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The Armenian Genocide: After the World Looks Back, Turkey and Armenia Must Move Forward

Relations between Armenia and Turkey suffer in part because Turkey refuses to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide. But improving relations will prompt that recognition.

by Richard Giragosian
Apr 23 2015, 5:07pm

Photo via Flickr

For Armenians throughout the world, April 24 will mark the centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide. On that day in 1915, the Ottoman government arrested 250 Armenian leaders who would later be executed. It was a prelude to the large-scale extermination of the Armenian minority in which nearly 1.5 million Armenians died.

For almost 100 years, however, Turkey has rejected the genocide label, insisting instead that the deaths were the result of isolated killings, or starvation, or simply the realities of war.

That rejection is becoming less and less tenable in the international community. In a recent statement, Pope Francis referred to the killings as the "first genocide of the 20th century" and called on Turkey to face its past. This was followed by the adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament commemorating "the centenary of the Armenian genocide." And though some news stories focused more on the "sleek ponytail" Kim Kardashian wore during her recent pilgrimage to Armenia than they did on her meeting with Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, her visit undeniably shed light on Turkey's unwillingness to recognize the genocide.

The added pressure on Turkey presents a new opportunity to look beyond April 24, and to seriously assess a reboot of the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia. Both countries have an opportunity to forge bilateral relations that could lead to Turkey's reopening of its closed border with its neighbor and the mutual establishment of formal diplomatic relations.

Those steps wouldn't constitute true reconciliation — that will be a far more daunting challenge. But there is reason for optimism. An important foundation has developed since the historic, first-ever reciprocal visits of the Armenian and Turkish presidents to each country in 2008 and 2009. That process of diplomatic engagement culminated in the signing of two diplomatic protocols by the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers in October 2009.

The protocols were hardly without controversy. But four years later, Turkey's then-Foreign Minister and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Armenia, and the following April an unprecedented statement by then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised many by expressing condolences on behalf of the Turkish state to the grandchildren of Armenians who lost their lives "in the context of the early 20th century."

Still not a genocide, but it was progress. The statement offered a broader space in which to discuss the genocide within Turkish society; in sending a message to Armenians, it also sent a message to Turks that it was safer to address what happened in 1915. In addition, the statement established an important new precedent — every Turkish prime minister will now be expected to issue a statement coinciding with each April 24 commemoration of the Armenian genocide.

On the Armenian side, Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian subsequently attended Erdogan's August 2014 presidential inauguration ceremony, marking the first time a senior Armenian official was present at such an event.

There are several relatively small but significant steps that can be taken to continue the slow, shaky trend toward better relations. Armenia should upgrade and expand its small diplomatic mission posted in Turkey. That diplomatic presence, under the auspices of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), offers an important venue for a deeper, more official line of communication. And in June, the planned visit of an official Turkish delegation to Armenia to attend the NATO Parliamentary Assembly should be capitalized upon as an opportunity to continue moving toward official diplomatic dialogue.

Both countries also have an opportunity to address shared threats. They could form joint Armenian-Turkish working groups focusing on energy security and seismic risk comprised of appropriate government officials and experts. Together, the countries could then deal with energy security related to Armenia's aging nuclear power plant — situated about 20 miles from the Turkish border — and address planning and preparation based on the reality that both countries share a highly active earthquake zone.

Though the border remains closed, the countries could get a jumpstart on planning the facilitation of greater trade once it re-opens. Such preparatory work would not be all that politically sensitive given the level of bilateral trade and transport links between the two countries that have overcome the limits of the closed border.

April 24 will quite rightly be an occasion to look back. But afterward, both countries must move forward and leverage the process of normalization as a first step toward eventual reconciliation. In so doing, an atmosphere will be created in which both the government of Turkey and its citizens will at long last be able to recognize the Armenian genocide. It is an inevitable shift that is already occurring.

Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center. Follow him on Twitter: @Richard_RSC

Photo via Flickr