‘Caveat Emptor’ When Shopping for Normalization in the Turkish Marketplace

It is fair to say that the Armenian Diasporan community, especially in the United States, has reason to be mildly euphoric. Presently the political “stars” seem to be properly aligned, encouraging the belief that recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United States is a doable political event. Every player that counts—from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Senate Leader Harvey Reid—are all on board. Not to be forgotten is the Armenian Congressional Caucus that has been steadfast in its support of genocide recognition. And added to this formidable list is Samantha Power, an ardent pro-genocide supporter, who serves as a key advisor to Obama on foreign policy and national security matters. However, even with this favorable political line-up, there is no guarantee that recognition will occur this year.

We must wait to gauge the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm to recognize the Armenian Genocide by the words used in acknowledging April 24. With the internal economic pressures facing the administration, as well as an international agenda that is rife with problems, genocide recognition may be put on hold during the next several years of the administration.

Unfortunately, Turkey still occupies a key role in Washington’s geostrategic view of the world, especially in the Middle East and—following Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s military fiasco with Russia—the region of the South Caucasus. Issues facing Washington range from effectively engaging Iran; brokering peace between Israel and the West Bank/Gaza; having Turkey commit more troops to Afghanistan and serve as a transit state for the planned withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq; as well as achieving an operative understanding with Moscow. Russia’s response to Georgia was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Moscow has no intention of ceding what it considers its vital economic, political, and military interests in its “Near Abroad” to the United States. Mind you, this is only one of several regions that confront and confound Washington. Turkish officials have not hesitated to predict calamitous repercussions should genocide recognition occur.

From the day that Armenian President Serge Sarkisian invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Armenia, Turkey has used this invitation as a springboard for its diplomatic and public relations offensive that seeks to ensnare Yerevan and to marginalize the Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) (see “Normalization Can Never Be Worth Turkey’s Asking Price,” The Armenian Weekly, Dec. 6, 2008). That historic meeting on Armenian soil of the two presidents began what many on both sides of the closed border regarded as the beginning of a meaningful dialogue that would eventually normalize relations between Ankara and Yerevan. That has a nice ring to it: normalization of relations. Well, that meeting also set in motion a comprehensive offensive by the Turkish government that seeks to reverse the historic roles that have characterized each country. Turkey seeks to be viewed as the country intent on accommodating normalization while it offers calculated solutions that are inimical to Armenia’s interests. Rejection of these overtures, possibly viewed as acceptable compromises by interested foreign governments, carries the onus of intransigence by Yerevan. This is a clever no-lose gambit by Turkey.

For openers, Ankara has not given up on its attempt to link normalization to the creation of a joint Turkish-Armenian sponsored historic commission. Its purpose is to evaluate the totality of events that occurred from 1915 through 1923 to determine if in fact a genocide of the Armenian people was carried out by the Ottoman Turkish government as claimed by Armenians. No matter that independent credentialed historians and genocide scholars have long since agreed—emphatically, one might add—that it was genocide. Given the expected composition of this “unbiased” historic commission, Ankara can be assured that a majority and minority report will be the end result. Anything less than an unambiguous finding that genocide did occur would be a victory for Turkey. This pre-condition is a non-starter from the beginning.

On another note, Armenians were somewhat heartened when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leveled a blistering attack on Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres with respect to the Israeli military operation in Gaza.

Immediately wishful thinking took hold that this would encourage organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to withhold their support of Turkey’s attempt to derail the Armenian Genocide Resolution that will be on the United States Congressional agenda. The likes of Abraham Foxman, the national director of the ADL, and David Harris, the executive director of the AJC, do not establish policy in the international arena; their task is simply to implement the policy decisions given to them. Only a few months ago (August 2008), Harris on his visit to Baku lauded: “Azerbaijan’s tolerance…a splendid symbol for the world.” On what objective basis was that statement made? It should be noted that both Israel and Turkey are reading from the same page when it comes to defeating any Armenian Genocide resolution, Erdogan’s outburst at Davos notwithstanding.

