Sarkissian: The Pitfalls of a Historical Commission

By K.M. Greg Sarkissian

When reviewing the recently signed protocols regarding diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, given that settling the border is a sovereign right, that Armenia’s elected leaders have never stated they have territorial claims on Turkey, and that the Karabagh conflict is not explicitly part of the protocols, what remains for debate is the “sub-commission on the historical dimension.”

In the words of the protocols, the purpose of the sub-commission on the historical dimension is “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.”

It is precisely this mutual confidence that is in question. The purpose and meaning of this sub-commission continues to generate heated and divisive debate within both those countries and their respective diasporas.

There are several reasons for this debate, but one crucial aspect is the fact that since the announcement of the protocols at the end of August 2009, the presidents of the two countries have expressed diametrically opposing views on the meaning of this sub-commission.

On Oct. 3, in New York, Armenian President Serge Sarkisian explained to the assembled representatives of the Armenian Diaspora organizations that the commission is not to judge whether or not genocide took place, but rather “to discuss the issues of Armenian heritage in Turkey, issues of restoring and preserving that heritage, issues of heirs of victims of genocide.”(1)

However, Turkish President Abdullah Gul defines the sub-commission’s objective as one which will provide a historical judgment. On Oct. 6, in Istanbul, he stated: “There are all sorts of allegations about what happened a century ago. It is clear that people who do not know what happened where or how are not able to take decisions on this matter. What we hope is that historians, archive specialists study this matter and we are ready to accept the conclusions of this commission. To show that we are sincere, we even said that if a third country is interested in this matter, if French historians, for example, want to take part in this commission, they are welcome.”(2)

Given these contradicting interpretations, what would be the outcome if a commission were to proceed at this time?

There would be a direct and indirect chilling effect on third party governments and independent scholars, in addition to added obstructions to Armenian Diaspora organizations in their work for international recognition of the genocide. Some well-intentioned parties will genuinely believe in the guise of progress being made and become unwitting bystanders to denial. Countries that would prefer not to get entangled in the genocide issue would have the perfect excuse to say that recognition efforts are not necessary, as Armenia and Turkey are in negotiation.

In fact, we already have indications of this trend. Two Swedish newspapers, Metro and Svenska Dagbladet, no longer use the term “Armenian Genocide.” Metro’s editor-in-chief refuses to place any article in the newspaper about the so-called “Armenian Genocide” because he is “no longer sure if there was genocide or not.”(3) During a visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Spain pledged its support for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. “We are watching Turkey and its foreign policy with admiration, especially in relations with its neighbors,” sources quoted Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos as saying.(4)

Many observers believe that Turkey is using this commission as a ploy, to dissuade third parties, such as the U.S. and UK governments, from considering resolutions to recognize the genocide. The logic of this ploy was explicitly admitted by a Turkish member of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) in 2001.(5)

The reason for Turkey’s unshakeable denialist position is well explained by Taner Akcam. The foundation myths of the Turkish Republic are a deep and integral part of Turkish national identity; revealing the Armenian Genocide as a fundamental part of the formation of the republic would have devastating effects on the national psyche, as well as on the ability of the “Deep State” to maintain its power.(6) Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has been quoted as saying, “During its history, Turkey has never degraded itself to the vile cruelty of committing genocide. It’s out of the question for us to accept this.”(7)

Some have argued in favor of the sub-commission on the grounds that since the protocols state that Armenian, Turkish, as well as Swiss and other international experts will take part in it, and since Switzerland has already officially recognized the genocide, the conclusion of the commission will be favorable to the Armenians.

That argument fails to take into consideration that Turkey has ignored resolutions by 20 countries affirming the genocide and successfully manages to keep other countries from adopting them. The whole point of these recognitions and affirmations was to show Turkey that it stood alone and was out of step with the facts in denying the Armenian Genocide.

Turkey is a powerful country politically and militarily and has recently also become powerful economically, ranking 17th in the world. It uses these leverages skillfully in getting what it wants from other countries. When Israel, the UK, and the U.S. avoid recognizing the genocide, they do so not because of uncertainty about the historical facts—there is no serious dispute among scholars that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was genocide—they do so for political, military, and economic considerations, in short, realpolitik.

It seems that Armenia is now also willing to play this game. By putting the genocide on the table via a historical commission, in order to have political and economic relations with Turkey and to enhance its security, Armenia has sacrificed its only leverage—the incontestable truth. Now all countries will feel at still greater liberty to play the game of realpolitik regarding the genocide in whatever way they choose, because even Armenia does it.

In the short term, the Armenian government’s handling of the protocols has exacerbated political divisions within the Armenian community—especially within the diaspora, and between Armenia and parts of the diaspora. During the Soviet era, the relations of diaspora institutions with each other and with Armenia were conditioned along rivaling partisan lines, not even ideological lines. This situation continued in the early years of independence, but eventually more inclusive policies were developed to involve the diaspora in Armenia and integrate its relations on a pan-Armenian basis. It now seems that the protocols are once again polarizing the diaspora and its relations with Armenia. People are no longer debating the issues, but rather “whose side are you on?”

In the long term, Armenia has compromised the incontestability of the Armenian Genocide. Even if, for whatever reason, the Armenian Parliament does not ratify the protocols, the fact that the Armenian government agreed at one point to allow the Armenian Genocide to be open to debate can be used to further Turkey’s denial.

(1) “An Interview with Serge Sargsian,” Armenian Reporter, Oct. 3, 2009, p. 4.
(2) “Gul Invites Historians to ‘Study’ Genocide,” Asbarez, Oct. 6, 2009,, accessed Nov. 18, 2009.
(3) “Swedish newspapers call so-called ‘Armenian genocide’ into question,” Today.Az, Oct. 23, 2009,, accessed Nov. 18, 2009.
(4) “Spain pledges support for Turkey’s EU bid,” Today’s Zaman, Nov. 16, 2009,, accessed Nov. 18, 2009.
(5) California Courier Online Nov. 15, 2001, referencing Azeri newspaper 525-Gazet, July 19, 2001, quoted Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission member Ozdem Sanberk: “The main goal of our commission is to impede Armenian Genocide recognition initiatives put forth every year in the U.S. Congress and parliaments of Western countries for the ‘genocide issue’ and aimed at weakening Turkey… The significant matter for us is that the ‘genocide issue’ is not discussed by the American Congress any more. Because, as long as we continue the dialogue, the issue will not be brought to the Congress agenda. If it is not discussed in the Congress, we, being Turkey, will gain from that. The U.S. Congress will see that there is a channel of dialogue between Turks and Armenians and decide that ‘there is no necessity for the Congress to take such [a] decision while such a channel exists.’”
(6) See Taner Akcam, “The Armenian Genocide and the Silence of the Turks,” in Taner Akcam, Dialogue Across an International Divide: Essays towards a Turkish-Armenian Dialogue (Cambridge, MA and Toronto: Zoryan Institute, 2001), pp. 75-101.
(7) Turkish Weekly, May 18, 2001

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.