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.