Armenian-Turkish relations by a “historian of the present”

Known for his researches on Caucasus and his book on Karabakh conflict titled “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War”, author and journalist Thomas de Waal's recent book “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide” has been published in Turkish by Iletişim Publishing. By way of his book, we talked to de Waal about the current developments in Caucasus.

In your recent book, you give a broad history of Armenian-Turkish relations. What is the reason for dealing with the topic with such a broad perspective?

I have spent most of my professional career working in either Russia or the lands of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. So I came to know the Armenians through many visits to “Eastern Armenia” and Nagorny Karabakh. But in those many trips I periodically I felt that there was something big missing in my understanding of this people. It was a bit like the massive presence of Mount Ararat which sometimes surprises you on the horizon when you are in Yerevan—it is always there but you often fail to notice it. That missing element—that mountain in the distance--was of course the horror of the loss of human life and the Armenian homeland in what we now call the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16 and how it has affected modern Armenian history. 

The turning point for me was when I was invited to join a pilgrimage of American Armenians to eastern Turkey by Bishop Barsamian of New York. Spending several days with a group of mostly elderly Armenians visiting their ancestral homeland was an unforgettable and moving experience. First of all, because of the unforgettable family stories that came tumbling out of them on the trip. Secondly, because of the opportunity to visit these historical places. And thirdly because it was a moment (2012) when eastern Anatolia was opening up to its past and history and almost all the Kurds and Turks we met were very welcoming and quite frank about the Armenian heritage of their regions and how much had been lost in 1915-16.

For me that trip was the key to unlocking the door into this difficult and complex issue. I spent a long time over the next few years talking to many Armenians, Kurds and Turks and exploring the story of Armenian-Turkish relations. I am not an academic historian and it would be inappropriate for me to try to contribute to a field in which distinguished historians have worked for decades. However I am what could be called a “historian of the present” who studies the recent past and the impact of history on the present-day and understands the contemporary political context well. This is the theme of my book. It is a “history of the history” of Armenian-Turkish relations after 1916, attempting to understand why things have changed so much and why this issue is such a painful one a century after the events.

What do you think about the current situation of Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process? What are the obstacles in your opinion?

In English, we have an expression about a glass in which the water is poured exactly half-way up the side. We ask “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” Obviously it is a matter of outlook—the optimist says the same glass is half-full, the pessimist that it is half-empty.

When it comes to Turkish-Armenian relations we have some good reasons to say that the glass is still half-full. Let’s start with the fact that it would have been unthinkable 15 years ago for me to describe many of the meetings I had in Turkey and for the book describing them to be published in Turkey. A large part of Turkish society has opened up to the dark page of its history in which almost the entire Ottoman Armenian population was murdered, deported or forcibly assimilated into Muslim families. The “denialist” narrative which took root in Turkey in the 1970s has been discredited. Historians write about the real events, books are published. Several churches have re-opened. There are many connections between ordinary Armenians and Turks on a cultural level.

But we can also say that the glass if half-empty. So much Armenian architectural heritage in Turkey is still in a state of collapse or ruin. School textbooks still tell a false version of history. Many Armenians and Turks are still angry with one another. And of course the Protocols process which would have seen the opening of the border and the establishing of diplomatic relations collapsed in failure in 2010. Moreover, since then, officials relations have got worse and there is little prospect of a new opening. Without rapprochement at the official level between Ankara and Yerevan, there are limits about what ordinary people can achieve.

Regarding Azerbeijan factor in Turkey-Armenia relations, how do you assess the position of Turkey during four-day-war in Karabakh on April? How will this position affect/has already affected Turkey-Armenia relations?

In general I think it would be helpful to make Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and Armenian-Turkish relations two separate issues. Although Azerbaijanis and Turks have much in common they are two separate peoples with different histories, religious affiliations and outlooks on the world. To repeat one obvious historical fact: Turks are mostly Sunnis and descendants of the Ottoman Empire, Azerbaijanis are mostly Shia and spent most of their history under either Persian or Russian rule.

The Armenian-Turkish story is a very asymmetrical one in which Armenians suffered enormously at the hands of Turkish/Ottoman authorities—of course Armenians also inflicted suffering on Turks but in a much smaller degree. The conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis can be described as a more or less symmetrical “50-50” conflict in which side has suffered at the hands of the other and has legitimate grievances against the other.

