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Turkey's Policies and Holes with Regard to the Armenian Genocide in the Framework of its EU Accession Prospect

This speech was delivered at a conference on the Legacy of the 1915 Genocide in the Ottoman Empire, held in Stockholm, Sweden on the 23 March 2009.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me first to express my warmest thanks for this invitation and for the opportunity that you give me to disclose some of the aspects of Turkey’s policies and holes with regard to the Armenian Genocide.
Actually, it would have been far easier to deliver this speech ten years ago as Turkey’s policy was then straightforward and was merely consisting in the denial of the Genocide; if not in the denial of the Armenians themselves. In this regard, I would like to recall the reply of Kiazim Karabekir to Georgi Chicherin in the early 20’s: “In Turkey there has been neither an Armenia nor territory inhabited by Armenians” [1]. Since then indeed, Turkey’s policies didn’t really changed up to the eve of the 21st century. Basically, it followed the classical patterns of inconsistent denial, i.e. gross minimization, condoning, rationalisation and trivialisation. There is no need now to describe more in depth these patterns which are not specific to the denial of the Armenian Genocide but which are common to any Genocide denial: they have been extensively described by many prominent scholars, including by Mr Hovhannissian who just recalled them.

Just a few words to emphasize how both fundamental and psychotic this posture is: in a nutshell, Turkey was just saying “nothing occurred but they – the Armenians – really deserved it”. Sigmund Freud described this desperate defence mechanism with the famous cauldron’s anecdote. As an illustration, we can come back to the previously mentioned statement of Karabekir which full version is “In Turkey there has been neither an Armenia nor territory inhabited by Armenians. … Those [Armenians] living in Turkey committed murders and massacres, and have escaped to Iran, America, Europe, and some of them to Armenia. How is it possible to call back these murderers and give them the right to vote?
In the West, we used to consider that this is just denial. Actually, this is a little bit more subtle: it is indeed a denial dedicated to external audiences but it is a glorification when addressed to the internal opinion.
Whatsoever, this policy was clearly ineffective to stop the Armenian Genocide’s international process of recognitions. Therefore, Turkey felt the need for some new policies.
The first fundamental point that I would like to underscore is that these new policies are never replacing or superseding the former ones. They are stacked on them. Presently, various messages are delivered depending on the audience, the circumstances and the relevance. For instance, the very simple denial message is still delivered to the Anatolian peasants whereas more sophisticated techniques are used with European diplomats. Therefore, the very best image that comes to mind to figure out Turkey’s global policy would be a multi-headed hydra. When one cuts one of the heads, ten others are growing immediately.
Historically speaking, the very first of these alternative strategies was the notorious TARC (Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission). The TARC was a very clever initiative inspired by the American State Department in 2001. The Commission made with retired or unofficial diplomats from Turkey and Armenia was supposed to address bunches of bilateral issues but the central question of the Genocide recognition. As admitted by one of its Turkish members, Ozdem Sanberk, the central idea behind the TARC was to freeze the Genocide recognition in alleging of a ‘dialog’ between Turks and Armenians.
Allow me to quote Sandberk: "The basic goal of our commission is to impede the initiatives put forth every year in the U.S. Congress and parliaments of Western countries on 'the genocide issue'.... The key goal is to prevent 'the genocide' issue from being regularly brought onto the agenda in Western countries.... The significant matter for us is that 'the genocide' issue is not discussed by the American Congress anymore. As long as we continue the dialogue, the issue won't be brought to the congressional agenda. If it is not discussed in Congress, we, meaning Turkey, will gain from that. The US Congress will see that there is a channel of dialogue between Turks and Armenians and decide that 'there is no necessity for the Congress to take such a decision while such a channel exists."
As you may know, the TARC dissolves in 2004 after its Turkish members refused to endorse the conclusion of a report they however ordered and which concluded that the Genocide was indeed a Genocide. Nevertheless, many other similar ‘dialog’ structures have been set by Turkey with the help of naive or accomplice Armenians. Let me cite:
  • The Turkish Armenian Business Development Center (TABDC – Brussels, Belgium)
  • The Turkish Armenian Historians Platform (Vienna, Austria)
  • The Turkish Armenian Women Group (Istanbul/Yerevan)
Currently, these structures are rather “dormant” as they are no more matching the privileged strategy of Ankara. However, they can be opportunistically reactivated if needed.
The common idea beyond all these structures is to foster fictive dialog through supposedly attractive groups of people (historians, businessmen, women, etc…) and to say to the international community: “look, there is a fragile but promising dialog between the Turkish and Armenian civil societies that you should not break up with inopportune resolutions”.
