Earlier this month, we posted on the Armenian Weekly website a document compiled by Khatchig Mouradian presenting the opinions of Diaspora Armenian scholars on the historical commision. Below are comments by three scholars whose opinions were not included in the original online document because we received them after the deadline. They have now been added to the original document and are also included in the print version of the document, which appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of the Weekly.
Astourian: Politicians cannot shape historical interpretations
Dr. Stephan Astourian, the executive director of the Armenian Studies Program at UC Berkeley, wrote:
The protocols on the development of relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey states that the parties agree to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.”
Even though the word “genocide” is not mentioned, it is difficult to envision some other issue that would require “an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives.”
This formulation suggests that an “impartial” study is needed “to define” the problems. Over the past decade, however, the Armenian Genocide has been investigated quite thoroughly to such a point that it can now be said that denialists have lost their battle in higher academia even in the U.S., the country where they were the most influential. As for “the historical records and archives,” access to the Ottoman Interior Ministry archives is still restricted and access to the Ottoman military archives in Ankara is still closed 94 years after the Armenian Genocide. It is unclear why?
Whatever intentions motivated the agreement on the formation of such a commission, which is a decade-old Turkish precondition to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia, it is unlikely that a consensus might emerge from it since reference to the Armenian Genocide in Turkey is still implicitly punishable under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code.
A certain “historian” and “Turcologist” from Armenia is reported to have stated a few days ago that “historians have no right to make political decisions.” He is right. For some reason, he did not add that politicians cannot shape historical interpretations. Whatever conclusions this commission may reach and whatever “recommendations” it may make—to whom?—it is free historical inquiry that will “define” the nature of the “historical dimension.” In this regard, impartial historians, many of whom are not Armenians, have already reached a conclusion.
Marashlian: Accepting commission is like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
Dr. Levon Marashlian, professor of history at Glendale Community College, wrote:
The dangers of the sub-commission on the “historical dimension” are so obvious that it is difficult to understand why so many supporters of the Armenian-Turkish protocols do not see them. Some Armenians who support the sub-commission do acknowledge the risks, but they also see the possible benefits; some say it will provide an opportunity to discuss consequences of the genocide, others say it may encourage more open debate within Turkey, while others say it may eventually lead Turkey closer to recognition. Supporters do not seem to realize that the chances of benefiting from these possibilities pale in comparison to the probability of suffering the damage caused by the dangers.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian emphatically declared “No, and once again, no,” to accusations that “we are calling into question the fact of the Armenian Genocide, that we are obstructing the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.” Nalbandian and other defenders of the sub-commission do not see that the Armenian government’s willing participation in “an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives,” during which the other side will call into question the fact of the genocide, will create a misleading impression that will be skillfully manipulated.
One of the consequences will be that when independent scholars and diasporan organizations continue their work for genocide education and international recognition, it will become harder because the Turkish government and some third parties, armed with or misled by the appearance of progress being made, will have the excuse to say that recognition efforts are not necessary for now, since Yerevan is already talking directly to Ankara about resolving the issue. This has already happened, as when President Obama referenced the Ankara-Yerevan talks to justify reneging on his promise last April.
During meetings of the sub-commission, meanwhile, historians and other experts chosen by Yerevan will want to discuss the consequences of the genocide and will try to reject efforts by the “Turkish side” to engage in denial. And if a debate does take place, the “Armenian side” will probably prevail inside the meeting room. Nevertheless, the process can still be a victory for Turkey outside the room—so long as the process continues—because Turkey’s central objective is not to reach a consensus that it was not a genocide, but simply to further distort and delay, to hinder the pursuit of international recognition as we near the year 2015. Turkey will try, but may not expect to “win” the academic argument in the sub-commission. And eventually Turkey might pay a little price in terms of public relations if its true intentions are exposed. Still, Turkey will have succeeded in obstructing—maybe for years—the increasingly successful momentum generated by decades of dedication, sacrifice, sound scholarship, and public advocacy.
Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand’s CNN TURK interview in 2005 with Yusuf Halacoglu, the then-president of the Turkish Historical Society, reflected the extent to which this momentum has been succeeding. Birand, sometimes agitated during the discussion, exclaimed that although academic work on “the Armenian Question” should continue, the time has come to take “political steps, to make gestures, to shock.” Halacoglu agreed: “We are not going to change international opinion regarding Armenian Genocide claims only by publishing documents and books. It is necessary to take more serious political steps, for example, by establishing a research commission in the United States, by taking steps that will create a shock.” Halacoglu added that the approach Turkey has been using has not worked, and “if things continue this way, in the end we will lose.”
Two months later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian suggesting the establishment of a commission of historians. This “gesture” by Turkey confirmed that the writing of truthful history by Armenian, Turkish, American, Jewish, and other historians, along with the diaspora’s advocacy of recognition, was making impressive advances. In this context, with Turkey’s back against the wall, the recommendation to form a commission was a decision by an almost-desperate government to stall those advances, with a clever trap. And President Serge Sarkisian has walked right into it.
Arissian: Reparations commission instead
Dr. Nora Arissian, the author of The Armenian Genocide in the Syrian Press, wrote:
When Armenia agrees to “Implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives,” then both sides will have to “define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” Here, it won’t be equal, because the Turks have different problems and the Armenians have other, different problems. So, together they will not be able to “formulate recommendations” accepted from both sides.
Will Turkey accept the recommendations formulated by the Armenian historians? Worst-case scenario, the sub-commission may find that it is better to accept the Turkish arguments and documents. Then, will everyone agree to rewrite the history during World War I? And in the future, will historians accept the results of this commission?
Having personally had a modest experience in documenting work concerning the Arabic sources on the Armenian Genocide, and considering the huge documentary research on the archives in several countries, I assume that “Examining historical records and archives” means that all examinations and studies accomplished until now by Armenian and non-Armenian historians and scholars were in vain and will not be taken into consideration.
Clearly, the Armenian side in the commission will have problems in defending genocide matters after the opening of the border and the establishment diplomatic relations.
With this sub-commission, Armenians will move from the “economic benefit” expectation to historical loss. Without forgetting that in some way, it may be a loss for the Turkish side also.
Already, the announcement of the signing of the protocols brought a big wave of articles and analyses that tried to convince the reader that finally the Armenians had agreed to reconcile, that finally Armenia had signed a document to accept peace. In the meantime, operating a sub-commission to examine historical records and archives can lead the international community to discourage any research or resolution that leads to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Instead of that commission, Turkey should operate a “reparation commission” after first recognizing the Armenian Genocide.