A ‘great’ power?

A ‘great’ power?

On Dec. 22, 2011, the lower house of the French Parliament, with few members in attendance, passed a law criminalizing denials of the Armenian genocide. Although the upper house had not taken up the matter, the Turkish government reacted angrily, recalling its ambassador from Paris and threatening additional actions.

The Turkish customs union with the European Union, however, will restrain it from official sanctions such as economic boycotts and comparable measures. Turkey reacted similarly when the U.S. House of Representatives and its committees endeavored to recognize the genocide, albeit with resolutions of less consequence to freedom of expression. And it may be expected to continue to react this way in the coming months and years, as the Armenian diaspora unrelentingly pursues recognition of the genocide by various foreign government institutions.

Over my long career with the U.S. government, I fielded many questions about the genocide, trying to provide those who asked with a balanced appraisal of events that transpired almost a century ago. The emotions overlaying the issue made the task difficult, if not impossible. My answers invariably noted that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in 1915 and a few years thereafter. Turks claim that about 300,000 died, Armenians that about 1.5 million died, some contemporaneous U.S. government accounts put the figure at about 800,000. By whatever calculation, a tragedy of enormous proportions occurred.

Armenians maintain that it conformed to the definition of genocide in the U.N. Genocide Convention, i.e., that it resulted from an intent to destroy the Armenian nation, although the events preceded the definition. Turks argue that the deaths occurred in the “fog of war,” i.e., during the nationalist uprisings in parts of the Ottoman Empire that coincided with World War I when the Armenians sided with the Ottoman enemy at the time – Russia. There is no final arbiter of these competing interpretations and I endeavored not to be one. Armenian critics maintained that my failure to reach a conclusion approximated denial of the genocide.

In the great scheme of things, my explanations did not prove particularly consequential. Congressional committees continued to treat the matter in ways that Armenian lobbies generally approved and may be expected to do so again, especially in election years. In this democracy, Armenians vote in numbers in many districts. Moreover, parliaments of more than 20 countries have described the events of the early 20th century as a genocide. As noted, on most occasions, the Turkish government of whatever political persuasion has reacted angrily and officially; some would say it overreacted. Yet, it has not succeeded in stopping the movement for genocide recognition.

The issue is emotional almost beyond comprehension by a non-Armenian and non-Turk. The victims were the ancestors – parents and grandparents – of today’s Armenians, who seek recognition, confessions of guilt and compensation. The alleged perpetrators were the ancestors of today’s Turks, an inordinately proud and nationalistic people not easily apologetic.

The question here is should Turkey continue to react in the way that it has in the past? Today Turkey is a major regional power. Under the current Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, it has the ambition to be ranked among the 10 great international powers in the coming years. One might ask if it is not time to set aside emotions and act dispassionately, to react as if Turkey were too important to be bothered by the rehashing of old grievances. In other words, maybe Turkey should not react. Inaction might, in fact, bother Armenians more because it would suggest that the issue no longer hurts Turkey, which many Armenians want to do. It also might show that this is not the means to obtain what they desire.

While turning aside from historical issues, Turkey might address current ones especially as it begins the process of adopting a new constitution in 2012. Here, I am thinking of the unresolved issues involving its official and unofficial minorities who have not been treated fairly, i.e., Alevis, Kurds, Syriac Christians, Greeks, Armenians, etc. If Turkey grapples with this problem in a constructive way that addresses ongoing charges of human rights abuses and that resonates with the international community, it might make it harder for governments to believe the worst of its past. It might also begin to realize its modern-day ambition to be great.

 Carol Migdalowitz is a former member of Congressional Research Service