The Pitfalls of a Historical Commission

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BY K.M. GREG SARKISSIAN

When reviewing the recently signed Protocols regarding diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, given that settling the border is a sovereign right, that Armenia’s elected leaders have never stated they have territorial claims on Turkey, and that the Karabagh conflict is not explicitly part of the Protocols, what remains for debate is the “sub-commission on the historical dimension.”

In the words of the Protocols, the purpose of the sub-commission on the historical dimension is “to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.”

It is precisely this mutual confidence that is in question. The purpose and meaning of this sub-commission continues to generate heated and divisive debate within both those countries and their respective diasporas.

There are several reasons for this debate, but one crucial aspect is the fact that since the announcement of the Protocols at the end of August 2009, the presidents of the two countries have expressed diametrically opposing views on the meaning of this sub-commission.

On October 3, in New York, Armenian President Serge Sargsyan explained to the assembled representatives of the Armenian Diaspora organizations that the commission is not to judge whether or not genocide took place, but rather “to discuss the issues of Armenian heritage in Turkey, issues of restoring and preserving that heritage, issues of heirs of victims of Genocide.”(1)

However, Turkish President Abdullah Gul defines the sub-commission’s objective as one which will provide a historical judgement. On October 6, in Istanbul, he stated, “There are all sorts of allegations about what happened a century ago. It is clear that people who do not know what happened where or how are not able to take decisions on this matter. What we hope is that historians, archive specialists study this matter and we are ready to accept the conclusions of this commission. To show that we are sincere, we even said that if a third country is interested in this matter, if French historians, for example, want to take part in this commission, they are welcome.”(2)

Given these contradicting interpretations, what would be the outcome, if a commission were to proceed at this time?

There would be a direct and indirect chilling effect on third party governments and independent scholars, in addition to added obstructions to Armenian Diaspora organizations in their work for international recognition of the Genocide. Some well intentioned parties will genuinely believe in the guise of progress being made and become unwitting bystanders to denial. Countries that would prefer not to get entangled in the genocide issue would have the perfect excuse to say that recognition efforts are not necessary, as Armenia and Turkey are in negotiation.

In fact, we already have indications of this trend. Two Swedish newspapers, Metro and Svenska Dagbladet no longer use the term “Armenian Genocide.” Metro’s Editor-in-chief refuses to place any article in the newspaper about the so-called “Armenian Genocide,” because he is “no longer sure if there was genocide or not.”(3) During a visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Spain pledged its support for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. “We are watching Turkey and its foreign policy with admiration, especially in relations with its neighbors,” sources quoted Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos as saying.(4)

Many observers believe that Turkey is using this commission as a ploy, to dissuade third parties, such as the US and UK governments, from considering resolutions to recognize the Genocide. The logic of this ploy was explicitly admitted by a Turkish member of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission in 2001.(5)

The reason for Turkey’s unshakeable denialist position is well explained by Taner Akçam. The foundation myths of the Turkish Republic are a deep and integral part of Turkish national identity; revealing the Armenian Genocide as a fundamental part of the formation of the Republic would have devastating effects on the national psyche, as well as on the ability of the “Deep State” to maintain its power.(6) Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has been quoted as saying, “During its history, Turkey has never degraded itself to the vile cruelty of committing genocide. It’s out of the question for us to accept this.”(7)

Some have argued in favour of the sub-commission on the grounds that since the Protocols state Armenian, Turkish, as well as Swiss and other international experts will take part in it, and since Switzerland has already officially recognized the Genocide, therefore the conclusion of the commission will be favourable to the Armenians.

That argument fails to take into consideration that Turkey has ignored resolutions by 20 countries affirming the Genocide and successfully manages to keep other countries from adopting them. The whole point of these recognitions and affirmations was to show Turkey that it stood alone and was out of step with the facts in denying the Armenian Genocide.

Turkey is a powerful country politically and militarily and has recently also become powerful economically, ranking 17th in the world. It uses these leverages skillfully in getting what it wants from other countries. When Israel, the UK and the US avoid recognizing the Genocide, they do so not because of uncertainty about the historical facts– there is no serious dispute among scholars that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was genocide–they do so for political, military and economic considerations, in short, Realpolitik.

It seems that Armenia is now also willing to play this game. By putting the Genocide on the table via a historical commission, in order to have political and economic relations with Turkey and to enhance its security, Armenia has sacrificed its only leverage—the incontestable truth. Now all countries will feel at still greater liberty to play the game of Realpolitik regarding the Genocide in whatever way they choose, because even Armenia does it.

In the short term, the Armenian Government’s handling of the Protocols has exacerbated political divisions within the Armenian community—especially within the Diaspora, and between Armenia and parts of the Diaspora. During the Soviet era, the relations of Diaspora institutions with each other and with Armenia were conditioned along rivaling partisan lines, not even ideological lines. This situation continued in the early years of independence, but eventually more inclusive policies were developed to involve the Diaspora in Armenia and integrate its relations on a pan-Armenian basis. It now seems that the Protocols are once again polarizing the Diaspora and its relations with Armenia. People are no longer debating the issues, but rather “whose side are you on?”

In the long term, Armenia has compromised the incontestability of the Armenian Genocide. Even if, for whatever reason, the Armenian Parliament does not ratify the Protocols, the fact that the Armenian Government agreed at one point to allow the Armenian Genocide to be open to debate can be used to further Turkey’s denial.

