphasized and implied message in all such statements and admonitions is that Western countries are able to uphold and continuously provide these peaceful values thanks to their strong democracies whereas Turkey and other countries are constantly lagging behind and always have room for progress. A look at the following list, however, will reveal that the statements and actions of these Western countries are far from integrity given the numerous scandalous resolutions they have adopted since 1965.

1. Resolution of the Uruguay Senate (1965, 2004)

2. Resolution of the House of Representatives of the Greek Cypriot administration (1982)

3. Resolutions of the Argentine Senate (1993, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008)

4. Resolutions of the Russian Duma (1995, 2005)

5. Resolutions of the Canadian House of Commons (1996, 2002, 2004)

6. Resolution of the Greek Parliament (1996)

7. Resolutions of the Lebanese House of Representatives (1997, 2000)

8. Resolution of the Belgian Senate (1998)

9. Resolutions of the Italian Parliament (2000, 2019)

10. Joint Statements by Pope John Paul II and the Armenian Catholicos Karekin II (2000, 2001)

11. Draft Law of the French Parliament (1998, 2000, 2001, 2019)

12. Resolution of the Swiss National Council (2003)

13. Resolution of the Slovak Parliament (2004)

14. Resolution of the Dutch Parliament (2004)

15. Resolution of the Polish Parliament (2005)

16. Resolutions of the German Bundestag (2005, 2016, 2018)

17. Resolution of the Venezuelan Parliament (2005)

18. Resolution of the Lithuanian Parliament (2005)

19. Resolution of the Chilean Senate (2007)

20. Resolutions of the Swedish Parliament (2000-2010)

21. The Parliament of the Republic of Bolivia (2014)

22. The Czech Parliament House of Representatives (2015)

23. The Austrian Parliament (2015)

24. The Brazilian Federal Senate (2015)

25. The Bulgarian Parliament (2015)

26. The Syrian Parliament (2015)

27. The Luxembourg Parliament (2015)

28. The Senate of Paraguay (2015)

29. Latin American Parliament - PARLATINO (Panama) (2015)

Now, the question begs itself regarding these resolutions. If the real aim is to resolve historical disputes through peaceful means, why are all these resolutions based on the statements of only one party? What do Turkey and the Turkish people think on these issues? One wonders if there are any countries and parliaments on this list, concerned about how these resolutions are likely to shape the image of the Turkish people in the international arena. Or is it that every single country passes such resolutions in favor of its own internal and external conjunctural interests and with only their own internal public opinion in mind? Regardless of the reasons, it cannot be denied that these resolutions, which -- let us reiterate once again -- have no legal basis, do more harm to the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process than good.

Turkey has taken many steps in the last 15 years to ensure that the events of 1915 are better understood, and toward the resolution of the dispute, and a reconciliation between the two parties. Some of these steps were the foundation of the Vienna Armenian-Turkish Historians' Platform, the Joint Historians Commission, and the signing in 2009 of the "Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia" in Zurich. Even though the hand of peace that Turkey has extended on this issue has been left in the air most of the time, it has never abandoned its attitude of peace and reconciliation. As a country that inherited an imperial past and a tradition that sees cultural differences as richness and diversity, Turkey should never tire to cry out to the rest of the world that such parliamentary resolutions will never be able to harm the millennial relationship between Turks and Armenians. The Armenian side, on the other hand, should begin to take more courageous decisions in the Pashinyan era and realize that it is high time it shook the hand extended to it in peace and friendship. Just as in the case of its relations with Iran in the region, with China on a global scale, and with Russia in its history, Armenia should now meticulously work on its relations with Turkey as well. At a time when Turkey has been closely cooperating with Russia and Iran as necessitated by the circumstances, it is time for Armenia, being one the countries in the region, to resolve all its problems with Azerbaijan and start acting together with the regional countries. This change would primarily benefit Armenia and then the countries in the region. This change is likely to turn into a major movement of peace both on a regional and global scale. To achieve this, however, Pashinyan should disband what is known as the "Karabakh clan" which is holding critical state positions. It is time for Pashinyan to shelve his predecessors' allegations of genocide as well as their policies on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

And it is also high time that Armenians in the diaspora realized that this present trend, generated in the Cold War era, no longer interests the Turks or the Armenians as much as in the past, and no longer creates the desired effect. Turkey, where it is now, is able to view this whole issue from a different angle. It has been taking steps to reach a reconciliation between the two communities. Today in Turkey, official statements are released on April 24, there are Armenian-origin deputies in the parliament, the number of academics working in this field and the number of related university departments have increased, and also several positive steps have been taken to promote radio and TV broadcast and publication in the Armenian language. Hence, it is now the Armenian diaspora's turn to call itself to account. Since the Cold War years, Armenian politics has been shaped by the diaspora rather than the concerns of Armenia's citizens about economy, democracy, human rights, and freedoms.

It is time for the Armenian society and opinion leaders to step out of the orbit forced upon them for almost the past 50 years by the diaspora. It is time for change in the Armenian question.

Translated by Omer Colakoglu

[Associate Professor Yildiz Deveci Bozkus is lecturer at the Department of Caucasian Studies at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara, the Turkish capital]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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