Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian Ghosts Haunt Istanbul

Relations between Turkey and Armenia take a turn for the worse as European leaders officially recognise the disputed genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915
By Ara Tadevosian

Unable to find a job in his native Yerevan, 35-year-old Artur Serobyan left Armenia for Istanbul, together with his wife and four children. There he found work as a translator and, for two years, "lived in complete harmony with [his] Turkish neighbours".


"But then," Serobyan told the Aikakan Zhamanak newspaper in Yerevan, "everything changed. It was immediately after the US Congress began to discuss the question of recognising the 1915 genocide. No one actually said anything to me, but it soon became clear that I couldn't work there any more.


"In the end," he went on, "the Turkish police gave me 24 hours to leave the country. I had no choice but to return to Armenia."


Moves by the international community to officially recognise the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915 have sparked a bitter war of words between Ankara and Yerevan.


Many observers now fear that Turkey will retaliate by strengthening its economic sanctions against the former Soviet republic (the Turkish authorities closed the border with Armenia in 1991 as a gesture of support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict).


These concerns come in sharp contrast to the initial euphoria with which Armenians greeted October's debate in Congress. And, although President Bill Clinton later postponed a final decision on the grounds that it could "harm the interests of American security in the Near East," European leaders were quick to take up the cause.


On November 8, the French Senate adopted a resolution recognising the disputed genocide by 164 votes to 40. Two days later, the head of the Armenian Church, Garegin the Second, visited Pope John Paul II in the Vatican to sign a communique which stated, "The genocide of the Armenians was the prologue for many of the atrocities which have been committed over the past century".


On November 15, the European Parliament demanded that Turkey enter into a dialogue with Armenia with a view to restoring diplomatic ties and abandoning its economic blockade. It also called on Turkey to publicly admit the 1915 genocide. Days later, the Italian government voted in favour of a similar resolution.


Turkey - which has consistently denied that the genocide ever took place - promptly launched a political offensive against Armenia.


Hussein Dirioz, a spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry, accused Armenian president Robert Kocharian of whipping up the international outcry, adding, "This kind of politics will do nothing to establish peace and stability in the region."


Kocharian countered the Turkish diplomat's attack in an interview on Armenian TV: "The international debate is merely a step aimed at normalising Turkish-Armenian relations. It is impossible to envisage a stable foundation for these relations without this question being resolved."


However, the president's political rivals in Yerevan have been quick to criticise Kocharian's handling of the situation. Alexander Arzumanian, former foreign minister and head of the Armenian National Movement, said, "Kocharian's actions mean that the likelihood of a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey has become even more remote. Furthermore, it will be years before the consequences of his latest campaign are forgotten."


But Kocharian remains adamant. "In the past, Armenia was careful to avoid raising the genocide issue - and got nothing for its trouble," he said. "We still have no diplomatic relations and Turkey continues to impose its trade embargo. In fact, Turkey has simply left us with no alternative."


Many Armenian diplomats are convinced that international pressure will eventually force Turkey to change its position. Vardan Oskanian, head of the Armenian foreign ministry, told IWPR, "Recently, it has become clear that the representatives of the Turkish intelligentsia and the Turkish media have adopted a fairly bold stance over the genocide question, taking part in a number of international conferences and seminars on the subject.


"I believe that they are acting at the behest of the Turkish authorities who are eager to gauge the reaction of the international community."


The growing tension between the two countries has even cast a shadow over the sporting world. Last week, the French footballer Yuri Djorkaeff -- who makes no secret of his Armenian origins and his outspoken views on the genocide question - announced that he would not be taking part in a friendly match between Turkey and Armenia in Istanbul.


He privately told fellow player Emmanuel Petit that he had refused the invitation for political reasons - namely that he had received anonymous death threats from unnamed Turkish extremists.


Other members of the vast Armenian diaspora have been taking an active part in the international debate. Last week, Karo Armenian, head of the Armenian National Committee of America, stated, "The diaspora is delighted that the Armenian leadership has chosen to throw back the curtains on the issue of the 1915 genocide."


Meanwhile, Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) recently published an open letter entitled, "An appeal to the people of Western Armenia [the disputed territory in north-eastern Turkey] to sanction a government in exile". The authors of the letter called on Armenians living in Turkey to "demand compensation for material, moral and territorial losses and the right for the descendants of the western Armenians to return to their historical homeland."


Ara Tadevosian is director of Mediamax, an independent news agency based in Yerevan


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