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Turkey: Armenians Marking Date Of 1915 'Genocide'

  • Emil Danielyan

It is a day that Armenians throughout the world remember all too well. On 24 April 1915, hundreds of Armenian leaders and intellectuals were rounded up in Constantinople (now Istanbul) to face execution in what is seen as the start of mass killings and deportations of Armenians across the Ottoman Empire. RFE/RL's Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan.

Yerevan, 24 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- This year's remembrance of as many as 1.5 million victims of the Armenian massacres has an important difference from previous ones. It follows developments that have raised the long-running campaign for international condemnation of the killings to new heights, including the recognition by some European legislatures that the bloody events of 1915 constitute genocide.

Lucig Danielian, a political scientist at the American University in Armenia, puts it his way to RFE/RL:

"There can be no doubt that there has been a tremendous progress over the last 20 years and that Armenians have been able to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves. And there is no doubt that we will continue to achieve them and that we are getting closer and closer to the point where recognition will be considered the normal state of affairs and we will no longer have to be proving that the genocide took place."

Rouben Adalian, director of the New York-based Armenian National Institution agrees.

"The breakthrough has been achieved, the barriers have been crossed and the struggle for universal affirmation is now on a very different plane."

Few observers could predict what the effect the appearance of a pro-Armenian resolution on the Congress floor last October would have. A last-minute intervention from former President Bill Clinton led Speaker Dennis Hastert to block a vote in the House of Representatives. But it was to become a catalyst for more successful Armenian lobbying efforts in major European countries.

The Turkish government's official policy of denying that genocide took place suffered a serious setback in November when both houses of the French parliament unanimously approved a bill officially recognizing the Armenian genocide. President Jacques Chirac signed it into law in January, ignoring Turkish threats of economic sanctions against France.

A similar initiative has been approved by the parliament of Italy. And the European Parliament further infuriated Ankara by referring to the genocide in a statement setting out requirements for Turkey's membership of the European Union.

The recognition effort is again gathering momentum in the U.S., with President George W. Bush facing mounting pressure to reaffirm his pre-election statement that Armenians had been victims of a "genocidal campaign." Armenian-American groups, which have a powerful lobby in Congress, now say that passage of an appropriate Congressional resolution is just a matter of time.

The official Turkish version of the tragic events has it that the Armenian death toll is exaggerated and that most of those deaths resulted from internal strife, disease, and hunger that had plagued the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The death marches to the Syrian desert by hundreds of thousands of children, women, and the elderly are described as an evacuation of a population sympathetic to enemy troops fighting the Ottoman Turks in the First World War.

For the vast majority of Turks, this is the essence of what their leaders call "Armenian incidents." Not surprisingly, their collective reaction to the recent wave of genocide resolutions has been shock and anger.

But perhaps more important, the international resonance has also meant that the issue is being discussed in Turkey ever more openly. And although the dominant view continues to be one of denial of any wrongdoing, there are growing calls for the nation to confront its past.

"I think that we must get rid of the taboos that surround the events of 1915," Halil Berktay, a history professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University, wrote in the French weekly "L'Express" last November. "For decades Turkish public opinion has been lulled to sleep by the same lullaby. And yet there are tons of documents proving the sad reality," Berktay said.

This is the kind of change that Danielian of the American University of Armenia finds important:

"I think it is one of the expected by-products of all of this activity. Really, what we are talking about is dialogue with not only the Turkish state but with its people as well."

One thing that makes official Ankara so opposed to the recognition is the fear of territorial claims on parts of eastern Turkey populated by Armenians before 1915. While there is consensus in Armenia over the need for international recognition, Armenians have still to agree on what its ultimate aim should be. Nationalist groups still have the creation of a "united Armenia" on their political agenda.

Successive governments in Yerevan, however, have ruled out land demands to Turkey. President Robert Kocharian reiterated this stance in a recent interview with the CNN-Turk news channel. Kocharian said that even if Ankara were to "ask forgiveness for what has happened," Yerevan would not be able to lay claim to its territory because he says that "today's Republic of Armenia is not the heir to those lands."