Actually, this is the same idea which is driving the strategy of Turkey toward Armenia. At each critical period – on the occasion of a possible US Congress resolution or when the European Commission issues its regular report on Turkey – rumours miraculously appear that Turkey could withdraw Armenia’s blockade or could do this or that. Of course, these fake hopes are failed to meet each time.
As previously mentioned, the golden period of these strategies laid roughly between 2001 and 2005. For instance, they succeeded to derail several European Parliament resolutions which hailed these initiatives. They failed however to modify the key 2005 resolution on the “opening of negotiations” which stated that the European Parliament “calls again upon Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide; considers this recognition as a prerequisite for accession”.
As a matter of fact, I would like to mention that in this period, luxurious glossy-paper magazines were released in the European Parliament. These magazines were made by a professional British communication company on behalf of the Turkish Armenian Women Group. They were misleadingly dedicated to innocuous topics such as sharing familial and professional activities for women, comparing and sharing recipes between Turks and Armenians and so on, like in any other classical so-called women magazine. But in the middle of each issue, there was one very harsh political paper about what Armenia and the Armenians should or shouldn’t do according to the Turkish view. Needless to say, the Turkish Editor-in-chief of this publication was clearly a lady with a superior education in political sciences whereas her Armenian counterpart was, sadly, just a humble lady.
In the same period however, and as a kind of a trivial by-product, Turkey tried also to question again the actuality of the Armenian Genocide, but this time indirectly. This is the famous old story about the Historian commission or about the need for examining archives, especially Turkish archives that are supposed to be freely accessible, though it is extensively known – for instance Taner Akçam mentioned it – that they have been widely rewritten.
What I would to underscore here about this strategy is not the trivial aspect of questioning again a well-known historical fact. This is indeed one of the classical denial techniques, for instance this is the same used by the Iran president Ahmadinejad when he advocated for the re-examination of “what exactly occurred to the Jews in Europe in the 40s”.
No, what I want to emphasize here is that through this questioning, Turkey is also trying to put aside the issue. Aside of what? This is the key point number three. Whatever the technique used and whatever the achieved outcome, Turkey is trying to put the Armenian Genocide issue aside from the mainstream international political scene.
I guess that we are here touching upon an important point differentiating the old-style bold denial of the former Kemalist period and the new denial dating from the AKP government which is more subtle, more persuasive, wicked and probably more efficient. In compliance with its political goal, i.e. the EU accession, the AKP government doesn’t try necessarily to completely refute the Genocide but it tries:
  1. To confine its discussion to intellectual or specialised circles in order to sweep it out from its path toward the EU accession,
  2. To possibly admit some features of the Genocide as long as they don’t imply any State responsibility and any reparation.
In this regard, I would like to focus my talk on the most recent, the most advanced and what I consider as the masterpiece of Turkey’s State denial: the use of auxiliary scholars or – to say – the denial without explicit denial.
As you may know, since the relative liberalisation of the Turkish society, more and more Turkish intellectuals dare to voice out their criticisms toward the lack of democracy of their society. This feature is for sure their common characteristic. Therefore, we tended to consider that all of them were also some fair supporters of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by their country, as it is case for our longstanding fellow travellers like Ragip Zarakolu.
Actually however, if a broad panel of Turkish scholars expressed on the Armenian Genocide, some are indeed close to the AKP government and therefore in line with its soft denial policy. On this point, let me underscore that what is dividing the old Kemalist elite and the new AKP rulers is probably how the society should be managed and which civilisation model Turkey should adopt. But on three issues, the AKP had to accept the Kemalist hard-line: on the Armenian Genocide, on Cyprus and on the Kurdish issue.
Therefore some intellectuals partake to the Turkish Social Pact which consists in denying the Genocide though the very same people are genuine supporters of Turkey’s democratization. This is for instance the case of Baskin Oran who could be considered as the human face of denial. Baskin Oran likes to be introduced as a scholar, a specialist in social sciences, what he is actually. But he doesn’t like when he is introduced as graduated in political sciences and a close support of the government what he is first and furthermost.
In the wake of Hrant Dink, many such Turkish intellectuals addressed the Armenian Genocide issue with variable degrees of sincerity. The game played by the Turkish government is to promote those from them whose discourses – even if critical – are compatible with its goals. For instance, Turkish mainstream media often refer to Baskin Oran, to Ahmet Insel, to Orhan Pamuk, to Dogu Ergil or even to Hrant Dink as their stances favour both the EU accession prospect and the containment of the Armenian Genocide issue (see table in appendix).
