Accessibility links

Armenia: Analysis from Washington -- Responsibility For The Past

By Paul Goble Paul Goble

Washington, 5 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- French legislation that would officially label the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I as a genocide has provoked a sharp reaction from the Turkish government.

But more than that, both the French bill and the Turkish response calls attention to the difficulties countries face in assigning political responsibility for events in the relatively distant past.

The facts of the current case are these: On May 29, the lower house of the French parliament passed a bill declaring that the killing of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was a genocide.

That action provoked a sharp Turkish response. And yesterday (Thursday), Turkish President Suleyman Demirel formally asked French President Jacques Chirac to block the measure before the upper house of the French parliament begins consideration of it later this month. Demirel warned that his failure to do so could seriously harm Franco-Turkish relations.

Neither Armenians nor Turks dispute the fact that more than a million ethnic Armenians were killed at that time, but they disagree profoundly as to why. Armenians argue that their deaths were the result of a conscious policy of genocide while Turks contend that these Armenian deaths and those of Turks as well were the product of a civil war.

This argument has been going on ever since the events in dispute took place. In recent years, it has intensified as Armenians have sought to gain official support for their position and Turks have sought just as diligently to block any government from doing so.

But if this dispute over current responsibility for an event in the past is the most notable, it is far from the only one. Among the most public now are the disagreements between Baltic state governments and Russia over the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, debates among Americans concerning U.S. responsibility for Japanese internment during World War II and for slavery earlier, and arguments about European responsibility today for the impact of colonialism in the past.

Every government, even if it is a government of a successor state, is interested in taking credit for positive events in the past even if it had no role in them. But equally every government is interested in avoiding responsibility for past actions that many find distasteful or even evil.

In this, of course, governments are behaving much like individuals. They want to take credit without assuming responsibility and blame, and they are only too ready to deny that something happened or to shift responsibility if there is any possibility that such efforts will be successful.

The governments of successor states, such as Turkey in the case of the Ottoman Empire or the Russian Federation in the case of the Soviet Union, often take this course, arguing that they were not the relevant authorities at the time and thus should not be blamed.

But governments believe they have some important additional reasons for seeking to avoid responsibility for actions in the past. Unlike individuals, governments tend to have a longer life. And once they begin assuming responsibility or taking the blame for past actions, where would that process stop?

If the Turkey of today is to blame for the killing of Armenians in 1915, is it also responsible for the actions of earlier Ottoman rulers? And if Moscow assumes responsibility for the occupation of the Baltic states by Stalin, might not the Russian government be blamed for earlier actions by the tsarist authorities?

A second reason governments seek to avoid any public and especially official labeling of past actions as criminal is that such descriptions could open them up to criminal liability.

While many Armenians have said that they would not press for restitution or compensation for the events of 1915, the Turkish government is clearly sensitive to the possibility that Armenians would find it far easier to collect damages if the international community were to agree to characterize the events of 1915 as a genocide.

And yet a third reason governments adopt this line is that they are very aware that such charges not only have important political consequences but are almost always highly selective. As Demirel pointed out, such an action by the French government would have a real and immediate impact on relations between Ankara and Paris.

But more than that, Demirel could have noted that France and other countries have failed to condemn other horrible acts in the past by others, a selectivity that raises questions about why Turkey and why now?

The great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelshtam once remarked that "happy is that country in which the despicable will at least be despised." Debates about doing just that, it seems certain, will remain at the center of political life for a long time to come.