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Nikos Konstandaras

Athens, Greece

Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor and a columnist of Kathimerini, the leading Greek morning daily. He is also the founding editor of Kathimerini’s English Edition, which is published as a supplement to The International Herald Tribune in Greece, Cyprus and Albania. He worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press from 1989 to 1997 before joining the Greek press and has reported from many countries in the region. Close.

Nikos Konstandaras

Athens, Greece

Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor and a columnist of Kathimerini, the leading Greek morning daily. He is also the founding editor of Kathimerini’s English Edition, which is published as a supplement to The International Herald Tribune in Greece, Cyprus and Albania. more »

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Turkey's Past Victories Spawn Today’s Defeats

Athens - It should be the obligation of every individual, every country and every transnational organization to try to prevent - or, failing that, to condemn - a crime of such magnitude as the organized extermination of Turkey’s Armenian population. You are either on the side of right or you are not. So, on the face of it, this should be a simple issue for the United States and for every other country. Reflecting this, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Resolution 106 claims, “Despite the international recognition and affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, the failure of the domestic and international authorities to punish those responsible for the Armenian Genocide is a reason why similar genocides have recurred and may recur in the future.” It concludes that, “a just resolution will help prevent future genocides.” (That remains to be seen: The Holocaust, though it was officially recognized and its perpetrators were punished, was followed by genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda and “ethnic cleansing,” genocide’s little brother, in several other instances.)

The complications in condemning genocide begin when countries begin to consider their own present interests and when we try to untangle the web of grievances, victories and defeats that constitute nations’ conflicting histories. And all this is complicated further by the great length of time that has passed since that dreadful time in the Middle East, whose aftershocks are still at the center of dramatic, historical events.

There is no doubt that there was a concerted military effort at the end of the Ottoman Empire to remove the Armenians from Anatolia. Whether this was prompted by Armenian collusion with the Russian enemies of the Turks or the execution of an old wish to rid eastern Turkey of the Armenians is for historians to decide. What actually happened - the massacre of an ancient nation and its extermination from its ancestral homeland - is not up for debate.

The massacres and deportations were not unprecedented, as it was general practice throughout human conflict for conquerors to remove unruly subject peoples or defeated neighbors from their homes through deportation or extermination, or both. An obvious instance is the removal of the Jews to Babylon. The Armenians were the victims of massacres as recently as 1894, 1895, 1896 and 1909. So when Russia attacked the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians were more likely to side with the invaders than with the Turks. That’s where the Turkish authorities base their argument that there was no genocide: that the deaths resulted from the general turmoil in the Ottoman Empire’s dying days, and that there were many victims on both sides.

The problem for the Turks is that they were executing a tried and true method of solving historical problems in an era when, for the first time, there were enough foreign witnesses and international interests involved to seize on the slaughter and portray it for what it was in terms of modern sensibilities: a crime of monumental proportions.

The Turks of the time got away with it, even though the crimes hardly went undetected, because most of the Western World was already chin-deep in blood shed in the Great War. Since then, Turkey, always of great strategic importance, has, through judicious alliances, sharp business acumen and wily neutrality, managed to keep friends and enemies by tiptoeing around its past. For the Turks, their country’s modern history begins with the establishment of a secular, Westward-looking republic in 1923, after Kemal Ataturk’s forces defeated an ill-judged Greek military campaign in Asia Minor. The years before that, during which the Ottoman Empire collapsed, are seen as a glorious struggle to save the Turks’ honor from the ignominious defeats that the Empire suffered at the hands of foreign invaders, and to create a nation out of many disparate parts. This is the mythic underpinning of the Turks’ identity, which, like all nations, arises out of a benevolent reading of great victories and unjust defeats. Demanding that the Turks acknowledge that their forefathers were the perpetrators of genocide, in effect, demands that they undermine their very identity. After denying the Armenian genocide for so long, which government (indeed, which individual?) can accept accountability for such a crime without putting up stiff resistance?

But this is where the Turks, who have never seemed to accept the fact that military might is not the automatic answer to every problem, have met their match. Yesterday’s victory spawned today’s defeat. The remnants of the crushed Armenia spread out all over the world, reliving the horror of slaughter and dispossession in their collective memory without respite. They raised their children to demand recognition of the horror that removed the Armenians from their ancestral homeland. The genocide drove them to America, to Canada, to France, to other great democracies. And as their wealth and influence grew, so did their political power. They have proved themselves implacable foes. This, too, is part of the genocide’s legacy: the Armenians have had nothing to lose and everything to gain from their demand for historical restitution.

Today Turkey finds itself in a position where its value as an ally is countered by the political clout of Armenians within its allies. So time has run out. Turkey will, eventually, have to come to terms with its history or face the prospect of turning its back on the world that it set out to join in 1923. The only way that this can be achieved is if the Armenians and their backers make clear that the matter is moral and not political - because the issue is to honor the victims of the past, and not to undermine the common future of Turks, Armenians, Azeris and all the other nations of this troubled region.

As for Turkey’s allies, including the United States, they need only consider the simple part of the question: are you on the side of right, whatever the cost - or are you not?

*****

ADDENDUM, October 16, 2007 5:00pm

I have been following the discussion with great interest over the past 24 hours and I must say that many of the points raised are a very valuable contribution to the issue. I am gratified by the effort put into the debate by most respondents and the good will expressed by many on an issue that is by its nature most sensitive and divisive. As I noted in my post, the issue has to do with the very identity of those involved and with clashing interpretations of a very tangled past.
Of course, the issue of identity should have made me think to add that my being Greek would raise questions as to my objectivity. Perhaps my years as a professional journalist whose aim it is to make honest sense out of complicated situations have made me insensitive to the fact that not everyone expects objectivity to be pursued by “the other side.” I was lulled into this omission by the fact that whenever I worked in Turkey no Turkish colleague questioned my integrity. Nevertheless, I should have noted the fact that I am Greek.

It is interesting to see how many comments there are regarding the moral equivalence of the situation as well as of those commenting upon it: as if massacres or genocides by other nations can excuse one more slaughter. Predictably, many nationalist sentiments seem to swing between pride in past victories and self-pity over defeats - as if everyone can be excused for excesses because he or his nation has been a victim too. For example, Turkish claims of Greek atrocities are countered by Greek claims of Turkish atrocities in countless clashes in the two nations’ long common history. Each side has its own version of events, and it will be a bright day when we can all put these horrors behind us without resurrecting them about in every argument. That day, for Greeks and Turks, will come when the Cyprus issue is solved. Other issues among other nations will be solved in other ways.

But an incident of the magnitude of the Armenian genocide cannot be forgotten. Of course, Turkey cannot be forced by any external forces to do anything it does not want to do. Things will change only when Turkish citizens are free to discuss such issues and make their own decisions.

This brings us to the notorious Article 301. One does not need to be an “enemy” of Turkey to see that a state that needs to place such restrictions on its citizens is a state that fears not only its past but its present and future as well. And the point of getting into such discussions, such as the one on PostGlobal, is to reach the understanding that what matters in our complicated world is to find a way for a more productive and peaceful future. This may sound trite, but the simple truth is that we are all in this together.

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