Armenia vs. Diaspora: The Myth of Diverging Interests over the Genocide
When asked in 2007 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC why he thought the “historic issue” of the Armenian Genocide continues to come up again and again all over the world, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan responded by saying:
“This is a problem of the Armenian Diaspora. The Armenian Diaspora is looking for a way to create some sort of benefits for itself and this is what they have found. If it works, then they look to achieve some gains from it. If not, the world will have lost a lot of time.”[i]
A few months later, on the eve of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee’s adoption of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106), the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Eurasian Affairs, Dan Fried, called for the defeat of the measure so that “Turkish-Armenian relations will move ahead strongly and in a positive way.” He added, “There are many people in Armenia who also, obviously would like to have better relations with Turkey. These are serious people and I think good partners for Turkey if we can get past this resolution.”[ii]
So, the argument goes, the issue of the Armenian Genocide is simply a concern of the Armenian Diaspora and those living in Armenia are more interested in forgetting the past and gaining Turkey’s friendship. This line has been parroted ad nauseam, at least, since Armenia’s 1991 independence. Ankara and Washington, among others,[iii] have gone to great lengths to paint the Diaspora as “extremists” obsessed with the Genocide, as opposed to Armenia which is much more “reasonable” and willing to “move forward from its past.”
This article will attempt to show that, especially when it comes to the issue of the Genocide, this notion of diverging interests between Armenia and the Diaspora is utterly and ridiculously false. The fact that it is repeated so often has more to do with a political desire to divide the Armenian nation than with any factual grounding in reality. Indeed, if anything, Armenians living in Armenia are just as equally, if not more, adamant about achieving justice for the Genocide than those in the Diaspora.
History as a Guide
Those who are serious about evaluating the argument that the Genocide is an issue exclusive to the Diaspora would do well to take a brief look at history.
First of all, more than half of the current citizens of Armenia trace their family roots to Western Armenia and have relatives who were direct victims of the World War I Genocide. These families fled to Armenia either as survivors during the massacres or later as survivors and children of survivors repatriating to Armenia during the waves of nerkaght immigration from the Diaspora. Those who ended up in Soviet Armenia held on to a very strong identification with the culture, life and history of their ancestral towns and villages in Western Armenia.[iv]
Similarly, it is worth remembering where the modern international campaign to attain recognition and justice for the Genocide was initially sparked. It was in Yerevan in 1965—on the 50th anniversary of the Genocide—where the people took to the streets, in an unprecedented display of defiance to the Soviet state, and held mass demonstrations calling for “Our Lands! Our Lands” and “Justice! Justice!” This was a major wake-up call to the entire Armenian nation and, in Armenia itself, forced the Soviet authorities to allow the building of the Tsitsernakapert Genocide Memorial in 1968, as a way to appease the growing wave of nationalist sentiment.
However, this sentiment did not die but only resurfaced in the form of underground organizations and groups such as the National Unification Party (NUP), which called for the return of Western Armenian lands and reparations for the Genocide, among other demands. By 1974, there were some 80 Armenian activists imprisoned for such nationalist activity in Soviet Armenia.[v]
As another indication of the attachment Armenian citizens always held for the Genocide, one of the most striking factors of the movement for Artsakh’s independence in the late 1980s was the prevalence of similarities and connections made to the Genocide of 1915. From the slogans used in mass demonstrations to the accounts of those involved in the movement, it has been shown that the tragedy which befell Armenians at the hands of Turkey was fresh on the minds of those suffering and resisting Azeri occupation and oppression.[vi]
Aside from the historical record documenting the centrality the Genocide has always played in the politics and life of Armenians in Armenia, let us come more up to date and see what Armenian citizens have been expressing in public opinion surveys over the course of the last decade.
In a 2003 survey of both Armenians in the Diaspora and Armenia conducted by the Aslan Group and Arlex International, nearly 80% of Armenians in Armenia said they believe that “international recognition of the Genocide should be one of the top priorities for Armenia’s leaders.” This was in comparison to their counterparts in the Diaspora, only 70% of whom shared the same view.[vii] Thus, we see in this case that the Armenians living in Armenia actually had a more steadfast approach to the Genocide than those in the Diaspora.
A similar finding occurred on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, when a poll was carried out by the Armenian Center for National International Studies which found 93.5% of respondents in Armenia saying that their government should claim reparations from Turkey and another 80% insisting that it was the role of the government in Armeniato actively push for Turkey’s recognition.[viii] This clearly illustrates an Armenian citizenry that wants to see its leaders not only more engaged on the international recognition front, but also to move further into securing proper restitution for the crime that was committed against it.
