Prague, 14 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia today reacted coolly to Turkey’s initiative.
In comments made to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, presidential spokesman Viktor Soghomonian said Yerevan had still not been officially notified of the Turkish proposal.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian, in turn, said Armenia would not agree to any initiative that aims at questioning the genocide issue. “I cannot say what Armenian authorities will decide and how they will react when they get this [proposal], but let me remind you that there have been such calls before to set up a commission of historians to determine whether there was genocide," he said. "Armenia has once and for all said that the genocide issue is not a subject for debate.”
Addressing the Turkish Grand National Assembly on yesterday in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul called upon Armenia to accept the creation of a joint commission of historians. He added that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already sent a letter to that effect to Armenian President Robert Kocharian.
Gul said a positive Armenian response would contribute to improving relations between Ankara and Yerevan. The two countries severed diplomatic ties 12 years ago in the midst of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Talking to reporters in Yerevan shortly before Gul’s speech, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian said, however, that his government will continue to seek recognition -- including from Turkey itself -- of the massacres as genocide.
“With regard to the protection of human rights, we have the moral right and the moral obligation to be on the front line today," Oskanian said. "The world expects us to take adequate steps in that direction. We must be on the front line, seek recognition of the genocide and, because we are a people that already went through this, discuss ways to prevent [other] genocides.”
Gul had made it clear last week that Turkey should prepare what he had described as a “counter-strategy” as Armenians worldwide prepare to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1915-17 tragedy on 24 April.
So far, only a few governments and national parliaments have recognized Armenia’s genocide claims. Those include France, Russia, Lebanon, Uruguay, Switzerland, Greece, and Canada. The European Parliament and a number of U.S. states have also recognized the slaughtering of Ottoman Armenians as stemming from a systematic policy of extermination.
Turkey is very much concerned the U.S. Congress may follow soon. Ankara has recently enlisted the support of an American historian, Justin McCarthy, to reject the Armenian genocide claims.
Addressing Turkish lawmakers last month, McCarthy reportedly argued that the mass killings of Armenians were the result of war operations, not of a deliberate, government-sponsored policy. Reuters at the time quoted the U.S. expert as accusing world politicians of using the genocide claims to hinder Turkey’s bid for European Union membership.
Most Western historians estimate that at least 1 million Armenians were slaughtered during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
Gul yesterday accused Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora of working relentlessly to undermine Turkey’s image:
“[We are] confronted with a very well-organized campaign, which makes use of every opportunity to discredit Turkey," Gul said. "This organized campaign against our country is based on bias, prejudice, slander, exaggerations, and distortions that were fabricated nearly one century ago.”
Most Western historians estimate that at least 1 million Armenians were slaughtered during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. They argue the massacres -- which followed the slaughter of at least 200,000 Greeks -- were part of a deliberate policy by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress to exterminate the empire’s largest remaining Christian community.
The Unionists, also known as the Young Turks, ruled over the Ottoman Empire from 1912 through the end of World War I.
A few of those CUP leaders believed to have ordered and supervised the 1915-17 massacres were later executed by Armenian commandos.
Although some Unionist officials were tried by Ottoman courts after the war for their participation in the slaughter, the genocide issue remains taboo in today’s Turkey.
All the successive nationalist governments that have taken over from Ottoman rulers have persistently refused to recognize the genocide claims.
If Turkish leaders admit to the killing of tens of thousands of Armenians, they maintain the deaths were the result of either war operations or interethnic strife, not of a genocidal policy. They also say as many Muslims -- mainly Turks and Kurds -- were killed during those years.
Addressing lawmakers of the ruling Justice and Development party, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday said his country was not afraid of confronting its past:
“Medicine has yet to invent a remedy for those who do not want to open their eyes to history,” Erdogan said.
Yet, all those who, in Turkey, challenge the official version of the 1915-17 events face potential troubles.
Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recently caused uproar for saying in a February interview with Switzerland’s “Tagesanzeiger” magazine that 1 million Ottoman Armenians had been slaughtered during World War I.
Although Pamuk did not refer to the massacres as “genocide,” some Turkish newspapers accused him of “treason.” Also last month, a high-ranking government official in Turkey’s Isparta Province ordered copies of Pamuk’s books to be seized and destroyed.
In his address to parliament yesterday, Gul said Turkey will formally ask British lawmakers to reject as “baseless” a collection of eyewitness accounts of the massacres. The accounts sustain the view that Ottoman Armenians were slaughtered systematically.
Known as the “Blue Book,” those accounts were collected by historian Arnold Toynbee and published by the British parliament in 1916. They have served as a major source on the Armenian massacres.
(RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondents Anna Saghabalian and Nane Adjemian contributed to this report from Yerevan.)