So I think it is unfortunate that Turkey now supports Azerbaijani state policy so closely on the Karabakh conflict. This has a negative impact on Armenian-Turkish reconciliation efforts, without helping Azerbaijan. Turkey would be better placed to be more detached and be a “neutral broker” persuading the government in Baku to be bolder in making compromises in the name of peace in the region. That would be in the interests of all sides, including Turkey.

It is unfortunate that Turkey now supports Azerbaijani state policy so closely on the Karabakh conflict. This has a negative impact on Armenian-Turkish reconciliation efforts, without helping Azerbaijan.

Coming back to Turkey-Armenia normalization, reconciliation process: In your opinion, what are the first three steps that should be be taken both by Armenian and Turkish sides?

Each side involved in these difficult issues needs to make gestures towards the other and take steps. Those steps need to be coordinated. I have compared this sequence of steps to a line of dominoes that fall, with each one knocking the next one over in quick succession.

It is hard for Armenia or Azerbaijan, small societies where there are strong emotions about historical grievances, to make the first step. So it is logical that Turkey, a bigger stronger state, should make the first step.

I believe that first step should be announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border. I would also love to see some symbolic gestures, such as the renaming of streets named after Talat Pasha. And of course we want to see a strong signal that the “denialist” view of the history of 1915-16 is rejected officially by the government in Ankara and that a much fuller statement of apology is issued to the descendants of those who lost their lives in 1915-16. This can be done without even using the word “genocide.”

On the Armenian side, we can also see the need for some steps. In the first place a commitment to engage in more serious comprehensive negotiations on the Karabakh conflict with a view to returning the occupied regions outside Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijani control. And with regard to Turkey, it would be appropriate to see an apology issued to the relatives of those diplomats who died as a result of Armenian terrorists in the 1970s and ‘80s. But I repeat: the Armenian side would be acting after the Turkish side made the first step.

When it comes to Azerbaijan, the requirement is very simple: it should not block the process of Armenian-Turkish normalization and should see how it can be a catalyst to more serious negotiations in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Because of your abilities as a storyteller, the book is very easy to read and the reader doesn't need to have a lot of knowledge on the topic for reading it. Was it on purpose? And what are readers' comments/feedback on that?

Thank you! I am trained as a journalist, not an academic scholar or policy analyst. So wherever possible my instinct is to start “on the ground,” to see, hear and smell the real places and to ask ordinary people to tell their stories. A framework of human stories thus surrounds the politics and the analysis. And in this case there is such an abundance of extraordinary stories! Ask any Armenian of the older generation or any resident of a city like Diyarbakir or Van to tell you their family history and you have enough for a book in itself.  

Prefering “Medz Yeghern” instead of “Genocide”

And the last question: In your book, you say that you recognize the Armenian genocide (as a genocide) , however you mostly use the term "the great disaster" instead of the G word. Could you explain, please,what is the reason of your preference?

I do not like the word “genocide.” I regard it as a noble concept that has not worked. It was conceived by Raphael Lemkin in response to the Nazis’ mass murder of Europe’s Jews and it would not have been adopted into international law if it were not for the Holocaust. So the shadow of the Holocaust hangs over it and therefore no one accused of genocide wants to be associated with the Nazis.

I absolutely agree that what happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-16 is a good fit for the word “genocide” and that is why I use the term Armenian Genocide in my book. It would be worse not to use the term than not to use it. But I do so without enthusiasm. I would say the term remains both too hot and too cold, being used both in a very emotional and politicized way by some people, while also retaining a cold legal meaning that is also not well defined. Hrant Dink, who had an amazing intuitive understanding of this issue said, “I have a hard time accepting the imprisonment of human experience inside a legal term [genocide] that is itself designed to produce a political outcome.”

So I much prefer the term Medz Yeghern which I think is more human, more dignified and applies specifically to the experience of the Armenians in 1915-16. I believe if the word “genocide” had been avoided and everyone had used this term instead, Armenian-Turkish reconciliation would have moved much further.  

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Varduhi Balyan