A recently formed group of prominent Turks and Armenians has launched a major initiative that could have important ramifications for attempts to promote reconciliation between their estranged nations.
Yerevan, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) met in New York late last month and asked international law experts to conduct a study to determine whether the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constitutes genocide.
According to an American scholar who moderated the four-day meeting, the panel asked a New York-based human rights organization to sponsor an independent third-party analysis of the applicability of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to the events of 1915. A private statement by the scholar, David Phillips, was leaked to RFE/RL.
Armenian members of TARC say an independent judgement on the thorniest issue in Turkish-Armenian relations will be an important element in the U.S.-backed dialogue. Differing interpretations of the bloody events of 1915 are at the heart of a deep divide separating the two neighbors.
By most historical accounts, some 1.5 million people were massacred and starved to death in a systematic campaign to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Modern-day Turkey denies the massacres were genocide and puts the Armenian death toll at 300,000.
Ankara maintains that Ottoman Armenians were repressed because of their cooperation with the advancing Russian troops during World War I.
The reconciliation commission was set up in July with the behind-the-scenes backing of the U.S. State Department. Its 10 members -- among them two former foreign ministers -- have until now tried to facilitate normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations without debating the validity of each other's position on the sensitive issue. But their appeal to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York means they will eventually discuss the genocide controversy.
One of the commission members is Armenia's former foreign minister Alexander Arzoumanian: "I am sure that the commission will discuss that report in detail and decide whether to publish it or not. I think that our recommendations to our respective governments will take account of the opinion [expressed in the report]."
Another TARC member, prominent Moscow-based political scientist Andranik Migranian, believes the reconciliation process will make "very big progress" if the international experts conclude the 1915 massacres were genocide. In an interview with RFE/RL, Migranian said, "It will be a great political and military victory for us if the experts say that those events can be considered a genocide."
But both men stressed that whatever the results of the study, they will never change their beliefs on the issue. Arzoumanian says: "What we need is not an international verdict but an impartial analysis of whether or not the genocide convention is applicable. But it must be emphasized that the Armenian members of the commission will never cast doubt on the historical fact of the Armenian genocide."
The ex-minister also cautions that the international study can by no means force Turkey to abandon its consistent denial of the genocide.
So far, the only visible result of the commission's activities has been a bitter controversy on the Armenian side. Many Armenian leaders and diaspora activists view the commission's creation as part of a Turkish ploy to prevent parliaments of more Western states from passing resolutions recognizing the genocide.
The Armenian government is also increasingly skeptical about the success of the reconciliation effort. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian last week effectively urged Armenian participants to consider withdrawing from the commission.
"I call on the Armenians members to assess their six-month activities, to weigh up all positive and negative factors, to see if they have achieved any results and decide their further steps."
The commissioners, however, continue to believe in TARC's success. They say, in particular, that the six Turkish members of the commission, including former Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, now think that Turkey should lift its economic blockade of Armenia without any preconditions.
Successive Turkish governments have refused to establish diplomatic relations and open the border with Armenia until Armenia recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan have close ethnic and cultural similarities.
The statement by U.S. mediator Phillips said TARC members agreed at the New York meeting that "normalizing trade and transportation between Armenia and Turkey would advance reconciliation."
Phillips, who is a senior adviser in the U.S. State Department, also said they acknowledged their dialogue is "not a substitute" for diplomatic relations between the two neighboring states -- a key point made by Yerevan.