Unearthing the past, endangering the future
Oct 18th 2007 | ANKARA, WASHINGTON, DC, AND YEREVAN
From The Economist print edition
Turkey votes to invade northern Iraq; Congress considers the Armenian genocide. The two are dangerously connected
STANDING before a blurred photograph of a ditch full of emaciated corpses, an elderly woman begins to cry. “The Turks are butchers,” hisses another. These women are among thousands of diaspora Armenians who travel from all corners of the globe to pay tribute to their dead at the genocide memorial in Yerevan. “Our objective is not to attack this or that country,” explains a grim-faced guide. “It is to ensure recognition of the first genocide of the 20th century, that of 1.5m Armenians by the Turks.”
For decades, Armenians round the world have lobbied for explicit official recognition of their point of view. Over the years, Armenian groups in America (where perhaps 400,000 people have Armenian ancestry) have persuaded 40 out of 50 states to recognise the genocide. They seemed poised to snatch their biggest trophy yet when the Foreign Affairs Committee of America's Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill on October 10th stating that “the Armenian genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman empire from 1915 to 1923.” But this was overshadowed, on October 17th, by another, related, vote: the Turkish parliament's decision to allow the government to clobber guerrillas of the homegrown Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in their haven in northern Iraq.
For, even as Congress has been considering a war that is almost a century old, America's present war in Iraq has made Turkey newly vulnerable to Kurdish attacks. The de facto autonomy enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds has encouraged the PKK. Many PKK guerrillas are now attacking the Turks from bases in Iraq. As many as 20 Turkish soldiers have died in clashes with the PKK in the past two weeks alone. The Turks have held back from retaliation, largely because they hoped that America would deal with the PKK itself. Its failure to do so, mainly because it fears upsetting its Iraqi Kurdish allies, is the biggest cause of rampant anti-American feeling in Turkey, which has been strengthening for some time (see chart). So although President George Bush warned Turkey, just before its parliamentary vote, that it was not in its interests to send troops into Iraq, the Turks ignored him. “The genocide resolution poured more oil on to the flames at the worst possible time,” observes Taha Ozhan of the SETA think-tank in Ankara.
Echoes of the Ottomans
The raw facts of the Armenian tragedy are not disputed. In 1915 many hundreds of thousands of Armenian civilians were deported to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. They were more than likely to die on the journey from starvation, exhaustion and attacks by robbers or irregular fighters. Their deportation, in the view of most Western historians, fits the United Nations' 1948 definition of genocide: an action intended “to destroy in whole, or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. That conclusion is based in part on the testimony of Christian missionaries and Western diplomats, who observed at close hand the atrocities inflicted on the Armenians and concluded that this was not just brutal deportation, but a policy of extermination.
Turkey admits that several hundred thousand Armenians did die, but says this was not because of any centrally organised campaign to wipe them out. The deaths, it says, were a result of the chaos convulsing the Ottoman empire in its final days—a collapse accelerated by the treachery of its Armenian subjects, who had sided with invading Russian and French forces. In short, the tragedy was war, not genocide. This is the version taught to Turkish schoolchildren, who are also told that many more Turks were killed by Armenians than vice versa. Turks remember, too, that in the 1970s some 47 of their countrymen, many of them diplomats, were killed by Armenian militants.
Genocide is a tricky subject in Washington. Six weeks after the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, when 500,000 people had already been murdered for belonging to the wrong tribe, the American government still hesitated to call it what it was. The trouble with calling genocide “genocide” while the blood is still spilling is that, under the terms of a UN convention, one is obliged to do something to stop it.
The Armenian killings incur no such awkwardness. Obviously, Congress cannot do much about a massacre that happened nearly a century ago. But that does not mean that its words carry no cost. Being branded as the precursors of Hitler “is a very injurious move to the psyche of the Turkish people,” said Turkey's ambassador to Washington, before he was withdrawn for “consultations”. And plenty of Americans who dismiss the Turkish account as whitewash nonetheless think that their lawmakers are fools for saying so aloud.
Turkey is a key ally in a region where America has too few. Three-quarters of the air cargo heading into Iraq passes through Incirlik air base there. American planes fly freely through Turkish air space en route to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American navy uses Turkish ports. Turkey provides Iraq with electricity and allows trucks laden with fuel to cross its border into Iraq. But if American politicians persist in dishing out what Turks perceive as a grave insult, it will make it harder for the Turkish government to continue co-operating so closely with America.
