Erbal: Representation, Headache, and the Square Wheel

An Octuple Problem of Representation 147 Years After*

The Turkish edition of Vartan Artinian’s doctoral thesis, “A Study of the Historical Development of the Armenian Constitutional System in the Ottoman Empire, 1839-1863,” submitted to Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic studies department in 1970, starts with a preface written by Rober Koptas, now a columnist for Agos and one of the editors of Aras Publications. Koptas quotes an anecdote originally narrated by Hagop Djololyan Siruni in his Bolis yev Ir Teri (Constantinople and Its Role): “…The first year of National Constitution was being celebrated. It was a big day for Bolis Armenians. People were running from large neighborhoods to Beykoz with the boats they rented. The boats were stopping at Bosphorus, in front of the Dolmabahce Palace, and the passengers were shouting, ‘Long live Sultan!’”

“Your highness, please do not get excited or worried. I gave them a square wheel. They are going to try to turn this wheel, but they won’t be able to. This way they will clash with each other and leave us alone”

It is told that Sultan Abdulmecid, asleep at the time, had woken up because of the noise and had summoned Sadrazam Ali Pasha immediately to his presence. The Sultan asks furiously, “What is this noise? What are these boats?”

“Your highness, the Armenians are very happy about the constitution granted to them and they are going to Beykoz to celebrate.”

“Ali, what did you do? What did you give them? Don’t you know they will become a headache soon?”

“Your highness, please do not get excited or worried. I gave them a square wheel. They are going to try to turn this wheel, but they won’t be able to. This way they will clash with each other and leave us alone” (volume 3, p. 87, my translation from Koptas’ translation to Turkish).

Koptas begins his piece by arguing that despite the impossibility of establishing the veracity of the anecdote, this famous story nonetheless exemplifies how Armenians perceived the Armenian Constitution that was ratified by the Ottoman Empire in 1863 after numerous changes. That same legal document preceded the two Ottoman Constitutions, of 1876 and 1908, the failure of which would first give way to the 1909 Adana Massacres, then to the hijacking of parliament by the Ittihadists.

While the anecdote tells a lot about how the Armenians of Istanbul embraced their newly ratified constitutional framework, it also tells a great deal about the imperial mind and how it anticipates and operates—an imperial state tradition almost akin to a second nature that minorities everywhere have great difficulty reading, understanding, and hence strategizing accordingly.

The anecdote was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the text of the protocols between Turkey and Armenia.1 I could have also remembered the long 19th century of the Ottoman Empire and how that century was particularly emblematic of the Ottoman state elite’s periodic promises of institutional commitment on matters related to its non-Muslim subjects (citizens post-1908), followed by its periodic failures to keep its own promises. But the same century was also emblematic of an ever-growing Western Armenian quest for representation. This was a period in which the Armenian middle class and Armenian intellectuals in cities with large Armenian populations gained considerable ground against the centuries-old Amira [Armenian notables in Istanbul] domination in community and church affairs. The constitution was a result of not only a grassroots push for more representation in various community affairs, such as the management of schools, hospitals, and pious organizations, but also, to a certain extent, a result of inter-Amira competition especially between bankers and technocrats and their quest for regulation. But the decisive actors leading the movement for a written constitutional framework were the young intellectuals educated in European schools and equipped with liberal ideas on representation, delegation, and deliberation. The five years from 1855 to the final draft of 1860 would witness a fierce debate with intellectuals and guild members on one side, and powerful Amiras (such as Garabed Amira Balyan) trying to curtail their efforts for representation on the other.

