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Can Turkish-Armenian relations normalize?

Friday 2 May 2008, by Sahin Alpay

Armenia’s new president, Serzh Sarkisian, on the occasion of the “Genocide Day” commemorated on April 24, said: "International recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide is an appropriate and inevitable part of Armenia’s foreign policy agenda.
The motherland of all Armenians, the Republic of Armenia, should redouble its efforts for the restoration of historic justice."

The statement appeared to be a negative response to a recent letter sent by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan to his Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, stating that Turkey was open to dialogue to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations.

Then, on April 26, the prime ministers of Turkey and Armenia exchanged letters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan congratulated Tigran Sarkisian on his appointment as Armenian prime minister and expressed hope that “[In] the new stage, which started after the presidential elections of Feb. 19, 2008 in Armenia, certain steps can be taken in the process of the settlement of bilateral relations. In connection with this, I would like to stress that the proposals, presented to your side earlier, which according to us will facilitate the advancement of the process, remain valid.” In his response, Sarkisian expressed his confidence that “by means of personal contacts we will be able to jointly assist [in] the solution of all the issues, which concern us. …” (from Armenian news agency Mediamax)

The exchange of letters between the prime ministers seems to signal new efforts to try to normalize relations between the two countries. This would certainly be a much-welcomed move in the interest of the two peoples. At this hopeful moment it seems proper to question whether stepped-up efforts by Armenia for the “international recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide” as advocated by President Sarkisian can help Turkey establish diplomatic relations and open the border with Armenia and eventually force Ankara to recognize the “Armenian genocide.”

Let me first explain my position on the “Armenian genocide.” I have deep-felt sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians who were punished collectively by deportation to the Syrian desert for the crimes of Armenian nationalists who sided with Russia against the Ottoman state during World War I and perished on the way due to killings by members of security forces and gangs, starvation and disease. I am, however, not convinced that the great tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians was a “genocide” (“the first genocide of the 20th century”) that was “planned and carried out” by the Ottoman state. Nor are all historians that specialize in late Ottoman history convinced. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire by revolts and wars did not, on the other hand, result only in the mass sufferings of the Armenians (and other Christians) but also of Muslim-Turkish subjects of that empire.

I strongly believe that the Turkish people have the right to know what really happened to their Armenian fellow countrymen during World War I. I also strongly believe that Turkey has to recognize the tragedy inflicted upon Armenian fellow countrymen by the Ottoman state it overthrew in 1923. I am, however, convinced that if the Turkish people and state are ever going to face the truth about what happened to the Ottoman Armenians, the issue has to be freely discussed and the people freely informed in Turkey. I believe that the “genocide” resolutions passed in various parliaments have not facilitated but hindered free debate in Turkey on the Armenian question and will continue to do so. Whatever progress has been made so far in lifting the veil over the Armenian question is the result of efforts by Turkish intellectuals who have dared to question official history.

My dear friend and colleague the late Hrant Dink’s position on this question was clear: “Turkey’s democratization is much more important than its recognition of the genocide. Only a country that is democratic can dare to deal with its history, discuss its problems and feel empathy. … It is only after they learn about the Armenian problem that the people can decide whether this was genocide or not. There is no meaning in a state or government recognizing the issue under pressure from the outside. Because those who need to see the truth are not states but peoples. … States have no conscience, but societies and peoples do.” (Radikal, May 23, 2005.)

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Source : TDZ, 28.04.2008

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