The Armenian Genocide or, as it is labelled in mainstream Turkish discourse, the “so-called Genocide,” continues to fuel political tensions, both internationally and at home. Use of the G-word by governments worldwide invariably provokes a reaction from Ankara, whose genocide denial continues to shape and colour Turkish foreign policy as well as domestic matters. Strikingly enough, however, the most important institution of the Armenians in Turkey has also participated in the politics of denial in recent years. How do the politics of such genocide recognition and denial play out, and what do they imply?
Currently, the Armenian Community of Turkey is preparing for the election of a new Patriarch. The elected Patriarch, Mesrob II, who died earlier in 2019, fell ill in 2008 and could no longer exercise the office. As a representative, General Vicar Aram Ateşyan was the acting Patriarch until July 2019. He maintained close relations with the Turkish government and was often criticized by the Armenian community for being a tool in Turkish government propaganda; in 2016, Aram Ateşyan supported Erdoğan who criticised the German parliament for its Armenian Genocide resolution. When the Patriarchate also declared support for the Turkish military offensive in Afrin, Syria, in 2018, the question came up (again) whether state control was involved, directly or indirectly, and the case further divided the community. It will be interesting to follow how the next Patriarch is going to position himself with regard to the Genocide and the powerful politics of denial.
Domestic Politics of Denial
On 24th April 2015, Armenians, Turks and Kurds gathered in Taksim Square, Istanbul, to commemorate the chilling events of 100 years prior: the destruction of Armenian Christians, otherwise known as the second Genocide of the twentieth century. As one scholar, Sossie Kasbarian, wrote regarding this demonstration of solidarity, ”Commemorating in the face of state denial is a political act and an act of defiance”, one which was to symbolise “a different present and a future”.
What appeared to be a watershed moment against the state’s record of unrelenting denial – a phenomenon nearly as old as the Genocide itself – from the vantage point of 2019, however, proved nothing more than a momentary blip. Indeed, it was for the second consecutive year that Turkish police banned a commemorative event to be held in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square, on 24th April 2019; proof that any climate conducive to recognising the Genocide had noticeably regressed. That same day, President Erdoğan shared his (and by extension Ankara’s) most recent interpretation of the “events of 1915”: a “relocation of the Armenian gangs … who massacred the Muslim people” and, allegedly, “the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period”; asking for unity amongst “these two peoples” – Turks and Armenians, presumably – in order to build a “shared future” and “heal the wounds of the past”.
Such a non-apology has come to form the crux of Turkey’s powerful denialism. It constitutes “the final stage of genocide” as the eminent genocide scholar Gregory Stanton put it, and indeed a bitter policy further soured by Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code which prosecutes genocide recognition at home; a crime, or “insult to Turkishness”, punishable by imprisonment. Such legislation – which previously haunted talks regarding Turkey’s possible accession to the EU – runs contrary to freedom of thought and speech, democracy, human rights (including the right to memory) and pluralism, as defined in the EU’s Copenhagen criteria. Indeed, it was in response to the assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007 – a Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul whilst on trial for speaking publicly of the Genocide – that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Turkey for violating the journalist’s right to freedom of expression.
International Dynamics of (Non)Recognition
Currently, twenty-seven countries, along with the Vatican and the European Parliament, have passed resolutions, laws or declarations, which, in line with the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, recognise the historical deportations and massacres of Armenian Christians as a Genocide. Yet this consensus, at least in the European context, is noticeably lacking one particular member; one who, in May 1915, back when it acted as if a policeman of the world, explicitly condemned “this new crime of Turkey against humanity and civilisation”: Britain, or its Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) – the authority with regard to genocide recognition at state level – continues to shy away from using this onerous G-word, instead referring only to “the terrible suffering inflicted on the Armenian people and other groups living in the Ottoman Empire”. As of 2017, the FCO’s unwavering (and perhaps legally flawed) policy – applied to cases both before and after 1948, the birth moment of the UN Genocide Convention – is that “the recognition of genocides is a matter for judicial decision rather than for governments or non-judicial bodies … International law cannot be applied retrospectively”. (FCO written response to the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) regarding the movement for Holodomor to be recognised as genocide [December, 2017]).
On the other side of the Channel, however, France has been far more proactive – or receptive – in recognising the 1915 events as Genocide: the National Assembly did-so officially in January 2001, further criminalising denial in 2012, and, just this year, establishing a national day of commemoration on 24th April. This national day was announced by Macron in the context that “France is, first and foremost, the country that knows how to look history in the face”; either oblivious to, or simply in disregard of, national inadequacies in confronting their Algerian chapter, not least the Paris massacres of October 1961. French officials, nonetheless, have been careful and quite explicit to explain that recognition should not be equated with blaming Turkey, nor its government in power today, but rather the Young Turks’ government of 1915.
Their neighbours, Germany, did not debate the issue until one year after the centenary, with the Bundestag voting overwhelmingly (almost unanimously) in favour of a resolution to recognise the historical events as Genocide in June 2016. The resolution stated that Germany’s own historical legacy was involved, and President Gauck stressed that the German Empire actually bore some responsibility for failing to act in advance of and during the killing. Similar to the announcements in France then, it was made clear that this resolution should not translate into a blame game directed against Turkey of today.
In spite of qualifications that temper recognition at state level, and which aim to somewhat appease Ankara’s anticipated fierce reaction, the G-word comes with a weighty political price tag. Indeed, in 2001, following the French law, Turkey swiftly recalled its ambassador to Paris, further boycotting French products and cancelling arms contracts it had only recently negotiated together. Similarly, in response to Germany’s 2016 resolution, the ambassador in Berlin was called back to Ankara, heightening tensions only months after a deal was struck between Turkey and the EU, such that Turkey would agree to take back migrants, including Syrians, arriving by boats in Greece.
It is small wonder, then, that (part of) Britain’s reason – however socially or morally reprehensible – for not recognising the Genocide (made explicit in a 2010 FCO briefing), is precisely because “the UK prioritises relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan over relations with Armenia”.
Genocide recognition/denial politics are hardly novel, whether past or present. Yet, it is the inconsistencies across countries that actually keep this political strategy alive. If all (EU) states followed the scholarly consensus and recognised in-law the atrocity as a Genocide, Ankara would have fewer pawns to play. Talk of the “so-called Genocide” could lose its traction as a geopolitical bargaining chip. International recognition could perhaps, at least on one level then, induce Turkey to confront the domestic situation that, itself, becomes more and more divided by such politics of denial. Yet, the momentum need also comes from within Turkish society itself. The voices present at Sultanahmet Square earlier this year need to be heard; or, better put, allowed to be heard, considering Article 301 and its accompanying democratic restrictions.
Taken together, criticism must go to state policies of non-recognition, which only serve to aid socially and politically destructive denial of a historical legacy. A phenomenon which, implicitly, and so crudely, even contributes to making the events, as the French-Armenian artist Jean-Marie Carzou put it, un genocide exemplaire: with every trace of the victimised group – even their posthumous status as genocide victims – destroyed, the perpetrators’ aims would be complete.