As is hinted in the paragraph above, despite the fact that the National General Assembly2 would be suspended several times starting in 1860, the Ottoman Armenian Constitutional framework was the ultimate result of a long and legitimate struggle for representation, a now-forgotten achievement of a legal (and by extension also legalist) tradition among Western Armenians. There was also an organic connection between the Armenian Constitutional movement and Kanun-i Esasi of 1876, the Ottoman Imperial Constitution. Krikor Odyan, who was not only one of the closest friends but also the advisor of one of the architects of the Ottoman Constitution, Mithat Pasha; Vahan Efendi, the undersecretary of justice; and Hovhannes Chamich Efendi, a State Council member, were all members of the Ottoman constitutional commission. Although the Armenian Constitution was suspended for three years until 1866 because of the disputes between political and religious committees, there had been instances in the long history of the Armenian Church where Armenian religious authorities had welcomed civilian deliberation. For example, the Armenian Church decision (506 AD) to reject the Chalcedon Council (451 AD) bears the signatures of civilians as well as church leaders.3

With this backdrop in mind, the protocols between Armenia and Turkey were a grim reminder of another loss during the Armenian Genocide and grand expropriation in the years after 1915: the almost complete eradication and disappearance of a legal tradition that takes issues of representation and deliberation rather seriously. Re-reading parts of Vartan Artinian’s thesis, the single major question that comes to mind in the context of the protocols is: How did Western Armenians end up in this painfully pre-modern, pre-constitutional, and almost tribal mindset with no serious political thinking, discussion, or debate about legitimacy, representation, and delegation? The whole endeavor, both with its pro- and anti-protocol colors, could be the opening line of a popular joke: “A benevolent organization, a grassroots political organization, some political parties, and a state find themselves on a deserted island…”

True, these organizations and the Armenian state elite have some representative power in other issues. But to what extent they have power to represent Western Armenians in an issue that concerns all Western Armenians—notwithstanding whether they are affiliated with a party or a benevolent organization—is debatable, to say the least. Instead of debating the limits of their jurisdiction for representation, these organizations chose to hurry to take positions pro- or anti-protocol. The word on the street was that the Armenian state was pressured to take a position and several organizations reacted to that pressure; there were also, of course, rumors about the political-economy of the whole thing, that the oligarchic elite of both the Armenian state and the diaspora were rushing to close the deal to their benefit. It looked like this kind of ersatz representation was all Western Armenian organizations could come up with in 95 years, carelessly letting otherwise trivial protocols redefine their positions vis-à-vis each other while testing their organizational, representational, and deliberative muscle—which, we saw, amounted to nothing. The Sadrazam, under the auspices of the international order, gave them a square wheel of a different kind; and, voila, they could not turn the wheel and, as expected, started to fight with each other.

However, the discussion to be had was not whether a benevolent organization or a political party was pro- or anti-protocols; the real and much belated debate should have been one of a different order, a discussion about increasing the quality of political participation, cooperation, and several possibilities of a larger political representation via innovative and legitimate deliberative channels. After all, Ottoman Armenians did not only eat kebab and dance to kef music, they also happened to be the lawmakers of both their own immediate communities and of the Ottoman Imperial Constitution itself.

Surely genocide can explain certain issues, but there are others for which Western Armenians should take responsibility and think seriously, beyond partisan concerns, after a mere 95 years. Political partisanship and difference of opinion are good and indicative of the health of a community in general; however, there are issues that require utter care and responsibility, surpassing the boundaries of partisanship. After all, the differences are trivial compared to the size of the calamity itself, and the loss is too dear to be used in age-old partisan disputes. Despite the organizational difficulties that have also been pointed out by Armenian Weekly contributors Harut Sassounian4 and Henry Dumanian5, there’s still time to organize a better and much more democratic future both in the diaspora and Armenia proper if problems can be identified correctly.

From a theoretical point of view there are at least eight problematic areas of representation, some particularly Western Armenian in character, others directly stemming from the Armenian political experience in Armenia.

The most visible and most problematic area of representation is that concerning citizenship and the representative boundaries of the state of Armenia. There are two distinct but somehow intertwined issues that need attention, and they are wrongly perceived by most people, including the majority of Turkish intellectuals and journalists, as one problem: The rights of individual Western Armenians who are not, technically speaking, the citizens of Armenia, and the rights of Western Armenians as a community (concerning issues of communal ownership of several denominations).