One year later, a 2006 Sociometer Poll found that 90% of young Armenian citizens were against normalization of relations with Turkey if this required giving up Armenians’ territorial claims or came without Turkey’s recognition of the Genocide.[ix] Again, rather than seeing a passive or indifferent population in Armenia, we see one that is overwhelmingly in agreement—one would probably be lucky to get 90% agreement on this in the Diaspora—about the need to resist Turkey’s efforts at denying and avoiding the consequences of the Genocide it committed.
More recently, an October 2008 survey was carried out bythe Gallup Organization in which respondents were asked about the overtures from Armenia and Turkey surrounding the so-called ‘soccer diplomacy’ process. The results were that 47.3% of respondents felt that “Armenia should be very careful in its relations with Turkey” and another 25% expressed opposition to establishing any sort of relations until Turkey recognized the Genocide.[x] Do the math and you can see that the vast majority of Armenians in Armenia, again, are not eager to forget the past and place heavy emphasis on achieving justice for the Armenian Genocide.
Chart A: Armenian Public Opinion on Genocide Recognition and Relations with Turkey, 2003-2008
|“Armenia 2020”||Aslan Group, Arlex International||May 2003||80% of Armenians in Armenia and 70% in the Diaspora believe international recognition of the Genocide should be one of the top priorities for Armenia’s leaders|
|“The Armenian Genocide: 90 Years and Waiting”||Armenian Center for National and International Studies||April 2005||93.5% of respondents in Armenia believe their government “should claim reparations from Turkey” and 80.8% believe it is “the role of the Republic of Armenia to contribute to the recognition of the Genocide by Turkey”|
|Poll of Armenian Youth||Sociometer||April 2006||90% of respondents said Armenia should not normalize relations with Turkey if this requires giving up territorial claims or without Turkey’s acknowledgement of the 1915 Genocide”|
|“Armenian National Voices”||USAID, Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization||July 2007||51% of Armenians said that the border with Turkey “should not be opened” unless Turkey recognizes the Genocide|
|“Prospects for Armenian-Turkish Relations”||Armenian Center for National and International Studies||October 2008||76% of Armenian respondents believe reconciliation with Turkey is either impossible or unlikely unless Armenia capitulates to Turkey’s preconditions|
|“Political Segmentation in Armenia”||Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization and IPM Georgia||November 2008||46.3% of Armenians polled say “Armenia should be very careful in its relations with Turkey” and another 25% believe “We should not cooperate with Turkey until the Armenian Genocide is recognized”|
These same basic results are seen over and over again in countless other public opinion polls and surveys (see Chart A). Whenever Armenian citizens are asked such questions they actually tend to take a more assertive position on the Genocide than many Diasporans would. Aside from whether or not this consensus in Armenia gets fully translated into government policy,[xi] the simple fact of the matter is that Armenians living in Armenia care deeply about the Genocide and share a similar, if not higher, level of support for recognition and reparation efforts as those in the Diaspora.
For those who still might not be convinced by the historical record and public opinion data, it is worth pointing out a few other key observations from recent developments that further reveal the nature of Armenia’s stance on the Genocide.
In October 2007, when the US House Foreign Affairs Committee passed H.Res.106, government and opposition politicians alike in Armenia openly welcomed the passage and gave a standing ovation in the parliament. Despite pressure from Turkey and the US, these parliamentarians went on record calling for a full official recognition vote by the entire US House. Similar support and elation was witnessed all throughout the press and society in Armenia.[xii]
More recently, when the head of the Armenian Football Federation, oligarch Ruben “Nemets Rubo” Hairapetyan, decided to remove the image of Ararat from the logo of Armenia’s team in the run-up to their soccer match against Turkey, citizens throughout the country raised such an uproar that the Federation was forced to reinstate the logo. Hairapetyan himself publicly admitted, “We could not imagine that the change of the Football Federation’s logo could elicit such a wide response and become a politicized matter.”[xiii]
Finally, on December 9, an open letter signed by over 300 of Armenia’s leading academics, artists and intellectuals was sent to Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, calling on him to recognize the Genocide as a necessary condition for Armenian-Turkish relations. The letter insists that the crime of Genocide “has no statutory limitation” and states, “We should all accept the fact that Ottoman Turkey is responsible for the genocidal crime against Armenians, while today’s Turkish state has inherited this responsibility. The current Turkish diplomacy and propaganda cannot cover up this macabre page of our history.”[xiv]
All three of these examples are recent expressions of the Armenian people’s determination to ensure proper recognition and restitution from Turkey on this matter. These are expressions originating from within the mainstream of Armenian society and reflect the reality that the centrality of the Genocide is anything but a strictly Diaspora concern.
Facts in Perspective
This cursory review of some of the vast body of evidence debunking the myth that Armenia and the Diaspora have conflicting interests on the issue of the Armenian Genocide should be enough to put to rest this silly notion once and for all. Nevertheless, we can expect that the agents of Ankara and Washington will find it in their interests to continue ignoring the facts and parroting this myth in the hopes of dividing the Armenian nation in its struggle for justice.
