Every year on April 24, people of Armenian descent organize blood drives, picket Turkish embassies, and celebrate special church services to commemorate the anniversary of the 1915 arrest of several hundred prominent Armenians in Constantinople, which was the beginning of the genocide in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923.
The Turkish government, meanwhile, calls the loss of life "a grim story of serious inter-communal conflict, perpetrated by both Christian and Muslim irregular forces, complicated by disease, famine, and many other of war's privations." And it emphatically denies that what happened nearly nine decades ago was genocide.
What may sound like a discussion more suited to the likes of Noah Webster is a sharp stick in the eye of Turkey, and an obsession for people with roots in Armenia, a Maryland-sized country in the Caucasus at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. The endless arguments over the implications of nomenclature contribute to heightened passions in a region that is already a geopolitical tinderbox. The debate over whether what happened was genocide or simply a series of wartime deaths that had no ethnic motivation makes American battles over, say, abortion or gun control seem by comparison like minor disagreements to be settled over tea and biscuits.
The genocide camp cites extensive eyewitness accounts of the extraordinary violence that was inflicted upon Armenians and equates those who claim that the events didn't constitute genocide with Holocaust deniers. "Save for the Turkish government, a few American academics holding professorships funded by Turkey and the shameful denials of the Israeli government, there is today not a soul who doubts the nature or the extent of this genocide," wrote British journalist Robert Fisk. This position is supported by a recent analysis by the International Center for Transitional Justice, which determined that the events fit the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide's definition of the term.
Turkey doesn't own up to genocide, first and foremost, because "there was no such genocide. Turks killed Armenians and Armenians killed Turks in the world war and in inter-communal violence, not genocide." This is the view of the University of Louisville's Justin McCarthy, who has been the subject of harsh criticism for his stance on the issue. Another academic says an anti-Muslim undercurrent is at work: "Turks feel that they are blamed far more because they are Muslims. Turks greatly resent the tendency of outsiders to accept without question the claims of Christian groups, while ignoring suffering and death of Muslims at the hands of Christians and Christian states." Louisville's McCarthy contends the conclusions of the ICTJ study are all but worthless. "The U.N. definition of genocide [used in the ICTJ study] is so general that it can be applied to all combatants in all theaters of World War I."
For Turks to officially concede that their forefathers were racist murders, they would have to overcome generations of indoctrination, and many analysts contend that the issue is of tertiary importance for Turkey today. Turkey, mindful of the massive damages Germany and German companies paid out to Holocaust victims, is wary of the reparation claims that would likely be made by numerous Armenian organizations at the first indication of any admission of guilt.
Turkey doesn't hesitate to throw around its weight—as a key NATO member straddling the European and Muslim worlds—to rebuke countries that support the Armenian version of events. Turkey warned the United States in October 2000 that it would prohibit U.S. fighters from using a Turkish air base to patrol northern Iraq if the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution that called the events of 1915-1923 a "genocide." (The members of Congress backed down, at the request of President Bill Clinton.) A few months later, Turkey cancelled lucrative contracts for French companies operating in Turkey after the French National Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the genocide.
In turn, Armenia compensates for what it lacks in geopolitical party favors with an influential global diaspora that is focused on winning genocide recognition. While roughly 3.2 million people live in Armenia (or closer to 2.5 million, according to unofficial estimates by developmental organizations operating in the country), more than 5 million Armenians and their descendents live in the United States, Russia, Lebanon, France, and elsewhere. The Armenian-American lobby in the United States is powerful enough to ensure that Armenia receives, on a per-capita basis, more development aid than almost any other Third World country.
Critically, genocide recognition is closely linked to cultural self-identity for many hyphenate-Armenians. "The Armenian diaspora finds the basis for its identity more in the issue of Genocide than in Armenian culture, homeland, or history more generally. … [T]he touchstone for being Armenian [for many in the diaspora] is the fate of Armenians in 1915 and the persistent denial of their experience by the Turkish government," Ronald Grigor Suny, a professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively about Armenian history, told me in an e-mail interview.
Toward that end, Armenian diaspora organizations spearhead campaigns to encourage U.S. politicians to commemorate and recognize the Armenian genocide and parse obscure State Department documents and Web sites like so many tea leaves to detect subtle shifts in U.S. policy toward genocide recognition or genocidal slights. There's also the those-who-don't-know-history-are-doomed-to-repeat-it angle of genocide recognition: "If a country does not recall history with clarity, then it cannot prevent the crime from recurring," said Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.
While diaspora organizations focus on a range of issues relating to Armenia, including extensive humanitarian programs, the preoccupation with genocide recognition at times seems out of step with the reality of life in Armenia and in the Caucasus generally and with the shifting environment of the developing world. "Armenians in [Armenia] have many other sources for their identity [besides genocide recognition] and are, therefore, less dependent on the Genocide alone, though this has become important to them as well in the last 40 years," said Suny.
Meanwhile, though, Armenians who live in Armenia understand that they must deal with the reality of Turkey today. In the early 1990s, Turkey blockaded its border with Armenia in a gesture of sympathy with Azerbaijan during the war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The World Bank estimates that the reopening of trade relations with Turkey could boost Armenia's GDP by 30 percent—and the official Armenian government stance is that genocide recognition by Turkey is not a precondition for diplomatic relations. Until now, Turkey has acquiesced to Azerbaijani wishes that its border remain blocked, but Armenian diplomatic circles are intermittently atwitter with rumors about the supposedly imminent removal of the blockade.
While it can never turn its back on its history, Armenia today has problems of a much more immediate nature: Roughly half the population struggles in or on the edge of poverty, and the country has lost 20 percent of its population over the past 15 years, due to massive post-Soviet migration. While distrust of Turkey runs deep, and few Armenians are prepared to forgive—to say nothing of forget—there is a growing sense that unless Armenia shifts its focus more into the present, and out of the past, it won't have much of a future to look forward to.
Thanks to Holdwater for his thoughts.