To begin with, the state of Armenia does not have any jurisdiction whatsoever to represent the rights of individual non-citizen Western Armenians. Technically speaking, whatever it signs binds only its own citizens and nobody else. If anything, the aggregation of the rights of non-citizen Armenian individuals does not automatically make those rights national rights. Individuals’ claims in this domain, like in any other domain, are much closer to a larger class action rather than the action of a national entity as such. As we have seen from the recent Swedish decision once more, that class is larger and includes others such as Assyrians. There is also a major philosophical problem behind this reductionist perception of the individual imprisoning him/her to his/her ethnicity as in guilt by association. This perception itself is at the root of all crimes against humanity, which first happens in the mind of the perpetrator who is willing to reduce the multitude of individuals to an identity they are born into without their choice. Yes, the Armenian nation lost its churches, community centers, culture, and language; however, hypothetically speaking, nationless individuals who happened to be Armenians also lost property and lives. In the end, not being able to differentiate between individual and communal rights is tantamount to appropriating the mindset of the perpetrator who is willing to sacrifice the individuality of the person to his/her communal marker. These considerations should not remain as some esoteric philosophical discussion in one corner of a special issue of the Armenian Weekly, since killing the individuality of the weaker is what connects all acts of genocide to each other—anywhere from Namibia to Germany to Rwanda to Bosnia and Darfur. In other words, they not only killed Armenians or Jews per se, but millions of non-identical individuals with distinct rights who had myriads of other identifiers and millions of stories that should not have been reduced to their Armenianness or Jewishness, etc. Especially if one thinks about the official Turkish historiography regarding 1915 and how it is legitimized, one can further understand the problem with guilt by association and, in the case of the protocols, “reward” by association. Accordingly, the Turkish elite had to deport Western Armenians because some Western but mostly Eastern Armenians joined Russian forces against the Ottoman Empire. So Western Armenians were “legitimately” punished because of the actions of the Eastern Armenians. The protocols bear the rather dangerous seeds of a similar tribalizing of Armenians beyond their control. Perhaps not as visible and not on paper, but nevertheless in the speeches of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the process is marred with the same mistake from the Turkish side, which treats citizens of Azerbaijan and citizens of Turkey as one political unit.

In the case of communal rights, on the other hand, if the majority of Western Armenians are willing to delegate (or withhold) their communal rights to/from the state of Armenia, then they must do so not through illegal and ex-post facto fait-accomplis, as we saw between Aug. 31 and Oct. 10, 2009, but through a carefully designed legal framework following proper rules of democratic deliberation, if indeed such communal rights can ever be delegated. If anything, these extremely amateurish six weeks were tainted with this and other problems of representation during which all parties touted, first and foremost, for lawlessness in what looked like a badly staged mock deliberation. As one can clearly see by now, being pro- or anti-protocols is not so much the central issue compared to the problem of representation that parties involved should honestly and seriously (I can’t emphasize both enough) think about.

The second problem of representation concerns the jurisdiction of individual diaspora organizations and their representative boundaries. Are political parties, churches, and organizations as distinct as the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the Armenian National Committee of America, the Armenian Assembly of America, and the Knights and Daughters of Vartan entitled to represent the rights of individual Armenians in this particular matter? Where, if anywhere, in their foundational or subsequent documents does it say they can act as councils delegating (withholding) the rights of non-citizen Western Armenian individuals to the state of Armenia? Who gave them the authority to do so? To begin with, there were no large pre-protocols town-hall meetings that engaged all segments of the Armenian communities. Instead of being illegitimate parties to a fait-accompli, these organizations’ first priority should have been to provide and enable a transparent, deliberative environment in which concerned individuals could get non-partisan information (a huge task) about what the protocols are and what kind of representative options they had at hand (they had none at the time, and have none still). And even if they had conducted such meetings, the issue of legitimate representation would still be hanging in the air, since there is no overall framework defining these organizations and parties as representatives of individual Armenians in this particular matter. When and how did Armenians as individuals delegate their rights to these organizations and parties? What is the legal basis of their authority other than the calcified structures that the elite everywhere confuse with legitimate representation?

