April 24 commemorates the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918. The tragedy of the event itself has become subsumed and obscured by the politics surrounding the issue. It seems like every year more attention is paid to the “will he, or won’t he?” guessing game of whether the American president will utter the word “genocide” in his annual commemoration of the event, than is actually given to remembering what happened.
There is another opportunity missed on April 24, and that is the chance for Turkey to take stock of its policy on the genocide issue is. Ankara spends an enormous amount of political capital (and cold hard cash for lobbyists) in fighting the genocide claim, particularly in the United States, on what I believe is ultimately a self-defeating battle. A good example would be Turkey’s relations with Canada, which have not fully recovered from a breach that occurred in 2006, after Canadian PM Stephen Harper referred to the events of 1915 as a “genocide” and Turkey briefly recalled its ambassador to Ottawa in protest. This past week, Turkey again recalled its ambassador after Canadian officials reportedly attended a genocide commemoration event.
My own modest theory regarding international affairs is that whenever a country has a problem with Canada, it’s time for that country to take a good look at its own policies to see where they might be coming up short. Having a diplomatic spat with Canada is, at the end of the day, really more about you than Canada.
Needless to say, there are much bigger and more critical issues that require Ankara’s attention than the annual fight to extinguish the Armenian genocide flame in Washington (and other capitals). Imagine if the money and effort spent on lobbying on the issue in Washington was put into action in Brussels and other European capitals on behalf of Turkey’s EU bid? That said, there is something different this year, and that is because of yesterday’s joint announcement by Turkey and Armenia that they have worked out a “roadmap” for restoring their severed relations. If the two countries succeed to move along the road they are mapping, this could very well lead to a new Turkish approach regarding the genocide issue.
The details of the “roadmap” are still vague, but what is clear is that, for now, the Turkish-Armenian announcement had less to do with repairing the two countries’ relations and more to do with protecting Turkish-American relations. During his recent visit to Turkey, president Barack Obama signaled that he would back away from his campaign promise to refer to the 1915 events as a “genocide” because of fears that doing so might harm the progress being made in the talks between Turkey and Armenia. Making the American president look like a chump by failing to come up with something concrete before April 24 would not have been the best way to start the new “golden age” in Turkish-American relations that some in Ankara have been predicting.
Reaching a compromise solution with Armenia on how to deal with the genocide issue will only be part of the battle for Turkey. What may be even harder for the country is to get the Turkish public to reach some kind of new understanding about what happened in the early part of the 20th century. After decades of an official line that said there was no genocide and that it was the Armenians who were the aggressors, the genocide and its denial have become a touchstone of Turkish nationalism, an important element in a national narrative that blames external forces for trying to undermine Turkey, sometimes using the country’s minorities to achieve that goal. Some progress has been made in creating a more open environment in Turkey for discussing the genocide question (although there are severe limits to that, as the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink showed) and the subject is not the taboo that it once was, but it still remains a potentially explosive issue.
Opening borders is going to be one thing. Opening minds will be something else entirely.