Today, Armenians all around the world start to remember the victims of the Armenian genocide, the brutal murder of some one million people that started 99 years ago. However, a small revolution took place and the world hardly noticed it. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the events of 1915 for the first time as “inhumane.” These words could transform the almost non-existing relations between Turkey and Armenia. For sure, Turkey is still not ready yet to accept that genocide or a genocidal attempt took place during World War I in the Ottoman Empire against Armenians. However, Erdogan’s remarks could break the ice and bring back some kind any normality in the region. At the same time, there are loads of spoilers out there that will try to undermine the process.
Turkish public officials have never ushered any kind of excuse or responsibility about the violence and terror that had their peak in 1915 against Armenian civilians, including elderly, women and children. Also now, Erdogan made no explicit reference to the inhumanity. Erdogan did say that “the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.” However, Armenian diaspora groups, some of them quite radicalized (not least because of the continued pain they receive by the total denial of anything from Turkey), deny any kind of positive tactic by Erdogan. On the opposite, it is argued that Erdogan’s words are “a manipulative attempt to perpetuate the state denial of the Armenian Genocide” as it was stated in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail. Despite that criticism, it has to be said that never any high-ranking Turkish official has said something similar in the past like Erdogan now. That is why it should be regarded as a very positive step forward, although more needs to come in the future, not least more specific remarks about the extent of the Armenian suffering.
One of the more curious things for me is why there is such a fear among many Armenians to establish a historic commission. For sure, it is understandable that Turkey might influence such a commission and it would not be clear if all documents could be accessed. But nothing speaks against an international commission that is equally made up of Turkish, Armenian and international historians. Historians are needed who know the available documents from the time and have the ability to read and interpret those documents that would need to be made available. Turkey has offered to establish historical commissions in the past, although such attempts often appeared to be fishy. However, the blunt refusal of some Armenians in the diaspora that a historical commission is not necessary because the Armenian genocide is a fact appears to me as a very weak argument.
History should be treated carefully, particularly when it is as contested as the mass murder of Armenians. The understanding of the events of 1915 between Turkish and Armenian people could not be more fundamentally different. While Armenians mourn hundreds of thousands of people who died (the numbers vary between 500,000-1,500,000 although it appears likely that about a million Armenians were killed or starved to death), many Turks see Armenians as a “fifth column” that helped to destroy the Ottoman Empire.
It will be crucial that Turkish public officials will over time express their condolences – and the responsibility of Turkey (!) – for the massacres that happened against the Armenian people. After all, it is pretty clear from the facts that are available that the mass transportation of Armenians, that de facto led to mass killings, were based on orders from the highest ranks in Istanbul at the time. However, Turks have never learned that in history. In Turkey, you learn a heroic history; if anything, it were the Turks that suffered and not that the various minorities that are until today portrayed as betrayers.
In the past, the Armenian diaspora pushed hard in countries like the U.S. and France that the respective parliaments would condemn the massacres of 1915 as genocide. This usually has not helped at all any kind of reconciliation efforts like the “football diplomacy” in 2009 but rather destroyed such initiatives. That is why I do think that parliaments should vote on such issues but rather help to facilitate dialogue that makes it easier for the perpetrators to accept their responsibility of what happened, respectively the successor state Turkey to accept this responsibility. Already in December 2013, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made Turkey’s first high-level visit to Armenia since 2010, when the peace efforts stalled. This new invitation of Erdogan could help to further strengthen the efforts to open the borders and have normal relations between the two countries. This, at the same time, could be vital that also the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh could be solved. For sure, Azerbaijan will consequently try to spoil this process. Ironically, they will be supported by many parts of the organized Armenian diaspora that simply wants a process where everything should happen at once. That is not going to happen; a facilitated process is necessary that will take time. Not least it will take time so that Turks can accept the involvement of the Ottoman Empire in the organized crimes.
It will be a slow process in Turkey until the majority of the people realize of what happened 99 years ago. It will not be easy. And yet, it will be necessary to discover this sad part of Turkish history. At the same time, because it will be a slow process, it is very hard for Armenians to accept only a gradual acceptance. Worse, for Armenians it is clearly genocide of what happened and anything less than the term genocide is not sufficient. Consequently, there is still a long way to go. However, Erdogan has opened a new window of opportunity. Let’s hope and try to make sure that the spoilers will not destroy it.