Turkey and Armenia: beginning of a new era? By Cesar Chelala


The announcement that Turkey and Armenia have decided to establish diplomatic relations is a significant measure, the importance of which goes beyond the relationship between the two countries: it could also catalyse Turkey's accession bid to the EU and improve Armenia's standing in the region.
In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire was waning, over one million Armenians were killed by Ottoman forces because they were perceived as a threat to the empire's security. Many others were forced into exile. While Armenians consider those events genocide, Turkey has steadfastly denied that accusation and claims that those Armenians were killed in warfare. Animosity by Armenians towards Turks persists and has caused deep tension and mistrust between both countries.
I feel a close connection to both peoples because one of my ancestors is of Turkish-Armenian origin: one of my grandmothers was born in Adana, once belonging to Armenia but now part of Turkey. During a trip to Armenia a couple of years ago, I was reminded of man's inhumanity to man. I also found myself face-to-face with the power of memory and hate.
Can this bitterness be overcome so that a productive relationship between both peoples and countries can develop?
During my trip, I spoke in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, with Professor Mira Antonyan, director of the Fund for Armenian Relief, about the effects of past events on Armenians today. "The only thing that unites us [Armenians] now is our resentment against the Turks for the events of the past", she told me. Her husband and a friend, both of whom do business with Turks, shared this sentiment despite their regular interactions. "Being Armenian means having sad memories", she added.
I told them that I felt Armenians were in a quagmire, unable to move forward because of the tremendous weight of past events. Mira's husband answered, "Genocide is a very heavy burden on our shoulders. We cannot just forget what happened. We cannot erase our memory."
However, it seems there is a generational divide on this issue. Older generations–those over 50 years of age–insist on the need for an official apology from the Turkish government for the assassination of Armenians. Younger generations, without rejecting the facts of history, feel the need to overcome the negative effects of those memories. They believe that such visceral attachment to the past is self-defeating.
Kamilla Petrosyan, an Armenian psychiatrist in her late 30s, told me how her 4-year-old son arrived home one day from kindergarten frightened to death on learning about the 1915 massacres. "We have to stop this culture of victimisation", she said, "otherwise we will never be able to move forward."
A number of Turkish intellectuals, including the winner of the 2006 Noble Prize for literature, Orhan Pamuk, have also made public statements on the need to move forward. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has been quite forceful on the need for, and potential mutual convenience of, better relations between both countries and has called for the formation of a joint commission of Turkish and American scholars to assess past events.
Although Pamuk has faced incredible backlash from the Turkish government due to his views on the Armenian genocide, he has courageously continued expressing his opinion. And Gul's push for better relations has been well received by Armenian officials, many of whom are eager for better relations with Turkey.
The creation of a commission of both Turkish and Armenian historians under the auspices of the United Nations, with representatives from the International Court of Justice at The Hague, is an important and necessary step. The task of such a commission would be to analyse historical documents that would shed definitive light on the events of the past.
A change of paradigm that would allow us to move away from a culture of antagonism, towards one of reconciliation, is desperately needed.
Some important steps have already been taken. In July 2008, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Armenia. The September 2008 visit was the first-ever visit of a Turkish head of state to Armenia and led to high-level talks between officials from both countries.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies (ACNIS) in Yerevan, recently wrote that a changing relationship could result in a "win-win" situation for both countries. For Armenia, it offers new economic opportunities and a much-needed foreign policy shift, particularly on an issue that has been of tremendous economic and psychological cost to Armenians. For Turkey, it would result in improved status vis-à-vis the European Union.

In a world wired for war, peaceful and productive relations between Turkey and Armenia would show that understanding among peoples burdened by the past is possible. It could also provide an important model for other groups – such as the relationship between Turkey and its Kurdish population. More significantly, these events could create momentum for peace in a region of the world that desperately needs it.


* Cesar Chelala is co-author of "Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims", a New York Times Magazine cover story, for which he shared an Overseas Press Club of America award.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews),

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