No doubt the Israeli prime minister was visibly upset to bear the burden of the Turkish prime minister’s scathing critique before a world gathering of prominent business and political leaders at the Davos Economic Summit. And, it should be noted, by the prime minister of a country that Israel has assiduously courted as an ally. A symbiotic relationship unites Israel and Turkey. Davos will not sever that mutually beneficial connection. However, what is important to Armenia and the normalization process is the response that Erdogan made to the cheering crowds when he landed at Ataturk International Airport at Yesilyurt outside Istanbul: “This was a matter of the esteem and prestige of my country. Hence my reaction had to be clear. I could not have allowed anyone to poison the prestige and in particular the honor of my country.” Does it seem likely that he or anyone else in the Turkish leadership hierarchy would accept responsibility for poisoning the esteem and prestige and honor of their country before the world by acknowledging the horrific events unleashed by the Ottoman Turkish government from 1915 through 1923 as a genocide of the Armenian nation?

For close to a century, Turkish governments have adopted and have been unremitting in maintaining a policy of obfuscation and historic revisionism at home and abroad. For the general public in Turkey, genocide has long since been refashioned as the unfortunate result of a wartime environment. Very few ethnic Turks older than 10 years of age on April 24, 1915 are alive to bear witness to the systematic murder of over 1.5 million innocent Armenian men, women, and children that was planned and carried out by the Ottoman Turkish government.

The recent apology by several hundred Turkish intellectuals that appeared on the internet is a case in point. Should Armenians take comfort because it was made, and that to date some 30,000 or more individuals have lent their names to this petition of repentance? That is about .0004 per cent of the country’s population. However, a counter petition denying the “Great Catastrophe” has garnered over twice as many signatures. How should these divergent public expressions be interpreted?

The group of intellectuals has preferred to adopt the term that Armenians used during the early years—prior to Raphael Lemken creating the word “genocide” in 1944—to describe the horrific events that are encompassed in the “Great Catastrophe.” A catastrophe, great or not so great, refers to a sudden, widespread disaster; a misfortune or a violent physical disturbance with the usual implication that the phenomenon is very short lived. What happened to Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government was not, according to any accepted definition, a catastrophe. For Armenians, the Great Catastrophe (or Medz Yeghern in Armenian) has a specific meaning, just as “Holocaust” has a specific meaning for the Jewish people. The Great Catastrophe refers to the systematic mass murder of over 1.5 million innocent Armenian men, women, and children; to their planned starvation on their forced death march to the Der Zor Desert; to pillaging and to the brutality and depravity they were forced to endure that defined the Ottoman Turkish government’s determination to forever eradicate the Armenian people from their historic lands.

When these intellectuals and their supporters “…reject this injustice [and] empathize with the feelings and pain of …[their] Armenian brothers [and] apologize…” are they apologizing for some great catastrophe in 1915 that came out of nowhere like a natural disaster, or are they recognizing and apologizing for the Armenian Great Catastrophe or Medz Yeghern? That is an important distinction. Erdogan, in maintaining that this public apology made no sense, correctly interpreted the meaning of the Great Catastrophe when he said that the intellectuals “…must have committed genocide because they are apologizing. We did not commit any crime, why should we apologize? The Turkish republic has no such problem.” Does such a response encourage a belief that genocide recognition can even be an issue for consideration?

Are we to assume that this expression of sympathy was allowed to happen by chance? It is questionable, coinciding as it does with the Turkish government’s launching of its diplomatic and public relations offensive to burnish its image as a democratic society for European Union consumption, and its seeking to normalize relations with its small neighbor to bring economic and political stability to the region. With these objectives in mind, it would have been counter-productive for the government to invoke Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. The Office of the Chief Prosecutor in Ankara maintained that no laws had been broken. If Erdogan has interpreted the Great Catastrophe as genocide, does it not seem strange that the intellectuals failed to do so? Their petition should have been sufficient to trigger Article 301. A cynic might say that allowing this to happen is part of the perennial Turkish offensive of deception. Government officials were quick to point out that divergent views and freedom of expression are what is expected in Turkey’s democratic society.

