This essay is an analysis of the Turkish-Armenian protocol process in relation to the Armenian Genocide. I say “protocol process” because mere analysis of the protocols themselves cannot be meaningful. The protocols exist within a complex historical, cultural, political, and geopolitical context dominated by genocide and its aftermath. It is impossible to interpret accurately the meaning of particular elements of the protocols without reference to that context.
Before I offer my analysis, I must point out that there has emerged a certain conceptual muddle in recent self-declared “objective” or “rational” evaluations of the protocols. I am especially concerned by Asbed Kotchikian’s neutralist analysis and David Davidian’s claimed “rational” analysis, both of which dismiss much of the recent diasporan discourse on the protocols that challenges their value and legitimacy (Kotchikian, “The Armenian-Turkish Protocols and Public (Dis)Content,” Armenian Weekly On-line, October 4, 2009, and Davidian, “Turkish-Armenian Protocols: Reality and Irrationality,” Armenian Weekly On-line, October 1, 2009).
The conceptual muddle is this: Neutrality is not inherently objectivity and dispassion is not inherently rationality. In fact, neutrality itself is a position that can be biased or irrational, if the facts and logic call for taking a position one way or another on an issue. Furthermore, a person who chooses to advocate a position in strong terms is not by that fact automatically biased or irrational. Rationality—logic—is a form of thought in which reasons are given in support of a claim. Far from it being illogical to take a position on an issue, reasonable people have a moral responsibility to take positions if the facts and reason warrant doing so. The question of rationality is simply the question of whether one provides reasoning (facts and logical connection of the facts to the position advocated) to support one’s position. Unequivocal advocacy of a position, no matter how “all or nothing” (to quote Davidian), is not inherently irrational. A viewpoint is non-rational if it is not supported by logically connected reasons in support of the position or supported by facts that are not convincingly connected to the position advocated. A position is irrational if it contradicts or culpably ignores known evidence and the logical connections of that evidence to the question at hand. While of course there are irrational and biased individuals in any large group, overall, the numerous dissenting Armenian voices rejecting the protocols present rational arguments based on factual evidence for rejection. While one might challenge the logic and dispute the claimed facts, the fact that some rational people disagree with rejection of the protocols does not mean that those who reject them are irrational.
Perhaps with some dramatic irony, in his own thinking Davidian himself presents us with a very good example of irrationality. In the opening sections of his piece, he states that if Armenia chooses to reject international pressure to “discuss historical issues” (read: discuss whether a genocide happened) with Turkey, then the situation will be analogous to Slobodan Milosevic’s refusal to stop “ethnic cleansing” (does Davidian mean in 1995 in Bosnia or in 1999 in Kosovo?) because he believed (most genocide perpetrators, as contemporaneous genocide deniers, do) that the Serbs “didn’t start it.” Davidian points out that Serbs were bombed and were foolish not to yield to the pressure as Armenia appears poised to. Thus, Armenians today would be irrational not to cave to the international pressure being applied to them. But, an analogy is the presentation of a situation, argument, or event (1) that is emotionally, politically, culturally, etc., neutral for the author/speaker and/or his/her audience and (2) that has strong relevant structural similarities to a situation, argument, or event to which the author/speaker and/or audience have emotional, political, cultural, etc., connections to. The goal is to allow dispassionate analysis of the latter situation, in order to see things that proximity and emotion obscure. An analogy depends on the structural similarity between the things analogized. But Davidian is comparing (1) a post-genocidal victim state and society that have attempted to engage the international community, including Turkey, on the past genocide (though of course not in the way the perpetrator, committed to denial, would like) with (2) a perpetrator state actively engaged in an act of genocide and organized around pathological rationalization of that genocide despite legitimate international objection to and pressure against it. That Davidian finds it logically valid to liken the situation of the Armenian state and society today to Serbia at the time it was committing genocide does not call into question the rationality of Armenian resistance to pressure for the protocols but to Davidian’s own pretentions to logical analysis. When the issue is negotiation over the truth about a genocide, by definition the logical positioning of a state that is heir to a victim society cannot be analogous to the positioning of a perpetrator state. To suggest that Armenia would face military force for not signing the protocols in the way that Serbia faced bombing because it was participating in genocide makes no sense. Indeed, the real lesson regarding Serbia is that a state can do much more against international pressure than Armenia is doing—indeed, participate in a genocide for three years—without being subjected to any meaningful outside intervention for quite awhile, which is the opposite message from what Davidian suggests.
