Vicken Cheterian

100 Years Later: Turkey’s Lost Chance

I was in Yerevan to commemorate the end of the century of the first modern Genocide. I was there to assist the distribution of the first “Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity”. Marguerite Barankitse, the winner of the one million dollar prize, is from Burundi, who back in 1993 as war erupted in her country chose to save 25 children by providing them shelter; since she has saved the lives of several thousand children. 

I saw a new spirit being born in Yerevan, a new message being sent to the world. There was no anger in the message, no demand. It looked at the deep heart of humanity, and among the many dark wrinkles it found some light: The message in Yerevan was “Thank You” to all those simple people who are risking their own to save the lives of others, of innocent civilians caught in the fire of hatred and arbitrary violence. Didn’t perfect foreigners one day save the lives of thousands of Armenian orphans, who today flourish in the four corners of the world?

Mind you, Yerevan is not a confortable place enjoying the luxury of distributing millions. Yerevan is neither Geneva, nor Armenia a Switzerland. Armenia itself continues to suffer, not just symbolically for lack of justice for the 1.5 million people who perished in 1915, but also Armenia today is living through difficult times. One-third of Armenian population left the country since its independence, and 32% of its inhabitants live under the line of poverty. The difficulties of this small, land-locked formerly Soviet republic is largely conditioned by the Karabakh conflict in the east, which consumes important portion of the country’s budget for defence; the difficulties are also because of Turkey, which in this conflict, instead of taking a constructive position and work for conflict-resolution, has chosen to support Azerbaijani militaristic and aggressive policies “until the end” as President Erdogan reminded us in early April. Turkey imposes a blockade on Armenia for over two decades now, bleeding its economy and suffocating its people. 

The message I heard in Yerevan was that we survived, and we continue to live. Moreover, I heard one more important message: in spite of our open wounds we are able to empathy with the suffering of others, and try to help them with our meagre means. 

What about Turkey after 100 years? What is the message of Turkey after a long century? I am afraid to say: nothing much, and more of the old thinking. The official discourse of denial has hardly changed. Turkish official representatives did not recognize the destruction of the Armenians as a crime, nor did they start revising their policies and giving back part of what was looted from the Armenians. Turkey did not open its borders with Armenia – the last border of the Cold war still survives there. Even Erdogan’s “condolences” were not given in the year of the centennial, but on April 23, 2014. Even the few advances that was taken within the Turkish civil society, the opening up of the debate, the renovation of a church or two, is being reversed in an atmosphere of fear and repression.  

Although no progress was made in 2015, still Turkish official policy to silence the memory of 1915 also failed: the attempt to use Gallipoli battle commemoration, by moving its ceremonies to April 24, 2015, did not work. The attention of the global media, the courageous position of Pope Francis, and the activities of the descendants of genocide survivors have shown that the memory of 1915 will simply not fade away.

Many think that Turkish official recognition of the Genocide will be a favour done by Turkey to the Armenians. Let me tell you that it is 100 years too late. Whatever Turkey does, it will not make up for the losses of 1915, when not only hundreds of thousands innocent people were killed, but civilization was uprooted form the Middle East. Look at the state of affairs on the lands where the genocide took place and you might draw your conclusions: from Turkey to Syria, Iraq and beyond the same violent drive to self-destruction continues to thrive. In Yerevan I also understood that Turkey does not have much to give to Armenians, even symbolically: by giving the Aurora Prize to perfect strangers, Armenians have overcome their own suffering and victimization by transforming it into a symbolic act of solidarity.

By recognizing the hideous crime of 1915, Turkey will only save itself from the dark. By the crime of genocide, and by 100 years of denial, Turkey has failed to distinguish between what is good and what is bad; between what is a crime, and what is justice. I am not being poetic here, nor moralizing: morals have very concrete manifestations of their own. Let me explain by one example: in 1915 the deportation and massacres of the Armenians were planned by the Unionist authorities and partially carried out by Kurdish tribes. At the time, the Ottoman authorities and Kurdish aghas were allies, but once the Armenians were eliminated, the central government turned against the Kurds: it used the same violence to repress them; it used the same logic of denial to pretend that Kurds do not even exist. The on-going war in Turkey’s south-east between government soldiers and Kurdish fighters shows how much Turkey is still turned back to its own past, unable to liberate itself and move forward. 

In case Turkey wants peace and justice, not to mention development, they have to look back to their original sin, from where libration of their conscience might finally start.