Special for the Armenian Weekly
One of the most persistent lies associated with the Armenian Genocide is the notion that Armenians were killed because of their desire to break away from the Ottoman Empire. Not only denialists but many mainstream commentators claim that the motivating factor behind the “relocations” and systematic massacres was Armenian aspirations for statehood.
We saw this fallacy repeated in much of the coverage during the 100th anniversary. Even when recognizing the facts of the genocide, journalists parrot the claim that Armenians “demanded national independence” and that this “proved to be deadly,” or that “Armenian radicals were threatening to side with Russia.”
The reality is that Armenians never called for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Quite the opposite. What they were calling for was democracy and constitutionalism.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the leading political entity in the Armenian world at the time, officially pushed for federalism in the Ottoman Empire. They supported the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 to usher in constitutional reform and equality among all nationalities. Their demands dealt with decentralization, parliamentarianism, universal suffrage, land reform, ethnic solidarity, and so on—not independence. Indeed, independence did not even enter the ARF platform until 1920, 2 years after the First Republic of Armenia was already established.
It was exactly because the Armenian leadership was the most fervent supporter of constitutionalism and equality within the Ottoman Empire that it became a target. The main aim of the genocide was to wipe out genuine democracy and centralize power, not counter so-called Armenian separatism.
A century later, the main issue in Turkey remains constitutional reform and freedom. Like his Armenian brethren before him, Hrant Dink was brutally gunned down in Istanbul on Jan. 19, 2007, simply for calling for what the ARF used to: equality and democracy. As such, the “1.5 million + 1” slogan that appeared after Dink’s death is very fitting. The genocide and its motivations continue unabated in Turkey as long as it does not acknowledge and atone for its crime.
Also like the Armenians before them, today it is the Kurds in Turkey who are championing the cause of popular democracy, constitutional reform, and decentralization. Like the Armenians before them, too, they are falsely being smeared as “separatists.” The similarities between the two minorities—and the threat of a replay of history—could not be more pronounced.
Since 2001, the official agenda of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main political force in the Kurdish world, has been dubbed Democratic Confederalism, a program of autonomous, self-governing administrative regions based on grassroots democracy. Far from championing independent statehood, this model promotes a progressive vision that specifically rejects the carving out of borders altogether.
Furthermore, for the upcoming Turkish general elections on June 7, the Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) is making it a point to transcend ethnic divisions and mobilize around social-democratic principles. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas has sought to make the party a nationwide force that embraces left-leaning citizens, youth, and those seeking a more egalitarian, inclusive society. They are working hard to surpass Turkey’s stringent 10 percent election threshold to acquire seats in parliament this June.
As the Kurds are moving beyond parochial interests to become Turkey’s leading progressive force, the Turkish leadership is exhibiting signs of increased authoritarianism. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now commonly referred to as the new “Sultan” for his drive to monopolize power, crack down on opponents, use demagogic language, and promise a return to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. His main intention in the upcoming elections is to gain a majority in parliament so he can amend the country’s constitution from a parliamentary-based system to a presidential one, concentrating even greater power in his hands. The HDP stands as the biggest obstacle to his push for a parliamentary majority.
If the HDP fails to pass the 10 percent threshold, it will be left with no representation in parliament and an even greater autocratic government in power. Most analysts agree that this would raise the risk of a return to a hardline stance and possible armed conflict over the Kurdish issue. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, such conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 30,000 people, millions of refugees, and the wiping out of hundreds of Kurdish villages in the country’s southeast. There is no telling what the scale of human loss would be if another campaign targeting the Kurds were to be reignited in Turkey.
Thus, as we approach the June 7 elections in Turkey, the choice between democracy and autocracy, coexistence and conflict seems quite clear. Contrary to propaganda, the Kurds are not trying to establish a separate Kurdistan. Instead, like the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, they are campaigning for a more genuinely democratic and constitutional Turkey. Unfortunately, such a movement may be seen as an even greater challenge to the power structure in Turkey than separatism ever was, risking the threat of greater conflict and targeting of the Kurds.
One hundred years after the Armenian Genocide, the dominant question in Turkey remains democratization and constitutionalism. The “Armenian Question” of the past has been replaced by the “Kurdish Question” of the present. One would hope that the violent state response of the past to demands for basic freedom and equality will not be repeated today. However, the Turkish government’s unrepentant campaign of denial and its Western-backed ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the 1980-90’s, suggests a constant threat of reversion to genocidal tendencies and repression.
It is incumbent upon those who wish to eradicate the ongoing cycle of genocide and promote human freedom and liberty in the region to pay close attention to the situation of the Kurds in Turkey. Both for a more democratic and stable future, an HDP victory in the coming elections is essential.