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Turkey: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
Nowhere have the memories of the war faded. On the contrary, they are constantly being renewed in ever-changing variations - German Historical Museum, Berlin, November 2004

16 November 2004   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Holocaust

An exhibition currently at the German Historical Museum on the Unter den Linden in Berlin entitled Myths of the Nations has attracted considerable attention with its displays of how people from different nations have formed and reformed the narratives of their experiences both of WWII and the Holocaust over the past sixty years. The purpose of the exhibition is to impress upon the visitor that national memory is really the past continuously re-interpreted through the present.

However, experiencing the layered myths of Berlin at an exhibition would remain incomplete if does not also include a long look in the mirror. The Germans have accepted the responsibility for untangling their past. But there is such terrible history elsewhere - the Gulag, the 'disappeared', Cambodia, Rwanda   - that needs to be stripped of congealed myth and denial.

This congealed myth and denial also applies to Turkey and the massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman regime against Armenians in Turkey between 1896 and 1923 - including the Armenian Genocide of 1915. And it becomes even more vivid and germane today as Turkey gears up to enter into negotiations with the EU with a view toward membership of the European Club some time after 2015 - assuming that the negotiations proceed on time and without major hitches.

It is therefore understandable that Turkish candidacy to the EU has opened up discussions regarding Turkish 'appurtenance' to this regional club. My earlier article of 31 August 2004 entitled Dreaming West, Moving East focused on some of the issues - from geography to demography to history to human rights - that are part of the present discourse. A Convention in Brussels organised last month by the European Armenian Federation also focused, inter alia , on Turkish EU membership.

So it seems churlish to re-hash those same points today, save to add that there are serious concerns voiced by Armenians and non-Armenians alike not so much over the issue of candidacy per se as much as over the conditions under which Turkey is being admitted into the EU. In my view, these conditions or criteria are still not being met today.

Happy is he who calls himself a Turk is the slogan that was devised by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, as he set about forging a fresh 'European' identity for his people. And for most of the past eighty years, those principles have been held sacrosanct by the Turkish authorities that have brooked no criticism and tolerated no dissent or divergence of opinion.

As the latest edition of the Economist magazine writes, Turkey has indefatigably tried to consolidate its European character over the past century. It joined the Council of Europe on 9 August 1949, and later the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on 18 February 1952. As far back as 1963, General Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer had already acknowledged Turkey's 'vocation' to join the European Community. A Customs Union Treaty was signed on 1 January 1996, and ever since the EU Council of Ministers' summits of Helsinki (1999) and Copenhagen (2002), a tacit understanding was concluded that negotiations would open between Turkey and the EU in 2005.

But this tacit understanding was also clearly predicated on a number of 'pre-conditions' that Turkey would need to fulfil in the political, legal and socio-economic spheres prior to negotiations. I would argue that some of those fundamental criteria have not been met by Turkey to date. It is quite true that we have witnessed a number of reforms toward democracy under the present Turkish government. State-run military courts are in the process of disappearing, the death penalty has been abolished, the defence of 'attenuating circumstances' in honour killings has been suppressed and the penalisation of adultery has been abandoned. Also, as the London-based Minority Rights International qualified in a recent report, there have been noticeable improvements in the case of minorities - notably the Kurds.

However, this veneer belies some serious inconsistencies and abuses of human rights that are either being fudged or side-stepped by the European Commission in its assessment of Turkey's readiness toward negotiations and eventual possible accession. Let me provide simply one example that underlines a culture of repression still prevalent within the Turkish establishment that makes sharp distinctions between reforms on paper and implementation in practice. Three years ago, the Turkish government set up a panel to take a broad look at questions of human rights and identity, and to suggest how matters could be improved on the ground. But the government got more than it expected: the Board's report, out last month, included statements that were considered almost unutterable in Turkey, triggering a sharp backlash.

