Germany to hold a formal debate for recognizing Armenian Genocide

Published May 31st, 2016 - 03:00 GMT
People lay flowers at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. (AFP/File)
People lay flowers at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. (AFP/File)

The Armenian authorities are closely watching events in the German parliament this week when delegates will debate a resolution formally terming the World War I massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as "genocide."

The former Soviet republic in the southern Caucasus has for years been working for this kind of recognition around the world in the face of strong opposition from Turkey - the successor state to the Ottoman Empire.

On Thursday Germany's lower house of parliament is to vote on a resolution that enjoys broad backing from both the ruling coalition and opposition parties.

But Berlin is also facing pressure from Ankara, whose help it is relying on to deal with the European Union's current refugee crisis. The bloc recently struck a deal with Ankara aimed at stemming the flow of migrants travelling via Turkey into the EU.

Eduard Sharmazanov, vice president of the Armenian National Assembly in the capital of Yerevan, is optimistic about the outcome. "My confidence is based on informal and formal contacts [in Berlin]," he says.

Estimates put the number of victims of the expulsion and massacre of Armenians that began 101 years ago at up to 1.5 million, although Turkey disputes this figure and rejects the term "genocide."

At the time the Ottoman leadership suspected Christian Armenians of collaborating with Imperial Russia, its enemy in the war, and began rounding up and deporting prominent members of the Armenian community, thought to number up to 2.5 million on Ottoman territory at the time.

The German government has so far carefully avoided the term, but signs of a change came last year when President Joachim Gauck and Parliament President Norbert Lammert both used the "G word."

Several EU countries, including France, Italy and Poland, have recognized the events after 1915 as genocide, as have Russia and many individual states in the United States. On a national level, the United States has refrained from using the term out of consideration for its NATO ally Turkey.

German recognition is particularly important to the Armenians, given that Imperial Germany was allied with the Ottomans. A recent book has cited documentary evidence that German officials were well aware of the massacres being carried out on Ottoman territory.

At the time Britain and Russia were promoting Armenian nationalism with the aim of weakening the Ottoman Turks as part of their war effort directed primarily at Germany

"The genocide is not merely an issue for the Armenian people. It's a hurt that well-meaning people all over the world share," says Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.

He expresses disappointment on the part of the Armenian people that strategic considerations get in the way of condemning genocide.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the "well-meaning people" that Sargsyan refers to. On the occasion last year of the 100th anniversary of the start of the massacres Putin held a moving speech in Yerevan.

A visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial with its massive basalt stelae built on a hill in Yerevan is now almost obligatory for Russian politicians. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev laid flowers here in April.

Russia is Armenia's closest ally. Russian brands are everywhere to be seen in Yerevan. The economy is heavily dependent on Moscow for its energy supplies.

Russia is also the main guarantor of security in a country that sees  itself as surrounded by enemies. The 300-kilometre border with Turkey to the south-west is closed on account of the conflict over the genocide, while across the long north-eastern border lies Azerbaijan, another bitter enemy.

The past has made Armenia highly sensitive with respect to the decades-old conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region populated largely by Armenians which has broken away from Baku.

The most serious violence for more than 20 years erupted in April, with around 120 deaths. "We will not allow renewed genocide directed at Armenians," Sargsyan says.

Recognition of their suffering 100 years ago is a totemic issue for all Armenians, including the estimated 8 million living outside their homeland, which itself has a population of little more than 3 million.

The large Armenian community in the US has long called for legal acknowledgement of the genocide and for compensation.

But the Armenian government has realized that revanchism leads nowhere and that dialogue is essential.

Sargsyan takes the view that Turkish opinion has moved on. "Today they know more about their history than before, and tomorrow they will know more than today," he said on April 24, the date used by Armenians to mark the anniversary of the genocide.

But no one in Yerevan is expecting a major change on the part of Turkey, and the German parliament resolution will not have any effect in that regard.

In June the next "well-meaning" guest to Armenia is expected in the form of Pope Francis. Last year the head of the Roman Catholic Church openly referred to the 1915 massacres as "the first genocide of the 20th century."

By Thomas Koerbel and Awet Demurjan


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