The same thing is true for communal rights, although to a certain extent it’s understandable how the churches can claim representative rights in matters concerning the fate of communal property (such as the churches in Anatolia); even then, there are several issues (different denominations, for example, or the issue of civilian rights in matters concerning communal property) that need to be discussed in a proper framework.

The third problem of representation has to do with how much the elites of these organizations represent their constituencies in any given matter, at any point in time. Apart from the issue of jurisdiction above, the organizations and parties did not follow the rules of deliberation even for their own constituencies. There was a big gap between the reaction of the grassroots of the organizations, and the elites running the organizations. Even if the elite knew better, they still had to justify their decisions to the people they supposedly represent. Instead, they chose to stamp and hijack the process, much like the Amiras and Hodjas of the 18th and 19th century. One way of honoring the dead and the lost, which is at the center of all things Turkish-Armenian, could have been learning from their experience. That experience was the culmination of several centuries of serious thinking and writing about representation.

There was some discussion about the fourth problem of representation, which has to do with the legitimacy of the 2008 presidential elections in Armenia and how representative the Armenian state elite is of its own citizens. This dimension of legitimacy and representation was problematized on and off in the writings and speeches of Raffi Hovhanessian, Vartan Oskanian, Levon Ter Petrossian and, albeit very late (as argued by Henry Dumanian6), within some Dashnak quarters as well. Overall, diaspora organizations were also criticized for not being as interested in the health of the electoral process in Armenia and its outcome as much as they were interested in the protocols. This was a misplaced criticism because the issue of citizenship (elections) is a matter of political choice, whereas the issue of being a survivor is not a political choice. One can choose to become a citizen of Armenia in order to have a say in the politics of Armenia, but individual survivors, regardless of which country’s citizen they are, have a say in any process involving Turkey without necessarily becoming involved in any political process in Armenia.

Diaspora organizations’ or individuals’ investment in Armenia does not automatically grant them the right to meddle in Armenia’s domestic affairs unless they also are citizens of Armenia. They, of course, can choose to invest in a direction to enhance the democratization of the institutions in Armenia; however, this is all they can do without a political commitment to a national political order.

The fifth problem of representation has to do with the status of Nagorno-Karabagh and the disputed territories, and the role of Stepanakert in matters that concern its people’s borders, security, and right to self-determination. This is the least clear of all issues of representation, more visible since the Madrid principles. To what extent the “self” in “self-determination” represents Karabagh’s self, to what extent it is the state of Armenia’s self, is up for debate.

The sixth problem of representation concerns the representation of churches other than Apostolic denominations in the process since, historically speaking, they also have a right to be part of any negotiation—something that is often overlooked and forgotten in the process.

The seventh problem of representation has to do with the patriarchal and generally archaic character of Armenian political and benevolent organizations, all of them predominantly governed by heterosexual men. This issue is perhaps not unique to Armenian organizations, and may be prevalent in all traditional settings in which the overwhelming presence of the church as a representative institution makes it all the more difficult for others to be represented equally. However, in an ever-changing and dynamic world, the legitimacy of these organizations will depend more on their ability to embrace all previously underrepresented constituencies instead of clinging to a traditional understanding of patriarchal politics.