Let me qualify this somewhat. A victim state cannot be analogized to a perpetrator state in so far as the former is a victim state. If Armenia were to commit a genocide itself, then this would be the basis of an analogy between it and Serbia. In addition, if a particular individual or group within Armenia adopted a denialist position and agenda similar to that in Turkey, there could be some kind of analogy based on this as well. But this is not what Davidian is claiming.
Now to the analysis. It has become a truism that “denial is the final stage of genocide.” Greg Stanton, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, for instance, asserts this in his stage theory of genocide. But, as with many truisms, this one is false. That denial is present long after a genocide does not mean that denial is the final stage of a genocide. Denial is present at many stages of a genocide. With very few exceptions, denials are issued by perpetrators while they are committing genocide. Denials are typically offered immediately after a genocide to prevent accountability of individual perpetrators as well as the perpetrator society. One need only look at the court transcripts of trials of Rwanda or Bosnia Genocide perpetrators to confirm this. And, denials are offered in the long-term aftermath of a genocide to cover up the historical facts. The motives for this include such things as the desperate desire to preserve the legitimacy of an ideology and linked sense of group identity in the face of exposure of the genocidal nature of that ideology, the desire to prevent reparations in terms of land and/or wealth, and a sense of shame among members of the perpetrator society that is not coupled with a moral commitment to rectify the impact of the past. Given this, denial is dominant in the long-term aftermath of genocide, but it is an instrument for deeper goals.
The last stage of genocide is consolidation of the gains of the genocide. In this stage, the perpetrator group tries to establish the results of the genocide as the status quo, rather than a persisting violation requiring rectification. It uses denial as a tool, because if deniers convince enough people that a genocide did not happen or is doubtful, then these people will see the existing post-genocidal state of affairs as legitimate. They will see the small population of the victims, their political weakness, their cultural tenuousness, their relative poverty, and so forth as the natural result of an uneventful history. If a perpetrator society can effectively deny the past genocide, it will succeed in keeping what the direct perpetrators gained for it.
To the credit of Stanton and others who view denial as the last stage of genocide, it is typically the dominant activity of the perpetrators in the long-term aftermath of genocide. What is more, even when the possibility of material rectification is lessened, the perpetrators or their progeny typically aggressive seek to cover up even the knowledge of the genocide, to achieve full erasure of its victims and full validation of the perpetrators such that they do not even pay a moral price for the past. Such figures as Elie Wiesel and Israel Charny have commented on this attempted final conceptual erasure.
But, sometimes denial fails to change perceptions of history or at least to produce a stalemate in which the issue is viewed as a perpetual and irresolvable conflict between two parties over history, which is a victory for perpetrators in so far as they are allowed to keep the material, political, ideological, and cultural gains of the genocide for the foreseeable future. In such a case, denial has become ineffective, but consolidation is still the goal. The perpetrator state will seek to consolidate the gains of the genocide in question by some other means.
This is precisely what we are seeing with the new protocols. Denial has failed the Turkish state, and until April 2009 the pressure was mounting to deal with the legacy of the Armenian Genocide in a meaningful manner. That pressure had intensified especially over the past two years through the challenges posed by activists, journalists, and intellectuals inside Turkey after the Hrant Dink assassination shocked morally-grounded members of Turkish society with the genocidal anti-Armenianism that had previously been rationalized by their government or hidden from their view. The stage was set for the kind of real transformation in Turkey that can be the only path toward a genuine improvement in Armenian-Turkish relations.
The protocols are the last-ditch response by the Turkish government to protect and solidify the gains of the genocide. Through them, Turkey has gone from the brink of required justice to a potential victory deniers could only dream of three decades ago. What the protocols do is achieve agreement from the putative representative of the victim community that the perpetrator’s successor state and society will never have to give up the land gained through the genocide nor make any material restitution for the horrific suffering imposed on the victim community, which still reverberates today. What the protocols ensure is that the weak and poor Armenia produced by the genocide will become the permanent state of Armenians, while the increased power, prestige, land, wealth, and ideological security the Turkish state and society gained through genocide will remain its. In other words, the protocols finish the Armenian Genocide as successfully as the pro-genocidal segment of today’s Turkey ever could have hoped. The protocols are the last stage of the Armenian Genocide, the successful completion of the Armenian Genocide.