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(1)   “An Interview with Serge Sargsian,” Armenian Reporter, October 3, 2009, p. 4.
(2)   “Gul Invites Historians to ‘Study’ Genocide,” Asbarez, October 6, 2009, r />http://www.asbarez.com/2009/10/06/gul-invites-historians-to-study-genocide/, accessed November 18, 2009.
(3)   “Swedish newspapers call so-called ‘Armenian genocide’ into question,” Today.Az, October 23, 2009, http://www.today.az/news/politics/56860.html, accessed November 18, 2009.
(4)   “Spain pledges support for Turkey’s EU bid,” Today’s Zaman, November 16, 2009, http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/news-193070-102-spain-pledges-support-for-turkeys-eu-bid.html, accessed November 18, 2009.
(5)   California Courier Online November 15, 2001, referencing Azeri newspaper 525-Gazet, July 19, 2001, quoted Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission member Özdem Sanberk: “The main goal of our commission is to impede Armenian Genocide recognition initiatives put forth every year in the US Congress and parliaments of Western countries for the ‘genocide issue’ and aimed at weakening Turkey…. The significant matter for us is that the ‘genocide issue’ is not discussed by the American Congress any more. Because, as long as we continue the dialogue, the issue will not be brought to the Congress agenda. If it is not discussed in the Congress, we, being Turkey, will gain from that. The US Congress will see that there is a channel of dialogue between Turks and Armenians and decide that ‘there is no necessity for the Congress to take such [a] decision while such a channel exists.’”
(6)   See Taner Akçam, “The Armenian Genocide and the Silence of the Turks,” in Taner Akçam, Dialogue Across an International Divide: Essays towards a Turkish-Armenian Dialogue (Cambridge, MA and Toronto: Zoryan Institute, 2001), pp. 75-101.
(7)   Turkish Weekly, May 18, 2001 http://www.turkishweekly.net/news/10553/turkish-pm-we-ll-retaliate-against-states-that-recognize-so-called-genocide-.html.

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7 Comments

  1. Daniel said:

    Armenia has already been playing realpolitik for long. For example, it does not even recognize NKR’s independence. What is this called other than realpolitik? Come on. For once be impartial. The same logic applies to the events of early 20th century. It’s no big deal when Armenians attack and kill their fellow Muslim neighbors, but it becomes a so-called “genocide” when the state decides to relocate you to another province to establish security of its citizens? It’s a sin when Turks do it, but not so when you do it?

  2. John said:

    Dear Daniel,
    Please do not confuse the The Armenian Genocide, which was implemented by the Turkish state and army purely for the purpose of murder, theft and robbery of every Armenian man, women and child, for the deliberate attack of innocent Armenians by the Azeri military because they held a democratic referendum to be free of Turkish/Azeri  miss-rule on their OWN ANCIENT HOME LAND! The murder of Armenians in Sumgait and Baku always eludes Turkish memory. F.Y.I. The idea of Armenians as a traitor peoples was a Turkish fabrication that was also understood by the U.S Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau Sr. when he said in July 1915, “The deportations were ordered under a false  pretense of rebellion”. Turks waited until the cover of WW1 to implement the “Armenian Solution” which was preceded in the late 1800’s by the Hamidian massacres and then in 1909 by the Adana massacres. Turks not only murdered the Armenians but Assyrians and Greeks and then the Kurds. Apparently it is the Turks that have a history of “attacking their neighbors”. However the Turks seem to have a short memory afterwords.

  3. John said:

    Dear Daniel,
    The “State that decided to relocate to another province to establish security for their citizens”? Do you mean liqudate? Because that’s what the Turkish authorities did under the guise of relocation. “to another province” you mean the  deseart with out any water and food? And that’s if you were lucky to make it because 3/4 died on the way. The intension was murder and to only one race of people. It is called genocide! Also, the Armenians were citizens of the Ottoman Empire. So were the Assyrians and Greeks that also got liqudated in the same extermination campaign. Then later it was the kurds turn. As for the NRK, it was the Azeri’s who started the war on the Armenians in Stepanekart by their army. Let’s not forget the pogroms in Baku and Sumgait were Armenians were killed in the streets.  Turks  just seems to ignore those facts.

  4. Dino Ajemian said:

    “given that settling the border is a sovereign right, that Armenia’s elected leaders have never stated they have territorial claims on Turkey” ?????  This is intellectually dishonest by another Sarkissian lol. To dismiss and jump to a given is defeatist in nature. The entire set of protocols are destructive. Thank God you are not one to formulate the direction of the Armenian nation. You could have phrased it in a more manly way. This is more telling of the writer then the thought. We have de jure borders and we have de facto borders. The so called turkish republic illegally occupies a large chunk of Armenian sovereign area. That would be  a statement of fact not a claim. After that sentence it does not matter what you write.

  5. Samvel Jeshmaridian, PhD said:

    The historical commission is not a pitfall. It is a kingly grave for the ones who have developed and endorced it. Even such a bastard as Vasak could not do that.
    jeshmarid@yahoo.com

  6. Alex Postallian said:

    The answer to the turks interest in Azerbaijian,and the U.S. is a three lettered word OIL,OIL,Oil.The rest of the conservation is redundant..

  7. areg mansuryan said:

    This historical commision would be a tea party where sides will gather to discuss which side is right or wrong. What a shame and what a waste of time. I have said all along and will repeat my self without hesitation that Serzh Sargsyan and his gang are danger to national security of Armenia. These imposters have deceived and lied to the Armenian people all along . Do not trust them.. Pray for early departure of these monsters from Armenian leadership. Help us God..

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