Another roadblock to a genuine desire to achieve normalization is Turkey’s position enunciated by its foreign minister Ali Babacan that “(t)he Nagarno-Karabagh conflict must be resolved solely within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” Obviously this parallels the official position of Azerbaijan and the current position of the United States. Whether the Obama Administration will alter this policy remains to be seen. The Minsk Group representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chaired by France, Russia, and the United States continually stresses the need for a negotiated settlement that maintains the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Assuming this to be an intractable position by Ankara, how can this lead to a normalization of relations? There can never be an independent Artsakh (Karabagh) with any type of political connection to Baku. To sacrifice the independence of our brothers and sisters in Artsakh for any promised gain would be a travesty.

Normalization presents serious problems for Armenians. Turkish leaders fully understand that Yerevan’s objectives and the needs of Armenia’s citizens do not mirror the Dashnaktsutiun’s objectives and the needs of the diaspora. As a result, Ankara believes that the political leaders in Yerevan are more amenable to accommodations that will yield needed immediate and long-term economic benefits for the country that hold little or no value to the Dashnaktsutiun and the diasporan communities. The obvious danger is that Turkey can offer attractive inducements such as opening the border; joint rehabilitation of the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railroad; or, far- fetched as it may seem, the possibility of having Armenia serve as a transit state for the proposed Nabucco Gas Pipeline. These and other proposals would improve Ankara’s international image and serve to drive a wedge between Yerevan and the Dashnaktsutiun. These may appear to be highly unlikely concessions, but Turkey will do whatever it must if it precludes acknowledging the genocide or mutes its culpability which would, at the same time, marginalize their principal adversary that historically has been the Dashnaktsutiun. Ankara knows that the outright recognition sought by the Dashnaktsutiun opens up a Pandora’s Box of legitimate demands whose political, economic, and psychological costs defy calculating. As a counterweight to Ankara’s concern for Armenians to consider is the question: How would the majority of Turkish citizens respond if they understood the connection between recognition and the demands encompassed in Hai Tahd (the Armenian Cause)? Apologies, sympathies, and a willingness that their nation confront its past could well vanish into thin air. The same question applies to foreign governments that have supported recognition. Do these governments understand and would they continue to support Hai Tahd as the next logical step? That is an interesting question to ponder.

Genocide recognition is an issue that has easily appealed to the moral and emotional sensibilities of legislatures and individuals, especially Armenians. Over the years, we have unwittingly allowed genocide recognition to take on a life of its own. It has effectively become divorced from Hai Tahd in the minds of many Armenians, let alone foreign governments. Readers may believe this statement is heresy, but genocide recognition alone is not Hai Tahd. As a Dashnaktsutiun manifesto Hai Tahd encompasses Recognition. Hai Tahd encompasses Reparations. Hai Tahd encompasses Restitution. Hai Tahd encompasses Rectification of the boundary. In the nearly 100 years that genocide recognition has been at the forefront of our efforts, a cogent case linking the Medz Yeghern with the Armenian Cause: Recognition, Restitution, Reparations, and Rectification has not been adequately developed and properly disseminated to our people and to the world. Recognition of genocide divorced from Hai Tahd could well be a Pyrrhic victory.

Note: Caveat emptor is Latin for “Let the buyer beware.”

Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.


  1. لقد قرات تاريخ الدول التي تحت سيطرة الدولة العثمانية انذاك فقد ابادت الكثير من الطوائف . بالاتفاق مع الحركة الوهابية والسلفية , لتقوم الاخيرة بغزو الناس والمجتمعات بتغطية رهيبة يحتار لها العقل بدهاءها من العثمانيين .

    الدكتور ساجد شريف

  2. Thank you very much for laying out in a comprehensive way all the political elements around Armenian Genocide recognition, both the elements from outside the Armenian community and within it. It’s one thing to read the news on a daily basis about the current affairs affecting recognition, but the way you’ve put those daily news events into a story, including interpretations of their significance, should be a wonderful resource for our political leaders.

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