It is telling that an important element of the protocols is the reinsertion of denial of the Armenian Genocide as a credible position by agreement of the Armenian government itself. This is the meaning of the provision for a historical commission to study the mutual history of the two protocol partners. Denial is the official position of the Turkish government and clearly the starting position for their participation in such a commission. The fact that the protocols do not specify that the commission will consider the issue of “the Armenian Genocide” shows that Turkey wants to maintain this position. Given that its government and academic leaders know full well a genocide occurred, there is no reason Turkey would not just admit the genocide if it were not intent on maintaining denial. As Roger Smith, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and current chair of the Academic Board of Directors of the Zoryan Institute, states in his Sept. 30 letter to Armenian President Sarkisian, Turkey would even be bound by its own laws to reject a finding of genocide by this historical commission. Of course, it is unlikely that the commission’s membership will be constituted in such a way as to allow that result to emerge–we are sure to see Turkey insist on deniers as members of the commission. In this way, the denial campaign that has faltered and been widely discredited will be relegitimized within the process that has resulted from the denial’s failure in the first place. The irony is thick here.
For Armenians to acquiesce in this is not merely to betray the memories of those who died and those who survived. It is not merely to accept one of the great grand larcenies of history and the debilitating poverty that has resulted. It is to accept the permanence of the destruction of Armenian political, social, cultural, and economic life, rather than receive the rehabilitative rectification that world ethical and legal principles unequivocally recognize as the victims’ desperate need and right.
Davidian and others argue that Armenia and Armenians have no choice and should try to get what they can in the face of this inevitable destruction. But, if, as many in Armenia and outside have argued, Armenia’s survival depends on some rectification of the genocide that continues to impact it materially, geopolitically, etc., then acquiescing is dangerous self-delusion. It is yet another instance of Armenians in a desperate situation giving up and embracing a thoughtless, irrational faith that those who have done them great harm in the past and present will somehow suddenly change utterly and things will work out. It is the mentality of the beaten, the destroyed, the resigned. It is the mentality that Armenian Genocide survivors rejected despite the horrific suffering they experienced. Can we do less now?
Davidian claims that the geopolitical realities of Armenia’s existence preclude it “from engaging in zero sum inanity, such as demanding an all-or-nothing state of affairs.” The idea is that realism should replace ethical principle as the basis of Armenian decision-making. But, given the history with Turkey, given its clear intentions and absolute lack of repentance for the Armenian Genocide to the point where it cannot even recognize the genocide in the interest of negotiating better relations with Armenia, it would be truly “inane” to enter into an agreement that depends on Turkey working with Armenia in good faith. It is not just that it is wrong to trade recognition of the Armenian Genocide for some short-term economic benefit (which might prove illusory anyway); the trade cannot work by its very nature. The fact that the perpetrator successor state remains committed to denial of the genocide and thus to the acceptability of genocide as a tool against Armenians makes it impossible for it to enter a productive relationship with Armenia and Armenians. So long as the Turkish state and society remain unrepentant for the genocide, Armenians have no choice but to require an all-or-nothing state of affairs regarding the Armenian Genocide. It is Turkish denial and approval of genocide that forces Armenians into this position.
Contrary to Davidian’s assertion, such an all-or-nothing ethics-based approach that rejects coercion by the pressure of “interests” and power is anything but irrational. We need look no further than Plato’s Republic and Gorgias to see advocacy of ethical principle over realpolitik by a thinker universally recognized as one of the most rational in human history. Of course, those who understand how social movements really work, how they succeed, will recognize this all-or-nothing strategy as quite practical, and not only because the squeaky wheel gets the oil or because pressing such demands pushes the compromise point of the negotiation further toward the goals of that squeaky wheel. It wasn’t those who accepted segregation because it was backed by tremendous political, cultural, social, and military power whose view of race relations changed the United States; it was Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s all-or-nothing challenges. India was not freed from the British because Gandhi compromised with the British, but because he asserted an all-or-nothing requirement for independence and dignity. What is striking about these examples—and many others from history–is that these all-or-nothing demands came from positions of great material, political, and military weakness and yet still succeeded because of the moral strength of the position of the “weak” vis-a-vis the “strong.” Moral legitimacy is a great force in geopolitics and is the reliable ally of the weak, oppressed, and marginalized. It is the force that those committed to power politics, realpolitik, fear so desperately that they incessantly mock it as if whistling in the dark, ridiculing those who believe in it in the hope that they will stop believing and thus be tricked into giving up the most powerful tool of change. It is Armenia’s one advantage today, and the present leadership, through unhistorical, naive “realpolitical” calculations of the web of power and interests around them, are about to squander it.
Henry Theriault is a Professor of Philosophy at Worcester State College.