That is why Mr Bush urged Congress to ditch the bill. Eight former secretaries of state, from both parties, urged the same. The current secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, called Turkey's foreign minister, prime minister and president to mollify them. She also dispatched two able lieutenants to Turkey. She tried to reassure Ankara that “the American people don't feel that the current Turkish government is the Ottoman empire”. Jane Harman, a Democrat who had originally co-sponsored the House resolution, has now withdrawn her support, noting that the House had already passed similar resolutions in 1975 and 1984, and that doing so again would “isolate and embarrass a courageous and moderate Islamic government in perhaps the most volatile region in the world.” Without, she might have added, saving a single Armenian.
Foreign-policy experts, too, are aghast. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, laments the cavalier way Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and her Democratic cohorts are treating relations with a crucial ally. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies frets that the bill will create “yet another pointless source of anger” against America in the Middle East. The White House has promised to do all it can to prevent the full House from voting on the resolution—though Ms Pelosi, whose Californian constituents include many rich Armenians, has promised that the measure will reach the House floor by mid-November.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government has racked up its lobbying in Washington by several degrees. If the resolution passes the full House, it has hinted, use of the Incirlik base may be denied. “Unfortunately, some politicians in the United States have made an attempt to sacrifice big issues for minor political games,” said Turkey's newly elected president, Abdullah Gul. The hawkish army chief, General Yasar Buyukanit, gave warning that if the House bill went through, “our military relations with the US will never be the same again.”
By October 17th, both Republican and Democratic congressmen were beginning to back away from the resolution. Around a dozen of them withdrew their support, and its chances of passage looked much dimmer than before. “This vote”, said the head of the Democratic caucus, “came face to face with the reality on the ground.” But the damage, it could be argued, had already been done.
The Kurdish provocation
Turkey is now seething with conspiracy theories about American and assorted Western ne'er-do-wells wanting to weaken and divide the country, as they did when the empire collapsed. Kurds and Armenians are connected in villainy. At the recent funeral of a Turkish soldier killed by the PKK, a state-appointed imam declared to mourners that “the Armenian bastards” were “responsible” for his death.
All this has intensified the pressure on the mildly Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to wade into northern Iraq soon. Threats of a Turkish invasion have helped to push world oil prices to new highs. Meanwhile the PKK, in a statement, said its fighters would defend the Kurds and their interests to “the last drop of blood”.
Yet despite the chest-thumping, Turkish officials privately concede that a large-scale cross-border operation is a rotten idea. Turkish soldiers run the risk of getting bogged down, much as the Israelis did in Lebanon. And as Mr Erdogan himself acknowledged last week, in a recent interview with the CNN news channel, “We staged 24 such operations in the past and can we say we achieved anything? Not really.” In reality, a Turkish incursion would probably win the PKK fresh recruits while driving an even bigger wedge between Turkey and America. It would also provide ammunition for countries, such as France and Austria, which argue that Turkey should be given “privileged partnership” of the European Union rather than full membership.
And there lies another source of sourness. Disillusionment with the EU is reflected in polls that show support for membership among Turks is slipping from a high of 74% in 2002 to under 50% this year. Waning EU influence may, in turn, leave Turkey feeling less constrained about plotting mischief inside Iraq.
“If Turkey goes in [to Iraq] it will become isolated, authoritarian, a very nasty place,” says Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bilgi University. Like many fellow liberals, he blames the current mess as much on EU dithering as on Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. Riding on a wave of sweeping reforms and economic recovery, the AK romped back to solo rule in the July elections with a bigger share of the vote.
AK should have used this mandate to tackle Turkey's most urgent problems. It might have begun with Armenia, by considering America's plea to open its borders with it. These were sealed in 1993 after the tiny landlocked state, once part of the Soviet Union, invaded a chunk of ethnically Turkic Azerbaijan in a vicious conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Over the past few months the Americans have been working on a proposal calling for Turkey to establish formal ties with Armenia and to end its blockade. In return, Armenia would recognise its existing border with Turkey and publicly disavow any territorial claims, including the claim to Mount Ararat, its national symbol. A deal of that sort might have helped the Bush administration head off the genocide resolution, and could possibly have squashed it for good.
Drinking in Yerevan
A recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy pressure group, suggests that the people of Armenia—unlike their brothers and sisters in the diaspora—may be ready for change. Only 3% of respondents said that recognition of the genocide was their first priority. A mere 4% listed it at all. For many, finding a job is their chief worry.