For example, the report implied that if the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 - the basis of the Turkish State and its foreign relations - had been fully implemented after WWI, the bloodshed between Turks and Kurds might well have been avoidable. To justify this argument, which is volatile in Turkey however mild it might be perceived elsewhere, the report cited article 39 of the treaty that allows Turkish nationals to use "any language they wish in commerce, in public and private meetings and all types of press and publication". It added that those articles supposedly protecting non-Muslim minorities have been read too narrowly: as well as covering Jews, Armenians and Greeks, these articles should have been applied, for example, to Syrian Orthodox Christians. More controversially, still, it suggested replacing the term "Turk" with a more inclusive word to cover all ethnicities and faiths such as Turkiyeli [of Turkey].

This report provoked a furore within the Turkish establishment. The Turkish authorities have gone so far as to investigate whether the board members who drafted this report committed treason, and there is every possibility that both authors of the report might end up being prosecuted under article 305 of the new penal code approved in September 2004 providing for up to ten years' imprisonment for those who engage in unspecified "activities" against Turkey's "national interest". But what might such activities be? In a footnote, this discriminatory law deems "anti-national" anyone who describes as "genocide" the killing of Armenians in 1915 [during the Armenian Genocide] or advocates a withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus.

A long road of improvements lies ahead of Turkey with respect to civil liberties and fundamental rights. If it wishes to become member of the Club of 25, and to be seen as a democracy wherein human and minorities' rights are not squelched systemically, it is imperative that Ankara proceed in its reforms and commitments to include ipso facto the recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the lifting of the economic blockade against Armenia. Instead of legislating laws in its penal code that would outlaw any mention of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by its predecessor Ottoman regime, it should move forward to recognise this genocide as much as adopt the recommendations of the panel it set up.

Despite its aspirations toward democracy and its manifestations toward reform, Turkey still refuses to admit that internal repression and external emancipation are contradictory dual facets of the same coin. They create tensions and lead to conflict. Much like the poster at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, Armenians cannot simply expunge their collective memories and national sacrifices for the sake of political expediency. Turkey would be wrong to insist upon EU membership without coming clean on this chapter, much as the EU would also be complicit in applying double-standards by obfuscating the truth and editing history if it goes along with this strategy for the mere sake of creating an expedient south-eastern EU-drawn insular zone. Indeed, it is almost axiomatic that nowhere in the world can human rights be stifled forever since history has a way of unmasking the truth eventually. For instance, an international conference In History and Beyond History - Armenians and Turks: a thousand years of relations organised by The Institute for Venice & Europe of the Giorgio Cini Foundation took place in Venice from 28-30 October 2004. Eminent scholars from different countries focused on the placement of the Armenian case within the frame of the genocides of the 20 th century, the sense of guilt associated with this genocide and how best to explain this genocide to the Turkish public opinion after years of denial and amnesia.

Some commentators have recently opined that Turkey's adhesion to the EU would constitute a message of hope, peace, prosperity and democracy. I welcome hope, peace, prosperity and democracy, and I hail those lofty ideals anywhere in our broken and polarised world. Nor, for that matter, am I impermeable toward Turkish membership of our European Union.

However, I simply cannot accept such membership that is spun at the expense of another people or their history. To make the point clearer, let me refer to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament that examined last week a brief seven-page provisional report (to be voted on in Brussels on 22 November 2004) entitled Turkey's progress toward accession . Presented by the Dutch MEP Camiel Eurlings, the report calls upon the Governments of Turkey and Armenia to start a process of reconciliation in order to overcome the tragic experience of the past. It also requests the Turkish government to reopen the borders with Armenia as soon as possible. Currently under review are 483 amendments to the Eurlings Report that were tabled by five different groups at the European Parliament. They include demands for the explicit recognition of the Armenian Genocide in accordance with the European Parliament resolution of 18 June 1987 (Doc. A2-33/87) that called upon Turkey to recognise the Armenian Genocide as a pre-condition to its European candidacy.

In one of his first articles entitled Vous êtes formidables that addressed French colonialism in Algeria, the philosopher and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1956 that crimes committed in our name imply by necessity our personal responsibility since it will have also been in our power to stop them. As far as the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is concerned, Ottoman Turkey was capable of stopping those massacres. It did not do so, and thereby bears responsibility for them. I therefore hope that Turkey will no longer shirk away from this onus when it is knocking at the EU doors and when Armenians across the world are preparing to commemorate in 2005 the 90 th anniversary of their sorrowful tragedy.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   16 November 2004


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