It is a truly tumultuous day for Armenia, given that the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide will be the second most important piece of news emerging from the country today.
The shock resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan after eleven days of protest marks relief for many. The protests had erupted after Sargsyan had assumed the post of Prime Minister as well as President, after over a decade in the latter position.
Things escalated sharply on Saturday, when the leader of the opposition Nikol Pashinyan was arrested after demanding Sargsyan’s resignation.
But an apparently humbled Sargsyan tended his resignation yesterday, saying that he was “wrong”, and would step down according to the wishes of the protestors. Fears of a violent crackdown were averted, and jubilant Armenians have been celebrating in the streets of the capital Yerevan.
But a day of celebration will also be one of remembering a historical pain. The 24th of April marks the 103rd remembrance anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Exactly how many Armenians died in the events of, and leading up to March 1915 is disputed, though some estimates reach as many as 1.5 million.
The Ottoman Empire at the time was facing attack by Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand as the allies were aiming to turn Istanbul into a new front in the First World War.
The Ottomans also feared that Russia would attempt to turn the Christian Armenians against them, and so began forcibly displacing Armenians away from the Empire’s eastern edges. The violence they incurred was horrific, and the events have since been labelled a genocide given the systematic targeting of Armenians. Whilst Turkey does not deny the atrocities as a whole, it insists that this was a continuation of a war in which Turks also died, rather than a targeted campaign. As such, it refutes the term “genocide”.
The heirs of the Ottoman legacy are left with the prospect of either accepting the most established historical consensus and reconciling with Armenia, or refuting that version of events and perpetuating the frosty relations with Armenians. So far, no Turkish government has been willing to choose the latter.
Nevertheless, there is a concerted effort, much of it by scholars of history, to gather indisputable evidence of what really happened in 1915, in the hope that this will change Turkey’s position. Some of the key players in this struggle are Turks themselves.
One of the most prominent researchers is Taner Açkam, a historian and the chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University in America. On this anniversary he was invited to give a speech to the Swedish Parliament to mark the remembrance anniversary of the genocide. In it, Açkam stated that not only was Turkey’s refusal to accept the historical nature of the events of 1915 morally unjust, but that it actually presented a national security threat.
In the run-up to the genocide, the Ottomans saw Armenians and their demands for greater representation as a threat to the Empire’s security, a fact which Açkam argues helped pave the way for genocide. Today, said Açkam, President Erdogan is not only failing to understand this historical error, but he is perpetuating it in his treatment of minority groups, and his failure to move forward a process of historical self-examination and reconciliation with Armenia.
Açkam’s research into the genocide has been considered ground-breaking in the field. His discovery of telegrams between Ottoman officials demanding updates on violence against Armenians has, according to scholars, helped solidify the interpretation of genocide.
However, that interpretation is not a new one – rather the new evidence has only strengthened the consensus of the scholarly mainstream. Ronald Suny, a Distinguished Professor of history at the University of Michigan and an expert on the Armenian genocide, told Al Bawaba:
“Taner Akçam and others have produced new and important details and refinements to what we knew earlier. Some documents uncovered have even been called "the smoking gun," but the central fact that a state targeted a certain nation for destruction has only been strengthened by recent research.
In many ways our understanding of the Armenian Genocide has stabilized in the last few years, certainly since the centennial year of 2015. Almost all serious scholars in the world recognize that the deportations, mass killing, and forced Islamization of Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire constitute a genocide. Yet the Turkish government continues to deny that the tragic killings of 1915-1916 were ordered and carried out by the Young Turks and their Kurdish allies.”
So far, attempts to have Turkey recognize these events as a genocide has been a losing battle, although it has not stopped people trying. A new bill was introduced into the Turkish parliament today by an Armenian opposition MP, Garo Paylan. It is, however, unlikely to pass.
In some ways things have still improved. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which took power in 2002, was the first to allow public discussion of the Armenian genocide. Whilst the state did not call it such, it no longer forbade debate around it.
Although Armenia and Turkey officially have no relations, there have been recent periods of thawing in tension, and signals that the two countries are at least prepared to cooperate. Erdogan has not denied Ottoman culpability in the killing of Armenians.
His statement today on the anniversary said that Turkey “has a responsibility to share Armenians’ pain” over these events. However, an increasingly nationalist and restrictive climate under Erdogan’s rule means that the official denial of the charge of genocide is unlikely to change, and discussion around it may soon find itself further restricted.
“Armenians will commemorate the genocide this year in a time of spreading intolerance and denial. This is a reminder that remembrance is vital to countering this growing threat against minorities and other population groups.”
Whilst an ever-growing number of nations is taking an official position of recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide, America has yet to do so. There were high hopes that President Trump might once again break with protocol and use his classic outspoken style to officially recognize the genocide.
Relations between Washington and Ankara have been tense this year given the events in Afrin. But if President Trump does err on the side of caution and avoid referring to genocide in the commemoration, then it will suggest that Turkey is still too valuable to American strategy to alienate.
Nevertheless, Armenians have been given a renewed hope this year that their voice matters, given events at home. As Ronald Suny also said to Al Bawaba:
“On the eve of this year's anniversary of the Genocide, ordinary people in the Republic of Armenia, through peaceful demonstrations, managed to force the prime minister of the country to resign.
In their continuing struggle against corruption and for democracy, they are carrying on the long tradition of progressive Armenians for liberation and progress. What a wonderful gift to all as we commemorate one of the darkest historical spots of the last century.”
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