Meanwhile, Turkey has looked the other way as thousands of illegal Armenian migrants have sought work in Istanbul, the former Ottoman capital. Mutual suspicions are beginning to fade as these newcomers are recruited by Turks to care for babies and ageing parents. Armenian tourists, too, braving accusations of treachery back home, have been heading by the thousands to Turkey's Mediterranean resorts. “Until I met a real Turk, I rather feared them,” confesses Tevan Poghossian, an Armenian pundit, who runs projects to promote Turkish-Armenian dialogue. “Now I go out drinking with them in Yerevan.”
The few Turks who travel the other way can discover that they have more in common with their Armenian neighbours than they suppose. A visit to the open-air vegetable market in Yerevan reveals that many of the words for vegetables are the same (and so, too, are some of the swear-words). As often as not, Turks who identify themselves are greeted with a big smile and even with a discount. And a simple apology for the events of 1915, without mention of the G-word, can melt the ice.
In a gesture of goodwill, Turkey this year restored a much-prized Armenian church in the eastern province of Van. Armenian officials were among those invited to attend its opening—albeit as a museum—in March. And a growing number of Turks, secure in the knowledge that Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey, had no hand in the killings, are beginning to question the fate of the Ottoman Armenians. A few intrepid souls such as Taner Akcam, a historian, have even dared to call it a genocide.
Despite this burgeoning spirit of reconciliation, however, Turkey has balked at establishing formal ties and insists that Armenia must make the first move. Armenia retorts that it is up to Turkey to prove that its overtures are not designed solely to kill the genocide resolution; to prove its good faith, Turkey should act first. Mr Erdogan's lieutenants blame the impasse on Turkey's meddlesome generals, who insist that Armenia must make peace with Azerbaijan before it can make peace with Turkey.
It is also the army that is blocking political accommodation with the Kurds, they say. But since the AK was returned to power with 47% of the popular vote, such excuses are looking thin. If the government were sincere about democracy, it should have scrapped the notorious Article 301 of the penal code that makes it a crime to “insult Turkishness”. Hundreds of Turkish academics and writers, including Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel prize-winner, have been prosecuted under this article. One of its targets, Hrant Dink, an Armenian newspaper editor, was murdered in January by an ultra-nationalist teenager who accused him of insulting Turkey. His lawyers accuse the government of covering up the affair, despite evidence that at least one rogue security official was involved in plotting Mr Dink's death.
As long as Article 301 remains on the books, there is no substance in Mr Erdogan's call for historians, not politicians, to investigate history. As Mr Ozel points out, “Anyone who disagrees with the official line can end up behind bars.” Article 301 also makes it harder for Turkey's own Armenians to oppose recognition of the genocide by foreign governments, on the ground that it is better for Turks to arrive at the truth themselves. Instead, nationalist rage is stoked up on both sides.
Turning a deaf ear to such criticism, the government has wasted precious political capital on writing a new constitution. The current document, written by the generals after their last coup in 1980, undoubtedly needs to be replaced. Yet by insisting on provisions that would enable veiled women to attend university, the government has been accused of promoting a covert Islamist agenda.
It did not help when, overriding American objections, Turkey signed a gas-pipeline deal with Iran last July. Mr Erdogan's bent for flirting with rogue regimes in Iran and Syria, and for talking to Hamas in the Palestinian territories, may not have influenced the voting on the genocide resolution, but cannot have made congressmen warm to Turkey either.
To make matters worse, Turkey has given warning that its strong military ties with Israel may suffer if Israel fails to stop the resolution being passed. It is threatening to sever air links between Turkey and Yerevan and to expel Armenian migrant workers if the Armenian government does not lobby on its behalf. Turkey refuses to believe that neither Israel nor Armenia has the power to influence Congress, a fact which shows “just how little Turkey understands the way our country works”, moans a frustrated American official. “It also shows that Turkey lacks the stomach to take on the Americans, so it is going after an easier target, Armenia, instead.”
With luck, the resolution will be shelved and Turkey, its pride salved, will rethink its policies. With luck too, it will recognise that a full-blown invasion of northern Iraq would damage its interests and further inflame Kurdish separatists. If Turkey wants to fulfil its dreams of being a regional power and an inspiring example of how Islam and democracy can co-exist, it must make peace with all its citizens, including its Kurds. And it should find a way to face up to its past. It could do worse than seek inspiration from Ataturk who, as Mr Akcam noted in a recent book, once called the Armenian tragedy “a shameful act”.