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Turkish-Armenian relations shouldn’t be shaped by the ‘g-word’

The tragic events of 1915 are described differently by Turkey and Armenia

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

“Turkey's democratization is much more important than its recognition of the genocide. Only a country that is democratic can dare to deal with its history, discuss its problems and feel empathy… It is only after they learn about the Armenian problem that the people can decide whether this was genocide or not. There is no meaning in a state or government recognizing the issue under pressure from the outside. Because those who need to see the truth are not states but peoples. … States have no conscience, but societies and peoples do.”

Above are the words of a Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated by an ultra-nationalist teenager in broad daylight outside his office in İstanbul on Jan. 19, 2007.

Let me explain why I have started the piece with a quote from Dink. Today is April 24; the date which marks the centennial of the tragic events of 1915 that led to the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Armenians around the world will be commemorating this tragedy today.

Needless to say, the tragic events of 1915 are described differently by Turkey and Armenia. While Armenians say that the events amount to “genocide,” Turkey refuses that there was any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population and says that both Turks and Armenians were killed during the war.

For many years, that “G-word” remained a strong obstacle in front of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Instead of arguing over what happened during those years, the matter has reached to the point of whether “it was a genocide or not” with historians, academics, politicians and more importantly societies of two countries differing over the matter.

Failure to mend fences

Argument over the term “genocide” has not only caused two sides to fail mending fences but has also led to the missing of several chances for reconciliation.

Argument over the term “genocide” has not only caused two sides to fail mending fences but has also led to the missing of several chances for reconciliation Sinem Cengiz

Sinem Cengiz

Totally agreeing with Dink, I believe that the term “genocide” has a secondary importance in the discussion between Turks and Armenians over the past and in breaking the years-long taboos in Turkey regarding the 1915 events.

Due to the political dimension of the great tragedy, for many years, both sides failed to focus on the humanitarian point of it.

Because the Armenian side indexed all its policies on the recognition of “genocide” and the Turkish side engaged into strategies to counter the Armenian efforts, nothing was planned for post-April 24.

“What Turkey and Armenia could do a day after? What steps could be taken to repair the ties between two countries?” were not the questions that took much attention, unfortunately…

As Unal Cevikoz, former Turkish envoy to London and one of the key figures in the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process, wrote in the Turkish daily Hurriyet: “Our biggest problem is to have built our policies with Armenia upon claims of genocide. There is just one date we wait for the whole year: April 24. What will the U.S. president say? Will he use the word genocide or not? Which countries will use the word genocide? Turkish foreign ministry starts focusing on this matter at the end of December [each year] and engages into initiatives to stop resolutions that will recognize it as genocide. All of this stops on April 24.”

For many years, Armenian issue occupied place in Turkish politics and media only during the month of April. After getting over April 24, not much interest was given on what was happening in Armenia and what could be done for Turkish-Armenian normalization process.

However, the centennial of the 1915 events came at a time when Turkish position regarding the Armenian matter showed a significant change. Today, in Turkey, although the official stance regarding the matter remains unchanged, taboos regarding the Armenian question have been broken with people being more tolerant and free in discussing 1915 events. For the first time in Turkish history, last year, a Turkish leader offered condolences for the mass killings of Armenians under Ottoman rule. Today, Turkish intellectuals, who acknowledge the genocide, freely discuss the matter in the country - something unthinkable a decade ago. More importantly, commemorations are held annually in Istanbul since 2010.

Here, it is significant to mention that Turkish and Armenian civil society organizations have played a significant role in the smoothing of the Turkish position.

However, as April 24 approached, the rhetoric in two sides has again hardened with Turkish anger, Armenian hatred and little hope for reconciliation.

Turkish-Armenian relations should not be allowed to be shaped by the notion of “genocide.” Being stuck on the “g-word” not only harms the efforts of civil society organizations, but also does nothing for both Turks and Armenia, nor for the victims of the past.

Soon after the centennial passes, two sides should not return back to their court and wait a year again to score a goal against each other. The soul of the “football diplomacy” of 2008-09, which led the two countries to sign protocols in 2009 that would normalize the relations between Ankara and Yerevan, was not this.

It is of great importance to understand that crucial steps taken by both sides could enable process to go beyond the “genocide” debate and promote peace and stability in the region through open dialogue.

Turkey - rather than adopting a policy towards Armenia based on countering genocide allegations- should be able to pursue a pro-active and multidimensional policy – that would also convince the Armenian side over Ankara’s intention to normalize relations.

Differing priorities

While pursuing such a policy, Turkey should also be able to take into account the differing priorities of Armenian Diaspora and Armenia, which unlike former needs to normalize relations with its neighbor for both the stability of the Caucasia region and to prosper its economic situation.

In an article in the Washington Post, Arman Grigoryan writes on what Armenians could do: “if the diaspora cares not only about the memory of Armenians who perished in 1915 but also about the security and well-being of Armenians living today, it should stop pressuring Armenia to adopt an aggressive posture toward Turkey. Armenia can ill afford such a posture. In fact, normalization of relations with Turkey, frozen because of the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh, is a vital interest for landlocked, poor and vulnerable Armenia.”

Dink, who believed that Diaspora Armenians were blinded by such hatred that it had become like “poison in their blood,” also stated that diaspora should get rid of feelings of hatred against Turkey and focus on efforts on normalization of relations between two countries.

There are several things that both Turkey and Armenia can do. In order to achieve reconciliation between two sides and create a ground to discuss and heal the pains of the past, dialogue is essential before anything else. This dialogue would pave the way for the restoration of the diplomatic relations and the ratification of the frozen protocols.

In fact, if Turkey and Armenia fail to discuss the matter that is related to the two sides, then third parties would get involved and the matter becomes even more complicated.

As the genocide row rages on, it is sad but true that the reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia seems like it cannot be achieved if there is no dialogue.


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Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.