Kotchikian: A Post-Protocol Armenian World: The Challenge of Finding a New Raison D’Etre

The deed is done and all the demonstrations, objections, and insults directed against the government of Armenia fell on deaf ears. The governments of Armenia and Turkey signed the protocols normalizing the relations between them. This raises the question, what now?

This opinion piece is an attempt to raise questions related to the aftermath of the protocols and offer some interpretations. However, before embarking into the analysis, some observations need to be made about the discourse and rhetoric used to analyze this specific topic over the last month or so.

In previous pieces and public appearances, this author never claimed that the opinions he expressed are objective or neutral. The fact that one’s opinions is shaped by, and is a manifestation of, one’s personal background makes it impossible to argue anything objectively. That being said, not taking strong sides for or against a topic does not make a person neutral, nor does it make that person defeatist. The problem with discussing an issue as important and existential as Turkish-Armenian relations is that more often than not, all the fields of scientific study (be they political science, economics, sociology, or philosophy) are appropriated to serve a goal, which is to argue strongly for or against the issue; and if one does not express enough vigor in any of those cases, then one is labeled “neutral,” a “sell-out,” “spineless,” or in extreme cases a “traitor” and “un-Armenian.”

These observations lead one to conclude that while objectivity is absent in this topic in general, an overall rhetoric of dividing the issue along black or white lines emerges without the possibility of developing a common ground for dialogue. This in turn gives rise to a moral absolutism where not taking a certain side would automatically categorize a person as being on the “wrong” side of the fence. What complicates the issue more is the fact that the level of the discussion is more often than not hijacked by individuals who might not have the training or the ability to see beyond the rhetoric, thus lowering the debate to a shouting match level. What I refer to in this case are individuals who do not have any academic training (and more often than not despise academics) or lack the ability to see issues from a larger perspective, rather choosing to engage in an analysis from a very narrow point of view.

The paragraph above does not in any way challenge or question the validity of historic realities, nor does it undermine the importance of those realities in shaping the current discourse; rather it aims at highlighting another reality, one where people are unable and unwilling to accept an alternative explanation of issues.

Before falling into the trap of challenging individuals rather than ideas (the most common problem in recent weeks), let us return to the issue at hand. One of the key challenges in analyzing and evaluating the protocols is the lack of information. The problem with analyzing any current event is that while the people involved are not allowed to discuss them publicly, those who can actually talk about it do not have all the necessary information and can base their arguments solely on what is available for analysis in the public domain. This again does not imply that one cannot engage in a relatively knowledgeable argument about the protocols; rather it means that deals signed between countries always have a subtext. A clear example would be the causality that one observes between the United States shelving its missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic (to the delight of Moscow), and not two weeks after that Russia supporting the U.S. endeavors to pass a tough resolution in the UN against Iran’s a
ttempts to develop nuclear energy. While the U.S. decision to remove the missile shield projects did not include any direct negotiations (at least not a public one) with Russia, the relation between that decision and the sudden change in Russia’s policy vis-à-vis Iran clearly shows a correlation.

So what are some of the subtexts of the signing of the protocols and what will the impact be on the way the Armenian Diaspora and Armenia approach a pivotal issue such as the Armenian Genocide? The impact that the signing of the protocols could have on the way the genocide is dealt with is tremendous. Rather than focusing on the negative impact (which has been the sole focus so far), below is one opinion that tries to provide a rather positive approach to view the future of genocide recognition.

The diaspora’s attempt in the last 40 years to have international recognition of the genocide is outdated and the signing of the protocols could actually be the push necessary for Armenians, in general, and for the diaspora, specifically, to find alternative ways to pursue the same goal. One reason to advocate for a change of strategy is the observation that even those countries that have acknowledged the genocide, either at legislative or executive levels, have not altered their behavior in any significant way vis-à-vis Turkey. As for one alternative way in dealing with Turkey, one specific approach would be to find ways to engage Turkish society directly either through civil society movements or through establishing people to people diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey.

Another issue that could appear on the Armenian side is the realization that the nation’s interest and the state’s interest could be different; this in turn might make the diaspora realize that it needs to renegotiate its identity vis-à-vis Armenia and look beyond the rhetoric of “one nation, one people.” This statement does not imply, implicitly or explicitly, that the genocide is not important for people in Armenia; rather it argues that the needs (emotional, physical, or otherwise) of a collective living on a piece of land known as Armenia are not similar to those living in the United States, the Middle East, or Europe.

Next in line for the Armenian side should be focusing on strengthening civil society within Armenia and developing mechanisms that allow the leadership to reflect and be accountable to the public—rather than have cases where corrupt elections lead to corrupt governments, which in turn are easily influenced by pressure from the outside as they do not have the support of their own citizens. Had the anger and criticism directed against President Sarkisian manifested itself over a year ago, in the aftermath of the hotly disputed elections, he might not have been in any position to take Armenia in a direction where he antagonized the state’s and the nation’s interests.

