Turkey on Armenians: None Dare Call it 'Genocide'

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The middle-aged woman in a large Istanbul supermarket toyed nervously with the packet of butter in her shopping cart before returning it to the shelf. "It's French," she explained to no one in particular as her reason for selecting another brand. She was expressing the resentment that she and many other Turks feel at the French National Assembly's decision to enact a law recognising that genocide was committed against the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

In 1915 the Young Turk government regarded Turkish Armenians as a dangerous source of instability, and decided to deport the entire Armenian population of 1.75 million. In what some claim was the first genocide of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were driven from their homes and killed. Tens of thousands emigrated to Russia, the Middle East, France and the U.S. There are currently less than 65,000 Armenians living in Turkey itself. Turks reject the accusation of genocide, stating that Armenians were among the many civilians to die in one of the most violent periods of human history.

The Turkish government has responded to the National Assembly's decision by threatening to cancel lucrative defence and telecommunications contracts with French firms. In Britain, the Armenian diaspora has accused the British government of placing politics above principle when it failed to give a more central place to Armenian suffering in the newly-declared Holocaust commemoration, held last week.

To many outside Turkey, the nation's sensitivity to accusations about events that took place more than eighty years ago — well before the declaration of the Republic in 1923 — is a mystery. Turks themselves question the motives of longtime allies in trying to dredge up these controversies. And the Armenians in Turkey itself are caught in the middle. "I do not need another government to tell me what happened to my ancestors," said Hrant Dink, editor of the Istanbul-based "Agos" newspaper, which serves the remaining Armenian community. He fears that the tragedy is still being used as fodder by those on both sides of the divide — Europeans who want to keep Ankara at arms length and a growing ultra-nationalist right in Turkey itself that basks in this sort of enmity.

"Our Armenian compatriots are for the most part prosperous; they go to the best clubs and have their island summer houses ... You'd expect them to take the Turkish side against Europe. So why have they remained silent?" wrote Emin Colasan, right-wing columnist in the mass-circulating "Hürriyet" newspaper, whose logo includes the words "Turkey for the Turks".

Such attitudes fill Dink and other Turkish Armenians with despair. He denies the view of the diaspora that Armenians living in Turkey are being held hostage. They believe that it is years of silence on the part of Turks themselves that has resulted in the current impasse. "I want to be proud of my country with its past and present," said Nazar Buyum, the head of a large Istanbul advertising firm. The first step, in this way of thinking is to stop labeling legitimate attempts to examine history as some sort of conspiracy.

For those scholars undertaking the sensitive task of looking into the events of 1915, the solemn declarations of foreign parliaments are anything but welcome. Halil Berktay, professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University describes the French Parliament as being "incredibly stupid" by simply fuelling intolerance on both sides. The action, Berktay believes, has strangled a growing dialogue between historians in Turkey and abroad. He himself speaks from painful experience after having been the target of what he describes as a McCarthyite witch-hunt after an interview in which he expressed the "open secret" that Turkish irregular units attacked Armenian civilians as they were forcibly evacuated from their homes in 1915.

"The question of genocide should be left to historians," said the Turkish President Ahmet Nejdet Sezer in an attempt late last year to diffuse nationalist passions — a remark that earned him criticism at home for being too soft. To people like Berktay, the issue of whether it was genocide is a legal not a historical question: "Our job is to explain what happened and why it happened."

Yet Turkish attitudes may only change slowly. Some Turkish bureaucrats privately fear that admission of any sort of guilt would open the country up to the three Rs — recognition, reparations, and perhaps even the restitution of territory. Emotions, too, play a part. Senior foreign ministry officials remember all too vividly the terrorist attacks mounted by radical Armenian groups during the 1970s and 1980s. Among the 71 killed were 34 diplomats.

Some Turkish politicians accuse critics of double standards. Why, they ask, is the West concerned with one people's historical suffering when others are suffering now. "Some 20% of Azerbaijan is currently under Armenian occupation," said Ismail Cem, the Turkish foreign minister in a recent briefing to foreign journalists, voicing the concern that Europe is eager to look at events in 1915 but has turned a blind eye to the recent conflict that has produced one million Azerbaijani refugees.

For the most part, Turks believe that the Armenian lobby is wilfully misrepresenting history. The version taught in Turkish schools is that Armenians allowed themselves to be caught up in Great Power politics in an attempt to create their own state during World War I. Pro-Turkish historians dispute that 1.5 million Armenians died, but even they admit that between 300,00 and 600,000 perished. However Turks also died as the result of Armenian atrocities committed behind the lines of the advancing Russian army.

This does not explain, according to Dink, why Armenians died in provinces far away from the Eastern front. He describes Armenians as still suffering from their fixation with their own tragedy and Turks by their need to deny it. "The only remedy is to help each other," he said.