Professor Libaridian responds to Turkish FM’s call for a ‘just memory’

Professor Libaridian responds to Turkish FM’s call for a ‘just memory’

It is not often that a minister of foreign affairs will dare to reveal the logic behind his government’s policy on a sensitive matter. This is what Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu has done recently in his article, “Turkish-Armenian Relations: Is a ‘Just Memory’ Possible?” published in the Turkish Policy Quarterly’s Spring 2014 issue.

Together, the concepts “just” and “memory” have a high and fair sounding appeal; however, the juxtaposition of these two words is more revealing than the minister suspects. The word “just” conjures a moral category, while memory refers to a fallible, though important, category of knowledge regarding the past. Neither of the words in that expression –nor the article in general– offer precision.

Here, moral and social categories are intertwined in order to bypass the critical essence of the problem: history.

Essentially, Mr. Davutoğlu argues that in order for reconciliation to be reached, Armenians need to adjust their memory by considering all of the good times they had while they were subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians, having lost more than half their numbers and their homeland, are asked to change their collective memory; they are asked to accept the minister’s version of that history that reduces massacres and deportations to “relocations,” then to “emigration” and, finally, to “war and conflict.”

The minister thinks he is solving his problem, as well as the problem of the Turkish state – how to avoid the term genocide. Whether his solution is a realistic one or not, he certainly is not solving what Armenians consider to be the problem. What is being attempted here is the new conquest, the conquest of memory.

I am writing this commentary not only as a historian who specializes in Ottoman Armenian history, but also as the main official representing Armenia responsible for negotiations aimed at the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia from 1992 through 1997. We had no preconditions for the establishment of normal relations between the two, despite some opposition in Armenia and a wider one in the diaspora. We did not adjust our memory, but instead placed state and regional interests above that memory for the sake of our peoples. That was a more dignified, even if costlier, way to deal with the disparities in memory than what the minister offers. I must add that although more vociferous about the recognition of the Genocide, the two subsequent administrations to ours have maintained the same basic position.

The present government of Turkey has also continued the policy of its predecessors in adopting a “Turkishness” based policy toward the Karabakh problem. Baku has relied on Ankara’s unconditional support to maintain its unyielding position in the negotiation process. One can appreciate the difficulties in Turkey’s current domestic problems and its increased dependence on Azerbaijani investments in the country. But Armenians should not be asked to resolve Turkey’s problems. If Armenians are being asked to make the ostensible good times they had under Ottoman rule to balance their memory and make reconciliation possible, why is it that a powerful state like Turkey cannot remember those same good times and for the sake of these good old times normalize relations with Armenia unconditionally?

I cannot expect Diaspora Armenians to relativize what happened to their people when it comes to relations with the Turkish state when that Turkish state seems to continue the path of engineering memory instead of respecting it. It seems that in doing so, the Turkish state is failing to appreciate the depth of hurt and insult when they try to teach Armenians lessons in history, in addition to the fatal blow to their history that was inflicted beginning in 1915.

There is no doubt that the Minister’s recognition of Ittihad leaders’ policies, however defined and characterized, represents a major breakthrough. But these courageous and appreciated words will acquire their full significance only when (1) the original acts they are condemning are not minimized and (2) the words are followed by actions that mitigate the original act and give reason to Armenians not to “despise.”

* Gerard J. Libaridian is a historian who served as senior advisor to the first president of independent Armenia, between 1991 and 1997. This is an abridged version of the commentary he wrote for Turkish Policy Quarterly in response to Mr. Davutoğlu’s article. For the full text of Mr. Libaridian’s critique, visit: