The Current Discussion: Today is "Genocide Remembrance Day "in the Armenian community, a particularly strained time of year for Turkey and Armenia. What's a realistic first step forward toward reconciliation for each of these countries?
By Richard Giragosian
Armenians throughout the world are gathering today for their annual April 24th commemoration of the Armenian genocide, in a traditional ceremony of collective remembrance. Yet this year's commemoration differs greatly from previous such ceremonies, as Armenia and Turkey are now poised to forge a new and historic agreement on "normalizing" relations. After a long process of secret diplomacy that culminated in the first-ever visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state last September, both sides now finally seem ready to reexamine their past and redefine their future.
Later today, President Barack Obama is set to issue the traditional presidential statement on the Armenian genocide, with both sides eagerly anticipating, or fearing, his choice of words to define the tragic events of 1915. Clearly, there is a substantial amount of evidence showing that the events of 1915, during which roughly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, constituted a concerted state policy of genocide. Moreover, an independent legal assessment of the applicability of the convention to the Armenian case, commissioned by the respected International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), concluded that "the events (of 1915), viewed collectively, can thus be said to include all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined in the Convention, and legal scholars as well as historians, politicians, journalists and other people would be justified in continuing to so describe them."
But any narrow focus on only the genocide issue or President Obama's choice of wording obscures the point, as the burden for addressing Turkey's historical legacy now rests with Turkey itself, which has already embarked on a significant, and at times painful, reexamination of its past and redefinition of its identity.
We also see the dynamic nature of change within Turkey, evident in the publications of several ground-breaking books and the onset of significant new Internet-based campaigns, such as "I apologize," with tens of thousands of people participating in their own critical examination of the past.
Further, this notable effort underway within Turkey today to set aside previous taboos regarding many issues, ranging from the Kurdish issue to the Armenian genocide, must be encouraged. Such progress must also move further and faster, however, and should be broadened beyond the Turkish elite to include all segments of society. In this way, Turkey should also decriminalize basic freedoms of speech, thought and expression, as prerequisites for a healthy and truly open society.
In a broader sense, the process of Armenian-Turkish normalization offers a fresh dose of optimism and hope, bolstered by the fact that public opinion in both countries is already changing. And with a possible normalization of relations, including the opening of the border and diplomatic relations, Turkey and Armenia can re-examine its shared legacy of genocide in a shared pursuit of what this means not for the past or present, but for the future, as neighbors.
Moreover, Turkey now seems ready to extend diplomatic relations and open its long-closed border with Armenia, which, as the last "iron curtain" in Europe, stands as a sad testament to the difficulty of replacing conflict with cooperation in the Caucasus. For its part, Armenia has consistently stressed its policy of pursuing "no preconditions" for talks with Turkey. But most importantly, each side now recognizes the fact that closed borders have only entrenched closed minds.
But we are still far from success. Both sides need to move beyond declarations and, in the words of independent Armenia's first foreign minister, Raffi K. Hovannisian, should "structure the discourse not to disdain the divides emanating from the past, but to bridge them through the immediate establishment of diplomatic relations without the positing or posturing of preconditions, the lifting of Turkey's unlawful border blockade, and a comprehensive, negotiated resolution of all outstanding matters, based on an acceptance of history and the commitment to a future guaranteed against it recurrence."
Thus, given the unique opportunity now before us, we can only hope that Turkey and Armenia will be able to move forward together, coming to terms with the legacy of the past, but based on a shared commitment to the future. Only then can the promise of normalization become the reality of reconciliation, endowing next year's April 24 with a new shared significance.
Richard Giragosian is director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan, Armenia.
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