Finally, since there are no reliable measurements to quantify the percentage of the people who are for or against the protocols, it becomes redundant to use terms such as the “majority of Armenians oppose the agreement” or “only a small group of the diaspora supports the protocols.” The usage of such phrases is completely inaccurate and serves only PR purposes. The fact remains that no one knows what the majority of Armenians or the diaspora think, no one even knows who the majority of Armenians in Armenia elected as their president a year ago!

A new page has opened in Armenian-Turkish relations, but it is far too early to qualify it as positive or negative. There are far too many variables to consider and the protocols might just have been an international publicity stunt by the Minsk Group to divert attention from the Nagorno-Karabagh negotiations, or it could have been a byproduct of recent increased Russia-U.S. rapprochement.

Asbed Kotchikian is a professor of political science at Bentley University’s Global Studies Department.

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Asbed Kotchikian

Asbed Kotchikian is a lecturer in political science and international relations at Bentley University. His area of research includes the foreign policies of small states; the modern political history of the post-Soviet South Caucasus; and issues of national identity.

11 Comments

  1. A thoughtful discussion that has as one point the downside of a binary conception of the issue. A binary issue conception that villifies the nonconforming views leaves little opportunity to forge a common and united position. It is also the case in some instances of absolutist views that they proceed from invalid assumptions. An example, in these discussions I have read variations of the claim that signing of the protocols is the end of the Armenian people. Of course any argument that proceeds from that assumption casts anyone supporting the protocols as a traitor and enemy.  Unnecessary divisiveness driven by a obviously false premise.  The Armenian culture and identity has proven itself very hardy and claims of doom are a bit extended.
    Thanks Mr. Kotchikian for some well needed perspective.

  2. Right, Poghos, right…. care to actually ground your claim? (and didn’t the author debunk the notion of ‘objectivity’ right up front?) Typical nationalist, knee-jerk, emotional reaction devoid of any analysis or thought whatsoever.

  3. poghos’s comment is exactly what the first part of the article is trying to argue. alas any side which doesn’t agree with an issue blames it to be “subjective” “false” and “Academic” (the last one being the most common insult for those who have inferiority complexes when it comes to academic. the author never claims to be objective nor is there a claim for being academicin this piece. the level of vulgarity and incivility in this whole discussion is simply mind boggling and suffocating.

  4. A well written piece.  The author lays out the key issues, while difficult to do – I would recommend ignoring the nationalist/populist provocateurs such as Poghos. Finding themsleves in a Brave New post-Protocol world, they express their fear and anxiety through personal attacks on anyone who challenges their old ideas. 

  5. Well said: “this in turn might make the diaspora realize that it needs to renegotiate its identity vis-à-vis Armenia and look beyond the rhetoric of “one nation, one people.””

  6. The author said this:

    “This statement does not imply, implicitly or explicitly, that the genocide is not important for people in Armenia; rather it argues that the needs (emotional, physical, or otherwise) of a collective living on a piece of land known as Armenia are not similar to those living in the United States, the Middle East, or Europe.”

    Contrary to the implication of the above statement, the genocide is actually more important from a practical standpoint for Armenia than the Diaspora.  Witness the Russian soldiers on the Turkish Armenian border.   Aside from those troops’ being a projection of Russian power for Russia’s sake, did Armenia agree to have them stationed there because Armenia is under no threat from Turkey?  No, the reason must be that Armenia itself perceives a real threat.   Probably a genocidal one. The threat was there going way back to even before the 1915 Genocide as Turkey made repeated thrusts to the east.

    In an issue of the Gomidas Institute’s now defunct Armenian Forum, Simon Payaslian, Nicolas Tavitian and Khatchig Der Ghoukassian made pleas for why genocide recognition is important to Armenia.  I will not comment on those articles.

    I will simply say that those who think that the genocide is a fixation only of the diaspora – and that is what is implied above  despite the disclaimer – would do well to remember the 1965 marches in Yerevan, and Armenians’ calling Azeris “Turks” during the Karabagh conflict.   If Karabagh perceived a threat of annihilation from the “new” Azerbaijan, is it unreasonable that Armenia might recall the genocide as an important threat from the “new” Turkey?

    There have been many things written about why the Genocide and reparations and land issues are important, even if unobtainable now, for Armenia, but those who disparage the genocide issue tend to not read or heed them — even Armenian American academicians who have come to seemingly own – or think they own – the platform when it comes to speaking out on Armenian political issues. 

    There is an undercurrent of feeling by some that ‘if we pursue the Genocide issue, Turks may be even more inclined to commit genocide again; therefore, caution, even passivity, is in order when it comes to the Genocide.’  If the author does not believe that is the proper attitude, please tell us why.
    I would also like to know if the author thinks that a joint genocide commission is a good idea, especially one on which Turkish deniers sit alongside Armenians.   Is this a good type of jury? 

