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Armenia: 1915 Genocide Influences Relations With Turkey

Yerevan, 24 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Armenians throughout the world are today commemorating the 83rd anniversary of the massive tragedy in which more than 1 million of their compatriots were killed by the Ottoman Turks and another 1 million or so forced out of their homeland.

In Yerevan, hundreds of thousands of people are to gather at the memorial on top of Tsitsernakabert Hill in order to pay tribute to the victims.

Armenian scholars argue that the 1915 genocide resulted from a premeditated policy of the Ottoman Turkish leadership that was aimed at the annihilation of Armenians (the largest remaining Christian minority) in the empire's eastern provinces.

The arrest on 24 April 1915 of the entire Armenian intellectual elite of Constantinople and their subsequent execution signaled the start of the genocide policy. Mass executions of Armenian males, who were mobilized into the Ottoman army but then disarmed, were followed by the systematic deportation of their families and the infamous "death marches" to the south.

Most of the women, children, and elderly people compelled to take part in those forced evacuations fell victims to armed attacks and died of hunger or disease before they could reach their destination, the Syrian desert. Those who survived took refuge in the Middle East and later in Europe and the Americas. Some escaped to the territory of the current Republic of Armenia. The huge number of victims and the loss of some 80 percent of their historical homeland deeply scarred the Armenians.

Turkey, meanwhile, continues to deny the genocide. According to the official Turkish version, it was a "peaceful evacuation" of the treacherous Armenians to preclude their collaboration with advancing Russian troops.

For generations of descendants of survivors have regarded achieving international recognition of the 1915 genocide as important. They have appealed to various governments and international organizations to recognize the tragedy and demonstrated in front of Turkish embassies in numerous countries.

The issue has far-reaching implications for Armenia's current foreign policy, in general, and relations with Turkey, in particular. The Armenian government has refrained from considering recognition of the genocide as a precondition for developing ties with Turkey but there is still a deep divide between the two nations. Turkey has been and continues to be regarded by many Armenians as a threat to the country's national security.

Historically, it was Russia that took on the role of a foreign protector. The Russian empire guaranteed the security of its Armenian subjects, and so did the Soviet Union with regard to its Armenian citizens. Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Moscow has continued to play that role. And so, the troops Russia maintains in Armenia will be welcome as long as there is no political reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. This, however, could only happen if an explicit agreement on the interpretation of the 1915 events is reached.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said this week that the issue of the 1915 genocide will be on the agenda in the government's dealings with Turkey. He stressed its inclusion will be "not for the sake of conflict but in order to establish more healthy cooperation." This is a shift from the policy of the Levon Ter-Petrossian's government, which tried to sidestep the problem.

Many in Armenia oppose the policy of cooperation with Turkey. They point out that Ankara has closed its borders with Armenia, refused to establish diplomatic ties and backs Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It may well be that by putting now the genocide issue on its agenda, Yerevan hopes to find an argument countering the Turkish engagement in the Caucasus.

Meanwhile, lack of recognition of the 1915 genocide undermines Turkish efforts to become involved in the Karabakh peace process. Armenia rejects such involvement. The average Armenian still identifies Azerbaijanis with Turks and looks at developments surrounding the Karabakh dispute through the prism of the 1915 genocide.

Some analysts have suggested that a final peace in Karabakh may require Turkey to face the troubled issue and account for the 1915 events.