In Turkey a First ever Debate about Armenian Genocide

On eve of EU accession talks–conference discussing Armenia’s in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire found there was strong evidence that massacres and widespread deportations had been carried out–but stopped short of describing the acts as genocide.

ISTANBUL (Christian Science Monitor/Guncel)–Opposition to a conference about the genocide of Armenia’s moved from Turkish courtrooms to the street over the weekend as scholars discussed the issue publicly for the first time on Turkish soil.

Turkish nationalists–who back the official line that there was no Armenian genocide–sought to make their views embarrassingly plain by hurling eggs and tomatoes outside Istanbul Bilgi University–a back-up venue used to skirt a court order Thursday that sought to shut down the conference at another location.

But participants cast the event as "a breakthrough for expanding civil society"–a key issue as Turkey prepares to open talks Oct. 3 over accession to the European Union. "The most important thing is that this [conference] is happening at all," said Cengiz Candar–a prominent columnist for Bugun newspaper–who was hit by an egg as he spoke outside the conference. "It will help to recoup some of Turkey’s negative image and–more fundamentally–its commitment to the EU and democracy."

Aspirations for EU membership have prompted certain democratic changes (at least on paper) in recent years. EU officials say they view the conference as a benchmark for tolerance–warning after the court ruling of a "provocation" that could hurt Turkey’s case.

Last May–the justice minister said the conference was a "stab in the Turkish nation’s back," prompting it to be postponed–and tapping into hard-line elemen’s.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul–keenly aware of the challenges ahead in EU talks–spoke forcefully in favor of the conference after the Thursday court decision. Erdogan said he wants a Turkey "where liberties are practiced to the full."

Halil Berktay–coordinator of the history department at Sabanci University–says the opposition was not surprising. "This is a country of more than 70 million–with a strong nationalist past; there are strong forces opposed to the European Union–to democracy and opening up," he says.

But–he adds–"the question of what happened in 1915-1916 is not a mystery–it’s not like we know just 5 percent. We know 85 percent–so the question is not finding more evidence. The question is liberating scholarship from the nationalist taboos…"

"Turkey has to confront its history–and the fact of the violence of 1915 and 1916–and lack of accountability–sanctioned more [state] violence," says Fatma Muge Gocek–a sociologist at the University of Michigan and a conference adviser.

"The discourse is not new; the fact that it is said in Turkey is what matters," says Gocek. "They are great developmen’s."

Candar shares the optimism. "The judiciary is one of the most reactionary and backward institutions in Turkey–and the illegal [court] verdict reflects the inherent problems," he charges. "But the fact that we are discussing this is ample evidence to be optimistic."

A surprise speaker in the conference was Cevdet Aykan–formerly a minister from the long defunct right wing Justice Party (AP)–who spoke on the Armenian community in the Tokat region in eastern Turkey–which he had covered in his published memoirs. According to Aykan–out of Tokat’s population of 28,000 in the early years of the 20th century–8,800 were Armenian. He said that in the census of 1924 the Armenian population was down to about 700.

"It was not a good thing," he said "Thousands of Armenia’s lost their houses–country–homeland and some cases their lives," he said. Aykan said he had chosen to take part in the conference to repay debt of conscience. The events of 1915 were interpreted differently by different parliamen’s and that Turkey should not see the civilized world and those that run it as enemies–he said.

Another delegate at the two day conference–Professor Dr. Ilhan Cuhadaroglu–said that he felt a feeling of mourning at the conference that almost moved him to tears. "I feel like asking was I in Bulgaria or Greece," he said

Candar shares the optimism. "The judiciary is one of the most reactionary and backward institutions in Turkey–and the illegal [court] verdict reflects the inherent problems," he charges. "But the fact that we are discussing this is ample evidence to be optimistic."

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