Unfortunately, it is also likely that officials in Yerevan may continue to succumb to certain geopolitical and economic pressures to stay pliant over this issue. Hence, we can expect that the overwhelming consensus of the Armenian citizenry for proper recognition and reparations for the crime of the Genocide will not be adequately reflected in Armenian government policy anytime soon.
It is in this light that the role of the Diaspora in the overall struggle for recognition and justice becomes all the more critical. Those of us who live in relative freedom, economic prosperity, and comfort in the West have a special obligation to be the torchbearers of the Armenian Cause throughout the world. We must represent the interests of our people in national and international circles with an understanding that we have certain privileges in the realm of political and economic activity that our brothers and sisters in Armenia do not.
When it comes to the importance of achieving justice for the Genocide, there is absolutely no difference between an Armenian in Armenia and one in the Diaspora. The only difference lies in the resources, advantages, opportunities and institutions available for each actor to make this goal a reality.
Let us never forget that, as Armenians, we share the same interests in the Armenian Cause no matter where we may be in the world. With this reality in mind, we can more effectively move forward, united and working together to achieving all of our just aspirations.
[i] Tayyip Erdogan, “US-Turkey Strategic Partnership,” National Press Club, Washington, DC, November 5, 2007
[ii] Daniel Fried, Interview, Anatolia News, Washington, DC, October 9, 2007, http://turkey.usembassy.gov/statement_100907.html
[iii] Armenians have by no means been immune from adopting this line of thinking. For an analysis of how the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter Petrossian, turned his back on the original principles of the movement which brought him into power and sought to abandon the issue of the Armenian Genocide in hopes of winning favor with Turkey and the West, see Stephan H. Astourian, “From Ter-Petrosian to Kocharian, Leadership Change in Armenia,” Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, Working Paper Series (2000). For a similarly defeatist display by the man currently serving as Armenia’s Secretary of National Security, see Artur Baghdasaryan, “Armenia is Trapped in its Past,” Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2007. In the arena of Armenian scholarship, see Asbed Kotchikian, “From Vertical to Diagonal Interactions: The Multidimensional Aspects of Armenia(n)-(Turk)ey Relations,” The Armenian Weekly, April 21, 2007, wherein it is argued that the Genocide is much more important to diasporan identity whereas it “seems not to be focal in the minds of the citizens of the [Armenian] state.”
[iv] For example, this attachment is difficult to miss when one travels to the outer districts of Yerevan, where communities are named after the Armenian areas decimated during the 1915 massacres. These include Yerevan districts such as Nork-Marash, Malatia-Sebastia, Kanaker-Zeytun, Arabkir, and so on.
[v] See Ronald Grigor Suny, “Soviet Armenia,” in Richard G. Hovannisian, ed. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997) and Nora Dudwick, “Armenia: The Nation Awakens,” in Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras, eds., Nation and Politics in the Soviet Successor States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
[vi] See Robert Evans, “Armenian Protestors Also Recall ‘Genocide’,” Washington Times, April 25, 1989; Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Haroutioun Maroutian, “Hay Poezian Vorpes Inknoutyan Patkeragoutyoun (est Kharabaghyan sharzhman tseghaspanoutyane nvirvats tsoutsapastarneri),” cited in Astourian, “From Ter-Petrosian to Kocharian,” p. 22.
[vii] Harut Sassounian, “First Global Survey of Armenian Opinion Presented at Futuristic Conclave in Athens,” The California Courier, May 22, 2003, http://adl.hayway.org/default_zone/gb/html/page2870.html
[viii] “The Armenian Genocide: 90 Years and Waiting,” The Armenian Center for National and International Studies, April 2005, www.acnis.am/survey/
[ix] “Young Armenians Against Normalization of Relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan,” Asbarez, April 4, 2006, http://www.asbarez.com/aol/2006/060404.htm#n4
[x] “Political Segmentation in Armenia,” Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization and IPM Georgia, November 2008.
[xi] Although the Republic of Armenia’s declaration of independence itself clearly states, “Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia,” successive Armenian governments have often taken a much more passive, if not appeasing stance.
[xii] See Avet Demourian, “Armenian Eyes, Ears on US Genocide Vote,” The Associated Press, October 19, 2007 and “Armenia Hails U.S. Vote Recognizing Genocide,” RFE/RL, October 11, 2007
[xiii] Suren Musayelyan, “Back to Ararat?: Football Chief Reverses Course in Logo Controversy,” ArmeniaNow, October 10, 2008
[xiv] “Open Letter to the President of the Turkish Republic, Abdullah Gul,” December 9, 2008
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