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Bridging the divide between Turkey and Armenia 25 avril 2007

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie.
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National Post (Canada), April 24, 2007 Tuesday, Pg. A19

Aydemir Erman *

It is unfortunate that today, April 24, has become a day when Armenian groups annually remember the human suffering of only the Armenian population during the First World War. The commemoration events often take the form of anti-Turkish rallies that hinder the expression of hope that Turkish-Armenian relations will develop positively. After all, Turks and Armenians peacefully coexisted for centuries inside the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, with mutual respect and trust. In the late Ottoman period, Armenians served as ministers of foreign affairs, finance, public works, postal services and other departments.

The tragedy that befell the peoples of the dissolving Ottoman state in the First World War, and in the period leading up to it, took a heavy toll on them all, including the Turks and Armenians. Millions of Turks perished as the Ottoman territories were all lost, except for parts of Anatolia.

What took place as that war wore on is the subject of continuing debate and accusations. One telling piece of evidence is a recently rediscovered report by Hovhannes Katchaznouni, the first prime minister of the short-lived Armenian Republic of 1918-1919, which he wrote in 1923 for his fellow members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

« In 1914, Armenian volunteer units organized themselves and fought against the Turks, » he said. « We had no doubt that the war would end with the complete victory of the Allies: Turkey would be defeated and dismembered ? We embraced Russia [in its invasion of Turkey] whole-heartedly. »

Under these circumstances, the Ottoman government decided to relocate large numbers of Armenians away from the war zone. The Armenian prime minister did not, of course, condone the deaths of so many in this process. But his insider’s account reveals the complexity of the situation and the inappropriateness of the label « genocide. »

Almost a century later, the collective memories of the two peoples indicate different versions of history. And this discrepancy seems to be the main impediment that prevents Turks and Armenians from normalizing their relationship today.

In the absence of a scholarly or legal consensus on the matter, the Armenian side has fought the rhetorical battle through political channels. Despite the absence of new historical findings, we therefore see parliamentary resolutions and declarations in countries such as Canada, where the strong Armenian diaspora enjoys a near-monopoly over the debate. Analogies are drawn between the Holocaust and the events of 1915. This is deeply unfair both to Jews and Turks.

To say that is not to deny or belittle the great human suffering that Armenians experienced (along with Turks). But that does not mean that the Armenian suffering should be called genocide, nor that anyone who dares to question the popular Armenian narrative should be labelled as a denier. The passing of judgment on such a crime needs to rest on the basis of factual knowledge, sound historical investigation and a decision by a competent legal body.

One way to overcome the problem is to study these claims dispassionately. Turkey has proposed to Armenia to form a joint commission of historians, archivists and other experts to investigate the issue, free from propaganda, and to share the findings with the international community. Unfortunately, the Armenian side prefers to avoid such a study, perhaps because they believe their version already prevails among the public — so why risk this popular support with a serious study? Consequently, the proposal is brushed aside as a mere tactical ploy by Turkey.

Such evasion ought not to satisfy more inquisitive minds. Despite the sympathy felt for certain ethnic communities with painful pasts, the Canadian government has expressed its support for the proposal and called on Armenia to take part in this joint study.

Turkey is a significant regional power politically, economically and culturally. Armenia can benefit much from co-operating with Turkey. This is possible, if not overnight, then gradually. For its part, the Armenian diaspora should find a way of perpetuating its identity without spreading distrust of Turks and Turkey.

Non-co-operation between Armenia and Turkey is a pity. For Turkey, it is a missing link in its overall positive regional relations. For Armenia, it is a serious mistake with a great opportunity cost.

* Aydemir Erman is Turkey’s ambassador to Canada.

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