Turk-Arm II: A Legacy of Pain and the Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement

April 23, 2009
Like a lot of people, I'm glad to see that the Turkish and Armenian governments have apparently made some progress recently in their relations with one another. As I wrote in a post last week, leaders of the two states have been making quiet steps towards a normalization in their relationship since the fall of 2008. In September of last year, Turkish president Abdullah Gul made a quick trip to Yerevan to attend a soccer game, and since late 2007 delegations from the two countries have been meeting regularly in Geneva in an effort to come up with a means of developing their relations.

On Thursday, leaders of the two states announced that they had arrived at "a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations." While the announcement stops short of an agreement to fully normalize ties and open the border, according to speculation in the Turkish press there might be an agreement--along with some kind of quid-pro-quo from Armenia relating to Nagorno-Karabakh, as early as June.

In this posting, I'll talk a little bit about the issues that have been dividing the governments of Turkey and Armenia since Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Then, in my next posting, I'll write about what I hope to see and not see emerge from the normalization talks that the two states have been undertaking.
Basically, there have been two main issues that have been separating the political leaders of the two countries. The first is the Armenian genocide issue, and Armenian support to have the events of 1915 recognized internationally as a genocide. As I've discussed elsewhere on this site, most people in Turkey argue strongly against the idea that the death of [at least] hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 should be considered a 'genocide.' The website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides a number of statements and links from which the official Turkish position can be gleaned. To summarize the official Turkish position very roughly, it is that large numbers of both Muslims and Armenians died in ethnic fighting in eastern Anatolia under circumstances which could more accurately be described as those of a "civil war" than of genocide. The Armenian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, argues that 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a 'genocide,' with another 500,000 Armenians seeking refuge abroad.
For Turkey, the genocide issue is not simply a matter of national pride. Calls by Armenian groups for financial restitution, even the ceding of territory to Armenia, raise hackles in a country where national historiography provides frequent reminders of European transgressions against Ottoman territorial sovereignty. Back when Armenia was still officially part of the Soviet Union, Armenia's Declaration of Independence included some regions of Turkey in the state that the declaration envisioned coming into being, and the preamble to the 1995 Constitution reaffirms the territorial scope of the Declaration of Independence. On Thursday of this week, moreover, one of the parties in Armenia's government threatened to leave the coalition over the emergence of ties with Turkey, with the party releasing a statement saying that it opposed the normalization of relations until Turkey recognized the Armenian genocide and paid restitution.
Finally, all of these issues unearth painful historical memories which, for people in Turkey, often run counter to their international reputation as victimizers, rather than victims. Indeed, after more than ten years of fighting (from the outbreak of the first Balkan War in 1912 until the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923), millions of Muslims and Christians in the region had been killed or forced to leave their homes forever. Turkish national historiography, and the strong feelings that many people hold today in Turkey with regard to accusations of genocide and demands for restitution are largely shaped by their historical memory of these events--particularly since this memory is often fueled by the nationalist and one-sided accounts of these events that dominate the public discourse in Turkey. But nationalist historiographical propaganda notwithstanding, it's nevertheless important to recognize that this pain is real because the suffering was real. Alongside the very real and intense suffering of Ottoman Armenians during the period in question, enormous numbers of Anatolian Muslims (not to mention Muslims arriving as refugees from the Balkans and Russia, whose descendants constitute a large share of the population today) also suffered horribly during these years.
Discussion of the Armenian genocide issue has far too often come down to a question of who suffered the most. Numbers are important, and they should be talked about. But first, I think both Turks and Armenians need to recognize that this period was extremely traumatic for both sets of populations. With that as a starting point, maybe there will be a possibility for real reconciliation some day. I certainly hope so. 

The second issue dividing the governments of Turkey and Armenia today is the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Like a lot of places that turned violent during and after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Nagarno-Karabakh was a 'mini-republic,' a locally administered 'national' region located inside another republic. As I discussed in a piece from last summer, I think it's important to recognize the importance of state structures when discussing wars that have too frequently been chalked up simply to "ethnic violence." There are lots of places in the former USSR and the Balkans where mixed populations live and where no fighting took place in the late 1980s and 1990s. In those places where heavy fighting did break out, not only were there populations from different ethnic or religious groups living side by side, but also the issue of secession, of creating new states, was also on the table. As a historian I tend not to indulge in the 'what ifs' of history, but I do think that Romania and Bulgaria (which have large Hungarian and Turkic minorities, respectively) were fortunate that, in 1989, they did not find themselves with autonomous Hungarian and Turkic republics declaring independence within their borders. As tense as minority relations sometimes became in those two countries, they avoided the scale of bloodshed that plagued Yugoslavia. By the same token, I can't help wondering what might have happened if Yugoslavia (or the Soviet Caucasus) had not been divided into "national" republics which only vaguely configured to the actual breakdown of populations which were very intertwined with one another.
So Nagorno-Karabakh was an 'Armenian' autonomous region located inside Azerbaijan. Since 1988 there had been scattered fighting between Azeris and Armenians not only in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also in the Armenian and Azeri republics. Much of this initial combat may have been partly influenced by a shared historical memory (one which had never been properly examined during the Soviet era) of conflict taking place during two other periods in which government authority in the region broke down--namely, after the first Russian revolution of 1905 and then again after the breakup of the Russian Empire towards the end of the First World War.  Then, after Nagorno Karabakh declared independence in December of 1991--only two weeks before the Soviet Union was itself to dissolve--the more small-scale conflict that had typified the fighting in the early years developed rapidly into full-scale war.
After three years of fighting, a cease-fire was declared which left almost all of Nagorno-Karabkh, as well as an additional stretch of land (the Lachin Corridor), which is also officially Azeri territory, that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, out of Azeri government control. Armenia has never officially annexed Nagorno-Karabakh, but the disputed region--altogether about 15 percent of the total territory of Azerbaijan--has nevertheless become a de facto region of Armenia. There are about 800,000 Azeri refugees from the occupied regions living in Azerbaijan today--making up about 10 percent of a country with only 8 million inhabitants. When I was researching in Baku in 2004 and 2005, just about all of the staff of the library at the Central Historical Archives of Azerbaijan were refugees from the Lachin Corridor. More than ten years after leaving their villages with nothing but a hastily-packed suitcase (one woman said she fled her house without any shoes on), most of them were still living in crowded dormitories and hotel rooms that had been turned over to refugees. Meanwhile, it's important to remember that tens of thousands of Armenians had to leave Azerbaijan during these years, just as tens of thousands of Azeris had to leave Armenia.

The triangular set of relations between Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan is complicated, to say the least. Nevertheless, I'm very hopeful that a normalization process can be undertaken not only between Turkey and Armenia, but between all three states. 
Tomorrow I'll talk a bit more about this.

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