    Does this joint commission indicate that the current Armenian government knows how to negotiate when even the IAGS and Zoryan think the idea is absurd?

  7. Dear Paultor,

    The article never argues that the Genocide issue is not important for Armenia, rather Armenians in Armenia do not go on talking about it on a regular basis as the diasporans do. your argument about the practically of the Genocide issue from Armenia’s perspective is a valid one.

    couple of corrections though. I have spent some time examining the reasons why Armenians equate Azeris  with Turks and in numerous conversations with individuals and specialists on the field, the overwhelming response has been that they do make a distinction between an Azeri and a Turk however because of language similarities in popular culture the two are equated. 

    I do not subscribe to the point o f view that if one doesn’t talk about the Genocide the Turks would be less inclined to commit a Genocide, rather I argue that genocide recognition through 3rd parties has so far not yield results hence this protocol might provide an opportunity to change gear and take the Genocide recognition to the next level and that is among the Turkish society. most of the people at the protocol signing ceremony represent countries which had recognize the Genocide as some level yet did they change their policy towards Turkey?

    as far as the whole issue of the joint sub-commission, the protocols are vague about it. they don’t say if it’s going to be a sub-commission to examine whether or not the Genocide happened, or if it’s going to be a group to categorize the archives or to organize conferences or some other thing. if the sub-commission is meant to examine whether or not the genocide happened than my answer would be an absolute no for such a group, but with the current wording I don’t see it as being a threat or a challenge about the validity of the Genocide.

    the bottom line is that if the Armenian government has been shortsighted in pursuing their foreign policy, the Diaspora has been even more unprepared and living in la la land for a) not being prepared for this inevitability(the first signs of which were obvious even back in 1993-94) and b)continuing a policy which did not yield in results comparable ot the energy that was pored into it.

    kind regards.

  8. Dear Asbed:

    I believe that Diasporan efforts to have Turkey and 3rd countries and organizations recognize the genocide *have* been extremely  successful, though n0t 100% or even 90%.  Maybe 65%.    Has it been worth the energy?  Yes.  And, please, not all our energy has gone into the genocide issue.  The Diaspora has also functioned relatively well in keeping its culture alive – church, media, social, cultural, and political organization – though of course rates of assimilation are high and must also be managed.   We can look at the present state of  things as half empty or half full.  Yes, in some ways we have failed to advance as much as we could, or even backslid.

    The Armenian Cause, which has genocide acknowledgment as but one part, has been kept alive for decades and longer.   It is truly remarkable, Asbed, for a small ethnic group to have kept such a thing active and relevant for so long.   Armenians have brought the genocide to the world’s attention.  

    Turkey has been battered and put on the defensive.   100% successful?  No.  Has the Kurdish insurrection succeeded?  No.  Does that mean Kurds should end their multi-pronged efforts?  No.

    Turkey has not acknowledged the genocide?   No problem.   And who cares?  Acknowledgement in and of itself has never been the goal.   That is something we must educate our own people about.

    We just keep hitting away.   To what end?  The end is justice -getting what measure of justice we can.

    Asbed, no political cause of such huge dimensions can be said to have completely succeeded.   To the extent that a cause succeeds, it simply brings new challenges anyway.

    Can we do better?  Yes.   Do we need new, innovative strategies?   Yes.  So does Armenia.  So
    does Turkey.  So do all political causes and countries.

    You said this:  “Armenians in Armenia do not go on talking about it on a regular basis as the diasporans do.”    Even if true, big deal.   Maybe Hayastan *should* talk more about it.   Or maybe Hayastanstis don’t know enough about it as their schools are in  lousy shape,  and they did not learn about it enough during the Soviet era since nationalistic education was largely prohibited. 

    I know a Hayastanstsi woman who came over here and thought that a local Armenian Apostolic church at which she volunteered was “Catholic” !   She put down on her poorly written resume that  she had volunteered at a Catholic church!  Luckily I corrected that  and more.  These people are simply lacking a proper education. They think that because they grew up in Armenia, then they know everything there is to know about Armenians.   Not so.

    And maybe since Hayastanstis are poor they are more concerned with food, housing, and education.  

    I know that Armenian liberals think that Turkey has “changed ” since it has not committed massacres against Armenians lately.   That’s because there are hardly any Armeniana left in Turkey anymore. 

    But the Cypriots and Kurds have been massacred lately.  Forget about that?    Oops.  Well, every country massacres people once in a while, huh?

    What would be the condition of Armenians in eastern Turkey today, Asbed, if there had been no genocide?  They’d be massacred and deported  in a flash if they dared to criticize the Turkish government or, God forbid, revolted like the Kurds have.    What I call Armenian “liberals” ignore the realities and wish to project modernity on a country that does not deserve it.

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