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Turkey/Armenia: Reconciliation Commission Off To Rocky Start

Some Armenians are criticizing a private commission that was formed last month to help improve relations between Armenians and Turks. Commission members say the group can help promote goodwill by focusing on cooperative educational and cultural projects, and will not address the main issue separating the two peoples and countries -- whether the World War I-era killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey was in fact genocide. But some critics say the commission is more political than it purports to be. RFE/RL Yerevan correspondent Emil Danielyan looks at the commission and the objections of some Armenians.

Yerevan, 13 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last month a 10-member commission was formed to help Turks and Armenians overcome their divisions.

The Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission comprises former government officials and expatriate community leaders.

The commission does not seek to directly address the greatest issue of contention between the two countries -- whether the 1915-1923 slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey constitutes genocide. But supporters say that by promoting mutual understanding and goodwill between Turks and Armenians, the commission may contribute to an eventual resolution of the divisive issue.

In a founding declaration issued in Geneva, the commission said it would emphasize "contact, dialogue, and cooperation" between civil societies. It also promised to submit appropriate recommendations to the two governments, which have no diplomatic relations.

The reaction from the Turkish side has been positive. Former Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, one of the six Turkish members, described the commission as "a turning point" in relations between the two peoples. Aside from Turkmen, the Turkish side is represented by senior diplomats.

On the Armenian side, however, many politicians and scholars have been critical. Some have even gone so far as to accuse the Turkish government of using the commission to dissuade parliaments in the West from officially recognizing the killing of Armenians as genocide.

They say the Turkish members of the commission have devoted their efforts to denying the existence of what many historians believe was the first case of genocide of the 20th century.

Among the Armenian members is Ambassador-at-large David Hovannisian, whose current status is ambiguous. Officials say he is no longer in active diplomatic service, although he headed an Armenian Foreign Ministry delegation at an international conference in Istanbul in February.

Other Armenian members are former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian; Van Krikorian, chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America (one of the two Armenian lobbying groups in Washington); and Andranik Migranian, a former adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Gegham Manukian is the spokesperson for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutyun -- an influential nationalist party with branches in Armenia and major diaspora communities. Manukian says the commission's Armenian members have come under criticism because they are acting without a mandate:

"Those individuals are targets of criticism because nobody, no political or state structure, authorized them to speak on behalf of the Armenian people."

Dashnaktsutyun has actively campaigned against the commission's work and was the main initiator of a 31 July joint statement by most factions of the Armenian parliament deploring the commission as an attempt at what it called "artificial reconciliation."

This statement has led Armenian authorities to distance themselves from the work of the commission. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian recently went so far as to disavow his ministry's involvement:

"The Armenian Foreign Ministry has absolutely nothing to do with this commission. Yes, we were informed about it, but we are not participants [in the dialogue]."

Speaking in their defense, the Armenian members of the commission point out that the Turkish government, simply by participating, is moving toward ultimately recognizing the 1915-1923 events as genocide. Participants see the commission's work as part of a larger effort to prepare Turkish society to accept the genocide.

Yet precisely how the commission will address the genocide issue is unclear. Its Turkish and Armenian members say they will not seek to determine the validity of either side's position.

The events surrounding the issue are bitterly disputed. Armenian and other historians say more than a million people were killed or starved to death by Ottoman Turks as part of a drive to exterminate the ethnic Armenian population.

Turkish authorities, on the other hand, insist the death toll is inflated and that most Armenian deaths resulted from civil unrest.

Ankara reacted strongly to the resolutions adopted by the parliaments of France, Italy, and the European Union last year recognizing the mass killings and deportations as genocide. A last-minute intervention last October by then-President Bill Clinton halted progress of a similar resolution in the U.S. Congress.

The Armenian assembly says its participation in the commission will not affect its lobbying efforts on behalf of the genocide issue.

It remains to be seen how the Turkish government will react to that. Turkmen told RFE/RL last year that Turkey will not normalize its relations with Armenia as long as the latter supports and encourages the recognition campaign.