The Memory That’s Crippling Armenia

25/04/2015 12:27

The Memory That’s Crippling Armenia


Yerevan—An abundance of purple flowers has appeared on the streets of Yerevan: dangling on girls’ ears, hanging in shop windows, daubed on walls as murals, carved into hedges and plastered onto the menacing jeeps with tinted windows that race through red lights. They are forget-me-nots, and after the end of this week it is difficult to imagine how anyone could, or why anyone would, forget Armenia’s demand that the murder of their ancestors during World War I be honored, and recognized as a genocide.

It is a curious phenomenon to visit a country preparing to commemorate a massacre. Hotels are filling up, distant friends are reunited, stages are being constructed; it has all the hallmarks of the preparation for a festival. Yet any excitement is tempered by the unremittingly sad subject matter and made more poignant by the fact that the reason for the event is rejected by the same country that perpetrated the crime. It is an episode that speaks of torture, mass graves and a forced expulsion of a people who would end up in all corners of the world. The reason Armenians are so widespread, and indeed the very origin of the word genocide, lies in the events that unfolded from 1915 onwards—when, according to a large consensus of historians, the Ottoman Empire systematically killed up to 1.5 million Armenians.

On April 24th, Armenians around the world will mark 100 years since the Ottoman Empire began to expel and murder the Armenians living primarily in the eastern region of Anatolia. Armenia claims that they were already marginalized as a Christian minority in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, were murdered in clashes even in years prior to 1915 and that the Ottomans used the pretext of war to finally exterminate them.

Turkey has acknowledged massacres committed on both sides but claims that as its empire was disintegrating, being attacked on all sides by Europe, and Russia was fueling Armenian armed militants to rebel. It has also, at various times, claimed that Armenians escaped the borders of the empire themselves, despite the harrowing testimony of survivors who were forcibly marched into the Syrian deserts and either slaughtered or died of starvation and exhaustion.

Turkey’s insistence that these events were not an orchestrated campaign, Armenia’s insistence on recognition and the contribution to the debate of celebrities from the sacred to the profane, have raised the current profile of this issue more than ever before.

For Armenia, there can be no compromise on what is fast being accepted around the world as a historical fact, yet the absence of official diplomatic relations and a closed land border with Turkey has had severe economic repercussions for the country. Amongst Armenian diplomats, the delicate attempts to delink the demand to recognize the genocide and the need to solve other complex regional issues involving Turkey is at times overshadowed by a vocal campaign of genocide recognition led by diaspora communities around the world, all of whom are the descendants of the genocide.

It’s a delicate balance to strike.


Last May, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan invited Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend the genocide centennial commemoration on April 24, 2015, an invitation admittedly unlikely to be accepted. The response from Erdogan was far from edifying. Turkey normally honours the WW1 Battle of Gallipoli, which resulted in a devastating loss for the Allied forces and heralded the construction of the new Turkish Republic, on the 25th. This year, Turkey decided to ahistorically move the events to the 24th—a day when no significant event related to Gallipoli occurred. It is, however, sombrely remembered as the night when the Armenian intelligentsia of Constantinople were rounded up, deported and murdered by Ottoman officials, instigating a campaign that would culminate in the mass extermination of those living in the country’s east. According to diplomatic sources, this crass move to overshadow the day that Armenia commemorates the genocide was a unilateral decision by Erdogan, much to the private chagrin of senior Turkish officials tired of his alienating, standoffish behaviour.

Though Erdogan’s condolences to the grandchildren of the Armenian victims last year, unprecedented by a Turkish leader, was progress of a kind, it fell far short of what is demanded by Armenians, and any perceived goodwill is immediately devalued by his subsequent graceless remarks.

At a special Vatican mass on April 12, Pope Francis strongly endorsed the interpretation of the World War I killings that emptied the Anatolian region of Armenians as a genocide. Rather than respond with a perfunctory “we disagree,” Erdogan rolled out his tedious tough guy routine and “warned” the pope “not to repeat this mistake.” His minister for European Affairs went one better and suggested that the Pope’s Argentinian citizenship—a country that “welcomed Nazi torturers”—was to blame.

It was breathlessly reported just this past weekend that Erdogan had gone so far as to threaten to deport Armenians from Turkey. In the Chinese-whispers media landscape of Turkey, quotations can be drastically manipulated; a more accurate version of his sentiments had him say: “We could deport those Armenians living here as guests, but we don’t.” If this was an attempt to seem welcoming to Armenians, it decidedly failed and is a somewhat sinister remark for a supposed statesman to make, particularly considering the timing.

Of the 2 million Armenians in present day Turkey, 60,000 reside in Istanbul, though many have been driven to assimilation in part due to the climate of uneasiness that pervades. Aside from the absence of a frank and sober assessment of events during World War I, Armenians are still viewed in the eyes of the state as an internal threat, a characterization which is reinforced to children in terrifying-sounding school textbooks which morbidly dwell on national security. Ironically it took the tragic assassination of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink in 2007 to create a surge of solidarity with Armenians and explode some taboos on talking about their grievances. The appointment of Armenian intellectual Eyten Mahcupyan six months ago as the chief adviser to the prime minister of Turkey was seen as a positive step forward. In an interview on April 10 he restated his long-held view that if one considers events in Bosnia and Rwanda as a genocide, then the Armenian killings must be deemed as such too. His abrupt “retirement” last week does not seem like a coincidence.

Of course, Turkey has been on the defensive this year, from pronouncements from an unlikely alliance of the Pope, the Kardashian clan, the European Parliament, Cher, Rob Lowe, System of a Down and more to recognise the genocide. In January, reality TV star and fourth-generation American-Armenian Kim Kardashian, purportedly on a journey with her husband rapper Kanye West, sister Khloe and cousins to discover the land of her forbears, toured Armenia with a TV crew in tow, and updated her 30 million Instagram followers with posts that incongruously oscillated between pouting selfies in a hotel room and stoic shots of the family laying flowers at the genocide memorial monument.

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