By Edmond Y. Azadian
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia declared its independence along with the other Soviet republics.
At the dawn of the new independence, journalists in Armenia held a panel discussion to which I was invited. Perhaps that was one of the first forums where journalists from Armenia and the diaspora held a free exchange of ideas.
My fellow panelists were peppering me with questions and at one point, I stopped and told them I was turning the table on them and had one question for all of them. I asked how important they considered the issues of the Armenian Genocide and the claims on the historic Western Armenian homeland. I asked them to raise their hands. I got the shock of my life when I saw that only 50 percent of the journalists present even considered those issues as important for Armenians in the homeland.
My response was that if this represented an accurate sampling of public opinion, it did not auger well for our future.
If our commitment to our heritage is only 50 percent, then the chances for the survival of the newly-independent republic cannot surpass the 50-percent mark.
All along, the blame was laid on the Soviet system that did not allow Armenian historians to concentrate on the issue of the Genocide. Some brave scholars like Jon Kirakosyan and Lentrush Khurshudyan had dealt with the topic, but they had to operate within the straitjacket of Marxist ideology.
But it turns out that even under an independent system, the interest is simply not there.
During the last 30 years, Armenia could not develop its own genocide scholarship, and even the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex has become a bone of contention among scholars to the embarrassment of the entire academic community of Armenia. Ironically, most credible Armenian Genocide studies have been achieved in the diaspora and a good portion of it by non-Armenians, such as Taner Akçam, Halil Berktay, Israel Charny and Yair Auron.
Most probably, the underlying reason was the belief that the issue is a sentimental cause for diasporan Armenians.
In contrast, the Jews have generated a tremendous volume of Holocaust studies, along with founding many museums around the world. They have held the entire world accountable for its silence and have received compensation not only from Germany, but also from countries emerging from under Soviet rule.
Unfortunately, Armenians have failed to capitalize on their past misfortune to help them in the present. The Armenian government only realized very late that it had a case of universal magnitude which could be tapped as a political resource; during Robert Kocharyan’s administration, the recognition of Genocide was placed on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda, only to be criticized by his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosian, as an undue provocation to Turkey. We have seen the video clip of then Vice-President Biden being told in confidence by President Serzh Sargsyan during a phone call that the issue is not a priority for Armenia. And still, Armenia has not learned its lesson.
We have witnessed that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s current administration is no different; the prime minister and his entire team, collectively refused to categorize Turkey as an enemy, when questioned publicly.
Armenia is not a rich country with mineral resources, nor does it have military might nor political clout. Yet, it has lost the moral, legal and historical power of its genocide, which could have been used as a cudgel against Turkey. President Erdogan realizes much better than the Armenian politicians the political weight of the issue. We have witnessed how much his administration is invested in pseudo-scholarship, media campaigns and political actions to deter President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2021, which came to crown the legislative actions that the US Congress had taken earlier.
Now, in view of the Biden-Erdogan planned meeting, which will take place on June 14 on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels, the Genocide issue has emerged in a more spectacular way and most probably will feature as an agenda item during the meeting.
Erdogan realizes better than anyone the legal and political consequences of the recognition of the Genocide by major powers.
Metin Gurcan recently published an article on the website Al-Monitor regarding that forthcoming meeting, highlighting the issues which have strained US-Turkish relations.
The article in particular refers to the Armenian Genocide: “In a TV interview on June 1, Erdogan conceded that his dialogue with Biden ‘has not been easy’ thus far, unlike his ‘very peaceful and easy-going’ phone diplomacy with Trump. Referring also to the terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he said, ‘he never experienced such tension’ with the White House, putting the blame on Biden for recognizing the Ottoman era killings of Armenians as Genocide.”
Turkey has many problems with the US administration, yet Erdogan singles out the recognition of the Genocide, signifying the potential threat to Turkey that it poses.
There has been a row between the two sides over the purchase of S-400 Russian defense systems, with the ensuing ouster of Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program. Other problems include the US trial of Turkish Halkbank, which had helped Iran evade sanctions, the ignored request for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen to Turkey, and US support for Syrian Kurds and Ankara’s tensions with another NATO ally, Greece. All these issues will be on the negotiation table.
All along, Erdogan has been intransigent on the issue of the Russian arms purchases, maintaining that Turkey is an independent country and cannot be treated as a secondary power. However, Erdogan’s administration is in the midst of a political chess game; while highlighting the Genocide issue publicly, his foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is soft-peddling the S-400 issue, insinuating that Turkey may send home the Russian experts manning the defense system and place the arms on Incirlik Airbase under US control, hoping to barter with the Genocide issue.
Armenia’s foreign policy planners may need to learn a lesson from Erdogan, who uses the Genocide issue so skillfully to reach his political ends.
Armenians have to be realistic and acknowledge that it was not only their lobbying efforts that achieved the recognition nor President Biden’s honesty to deliver on his promise, because many politicians and presidential candidates made easy promises only to forget them after winning an election. This time around, a confluence of factors has contributed to the successful end of this political saga.
The cumulative impact of Erdogan’s mischievous activities finally proved that Turkey was using the cover of NATO and power to pursue its own narrow objectives, most of the times against the interests of the alliance. This rude awakening had come not only to President Biden, but also the leaders in Europe. This could not have been formulated any better than what the president of the European Union stated.
President Charles Michel said, “We are not naïve. Turkey is a neighbor, it is a NATO ally, but the European Union has come to the conclusion that Ankara has to be convinced that it has to adopt a positive policy regarding European interests…. In the past Turkey’s behavior did not contribute to European interests. We are ready to use all the tools at our disposal to control Turkey’s behavior.”
It is significant that the statement was made on June 1, on the eve of Nikol Pashinyan’s meeting with Mr. Michel.
Upon his election, President Biden announced that “America is back.” His policies are having their reverberations on international relations. He will be meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who he accused of being a “killer.” He will meet with his Russian counterpart on that premise.
He was not less complimentary toward Erdogan. Just before his election, President Biden pledged to work with Erdogan’s opposition to unseat him. It was no wonder that he gave a cold shoulder to the Turkish leader, refusing to talk to him after the election. He picked up the phone on April 23 to break the news to Erdogan that he was about to release a statement recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Erdogan’s reaction was uncharacteristically subdued, given the complex nature of his relations with Washington.
Human rights issues have no bearing on Turkey’s president, but when President Biden speaks of human rights, he means business. Perhaps Erdogan will learn that even before his meeting with his American counterpart.
It is obvious that during the Biden-Erdogan meeting, the Genocide issue will be on the table. The US, as a co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, was not pleased either with the haphazard arrangements that Russia and Turkey have made in the Caucasus, with the contention that they had solved the Karabakh issue by force.
Let’s hope President Biden will be bold enough to tell his two counterparts that America is back and the unfinished business of Karabakh has to be taken back in hand by the Minsk Group and resolved based on the principles adhered to by the group all along.