The eighth problem of representation concerns the Istanbul Armenians since, theoretically speaking, a good number of Armenian churches of Apostolic denomination within the borders of Turkey are under their jurisdiction, and any retributive justice including matters of church and other monuments’ renovation would require their input. In addition to this, who should represent the Istanbul Armenians or whether they should also have a civilian representative body has been a stand-alone divisive issue for the last five years. The current status of Armenian citizens of Turkey is determined by the Lausanne Treaty, which recognizes them as a religious community with the Patriarchate being in charge of matters concerning the community. The problem of Istanbul-Armenians’ representation is further exacerbated by what was supposed to be the election of a co-patriarch. The process has been stalled for almost four and a half months now, while the community awaits the approval of the Ministry of Interior. What should have been an otherwise procedural decision of the Ministry of Interior has been derailed because of the rather arbitrary decision of the co-patriarch election committee to disregard the framework of the 1863 Armenian National Constitution. Even if one party were willing to disregard a legal precedent or a framework partially or totally, that party needs to follow due process rather than hi-jack the discussion with a quasi coup d’état or try to score points with fait-accomplis. It looks like touting for lawlessness has become the current “national” marker of all Diaspora Armenians from the United States to Turkey. This kind of coup d’état mentality, an utter contempt for any due process, and a dangerous penchant for arbitrariness are perhaps the few things the Turkish and Armenian elite can claim brotherhood around, since the Turkish side of the equation is also heavily marred by several domestic faux-pas concerning the procedural aspect of Ergenekon and sub-Ergenekon plots, in addition to a very arbitrary judicial process coupled with an extremely problematic and equally arbitrary process of changing the constitution—a major legal-institutional residue of the 1980 coup d’état.

Perhaps it’s time for all parties to the protocols to better understand their at-times common history in the last 100 years of the empire. Although what followed led to the annihilation of Western Armenians from their ancestral territories, those 100 years were also years emblematic of a crucial political process taking issues of representation, legitimacy, and deliberation seriously.


* I thank Marc Mamigonian and Aram Arkun for their comments and suggestions.

1. The second thing was the now-defunct Oslo Peace Process which resulted in the Second Intifada; the third was the entire record of the British Mandate in Palestine, particularly its purposefully murky and vague documents, and the imperial institutional design that was also reflected in the linguistic vagueness of the documents themselves.

2. The name of the assembly was not consistent in its Armenian and Ottoman Turkish versions. For example, in the Armenian version it was Azkayin Inthanur Joghov (National General Assembly), which became Meclis-I Umumi (General Assembly without any “national” qualifier) in Ottoman (see Artinian, Vartan, Osmanli Devleti’nde Ermeni Anayasasi’nin Dogusu (Istanbul: Aras Publishing, 2004, p.117); “A Study of the Historical Development of the Armenian Constitutional System in the Ottoman Empire, 1839-1863” (trans. Zulal Kilic, ed. Rober Koptas)).

3. Yumul, Arus, “Ottoman Empire’s Constitution,” reprinted in Osmanli Devleti’nde Ermeni Anayasasi’nin Dogusu 1839-1863 (ed. Rober Koptas) (Istanbul: Aras Yayincilik, 2004, p. 165).

4. Sassounian, Harut. “Proposal to Create a Framework that Unites Diaspora Armenians,” the Armenian Weekly, Feb. 23, 2010.

5. Dumanian, Henry. “Readers’ Comment on Harout Sassounian’s ‘Proposal to Create a Framework that Unites Diaspora Armenians,’” the Armenian Weekly, Feb. 23, 2010.

6. Dumanian, Henry, “Dumanian to Aprahamian and Yekikian: The Diaspora Should Stop Kidding Itself,” the Armenian Weekly, Jan. 12, 2010.

Ayda Erbal

Ayda Erbal

Ayda Erbal is writing her dissertation in the department of politics at New York University. She teaches two advanced undergraduate classes, “International Politics of the Middle East” and “Democracy and Dictatorship,” as adjunct professor of politics. Her work focuses on the politics of changing historiographies in Turkey and Israel. She is interested in democratic theory, democratic deliberation, the politics of “post-nationalist” historiographies in transitional settings, and the politics of apology. She is a published short-story writer and worked as a columnist for the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos from 2000-03.
Ayda Erbal

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