On the other hand, you will hardly find in these media any reference to Ragip Zarakolu, Ayse Günaysu or, for instance, Temel Demirer. Indeed the Turkish government is exhibiting those denial-compatible intellectuals as focal points, as lighting rods, because it gives three advantages:
  1. Globally speaking, their sole existence makes credible the idea that there is a rising pro-European democratic civil society in Turkey which shouldn’t be discouraged by the EU. Even if critical toward Ankara’s policies, the subliminal message released by these people is “don’t humiliate Turkey”. This was by the way the title of an interview of Orhan Pamuk published by a French magazine some years ago. In doing so, they remove the Turkish accession issue from the cold-minded field of international political relations to put it on an emotional level and to address the guilty conscience of Europeans towards Muslims. The very same demands addressed by the EU to the other candidate countries are thus echoed by these people as “humiliating” discriminatory measurements from the “Christian club” against Turkey.
  2. Specifically on the Genocide, the hubbub they are making derails the recognition process in creating an artificial debates – who is saying what, what for, who is against and why and so on – and in capturing once again this debate in non-political circles. This time, this is even “better” as those circles are purely internal to Turkey and, according to this Turkish view, the Armenians and the whole World should ideally wait for an hypothetic outcome, i.e. for knowing if finally, and to what extent, the Turks and the Turks alone have agreed – or not – that this was a Genocide.
  3. Last, these people can be conveniently and easily hushed or even crushed by their government if needed. By the way, one can wonder what would be their fate if Turkey would achieve its goals. Ironically, in some regard, they occupy the same position in the present Turkey’s game toward the EU that the Armenian minority was occupying in the Ottoman game toward the Europe of the 19th Century’s.
In the famous novel of Franz Kafka, « the Trial », K., the main character, is explained by Titorelli that there is no absolute acquittal but that there is either an apparent – i.e. provisional – acquittal or a deferment. Titorelli explains that the apparent acquittal needs a huge effort from time to time whereas the deferment requires a small permanent effort.
The old-style Kemalist denial aimed at reaching the provisional acquittal of Turkey. The new-style denial aims at the permanent deferment of the verdict.
As it has been widely publicized at the end of 2008, the last sensational initiative of these authorized intellectuals is the “personal” apology campaign towards the Armenians for the “great disaster” they endured. A seemingly appropriate translation of the petition could be “I cannot conscientiously accept the indifference to the Great Disaster that Ottoman Armenians suffered in 1915, and its denial. I reject this injustice and, acting of my own will, I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters, and I apologize to them”.
This is probably the height of perversion as this petition is both allegedly denouncing the denial as well as it is deliberately avoiding terming the Genocide. This fact has been denounced as such by many genuine and fair other Turkish scholars – for instance by Ayse Hür – but most of people are unaware of this denunciation which has been barely reported by the Turkish mainstream media. Another point denounced by Ayse Hür is also the “personal” nature of the apology which aims at transferring this issue from a State responsibility level to a personal emotional choice. That’s why she refused to join this apology campaign. Interestingly, she gave credit to the idea that this campaign was a government-inspired tactic in adding: “It seems that a very elite group discussed that petition, because I learnt about this petition from the media and I was surprised”.
Additionally, let’s note this kind of strategy also allows Turkey to divide Armenians between the so-called “good Armenians” who accept to dialog with these fake friends and the “bad ones” who refuse. What the “good Armenians” don’t understand is that whatever they can say to their dubious friends, whatever they can agree on not with them, they are pinned in a given framework promoted by Ankara. As Hilda Tchoboian, the president of the European Armenian Federation is figuratively saying, they can even slapping them during their ‘dialog’ session, it doesn’t change the mere fact that the meeting will be termed and publicized as a “dialog” by Ankara’s propaganda machines.
I would like to conclude this speech by an optimistic observation. How malicious is this new denial strategy, it could eventually turn against its promoters. I am deeply convinced that people like Baskin Oran are not sincere in their efforts. As a last example, when attacked by old-style Turkish deniers, Baskin Oran ingenuously declared in Cumhuriyet daily “The Prime Minister should be grateful toward us for this campaign. In the whole world, Assemblies automatically adopted resolutions. Now, it will stop. The Armenian Diaspora softened. The international media have started to stop the use of the word ‘Genocide’”. But this position is not necessarily shared by the hundreds of Turks who signed up the petition. In other words, an indirect and certainly undesired effect of the media hubbub these few agents made about the Armenian Genocide could just be the raising awareness of the Turkish people about it.
[1] Kazim Karabekir, Istiklal Harbimiz, 2nd edn (Istanbul, 1969), pp. 661–846 as quoted by Christopher Walker in „Armenia, the Survival of a Nation“, p. 306. When Chicherin persisted, he was told, 'No Armenian provinces have ever existed in Turkey.'
Appendix: Google hits on known Turkish intellectuals in various Turkish media.
Turkey’s Acceptable dissidents
Genuine dissidents
Baskin Oran
Orhan Pamuk
Hrant Dink
Ayse Hür
Ayse Günaysu
Ragip Zarakolu
Yeni Safak
* Irrelevant: Ayse Hür is columnist in Taraf.