Pantelis Touloumakos: Skeletons in the closet – The Armenian Genocide issue and Turkish foreign policy
July 5, 2012
In December 2011, the attempt of the French government to pass a bill making it a punishable crime to deny the Armenian genocide, led the Turkish government to recall its Ambassador from Paris, and caused a serious crisis in Turkish – French diplomatic relations. In fact, this is the most recent incident in a very complicated issue, which still causes serious problems in Turkey’s international relations: the Armenian issue. In 1915, during World War I, the victory of the Russian military over the Ottoman army in the Eastern front encouraged many Armenian nationalists to act against the Ottoman Empire. A few thousands Armenians joined the Russian army; others carried out guerilla activities behind the Ottoman military lines. The Ottoman government, on the initiative of Interior Minister, Talât Pasha, decided finally to relocate the entire Armenian population of the war zone to Zor, in the heart of the Syrian desert. The relocation took place during 1915 – 16, and as a result of this a huge number of Armenian people were massacred; even if this is an undeniable fact, there are other points of disagreement concerning this dark period of Ottoman history; the most important of them is about the motives of these massacres and if the genocide allegation can be justified. Turkish historians and their supporters claim that the Armenian casualties were the product of intercommunal conflict between Armenian groups (supported by the Russian army) and Kurdish groups (supported by Turkish gendarmes), as well as of the Ottoman administration’s inability to effectively control the areas of relocation. Instead of this, Zürcher argues that – even if the Ottoman government itself hadn’t any involvement in the genocide that took place – a group inside the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) under the command of Talât Pasha was responsible for using the relocation as a means for committing genocide.
Some prominent Turkish scholars support openly the idea that a genocide against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire indeed took place; among them, Taner Akşam and Hamit Bozarslan can be mentioned; however, this is not the mainstream approach of this issue in Turkey; in spite of the efforts made by more progressive segments of Turkish society, the Armenian genocide remains still more or less a taboo issue. This approach influences also the Turkish foreign policy, when it comes to the official recognition of the genocide; Turkish governments have displayed most of the times a very bitter reaction against countries or international organizations willing to recognize the genocide.
As it is evident, the issue is not purely a historical one; on the contrary, it has serious political and diplomatic implications. For the time being, it should be considered difficult to expect any dramatic changes in the Turkish mainstream approach towards the Armenian genocide issue. In any other case, this would mean to challenge a very strongly founded perception of the historical facts of this period, supported by many scientific essays written by Turkish as well as by foreign scholars; besides, there is also a very intense sentimental approach towards such a potential recognition: in case of recognizing the Armenian genocide, it would be very easy to link it with the holocaust, meaning, the extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis, during World War II. As it can be seen, this issue is closely related with Turkish national conscience.
On the other hand, the Armenian issue is still causing problems in contemporary Turkish foreign policy; apart from the relations with Armenia or the countries of the European Union, there is also another major point: the Armenian issue is a serious obstacle in the “Neo – Ottoman” foreign policy; it is very difficult for Ankara to convince about its potential geostrategic role in the broader area, while having such an important problem unresolved. In any case, in a “lose – lose” situation, usually the less negative option is to be chosen; and in this case, reducing the foreign policy perspectives seems as a much better choice than to be faced with a possible national identity crisis.
 Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey. A Modern History, I.B. Tauris &Co Ltd., London – New York, 1993, pp. 119 – 121
 Taner Akşam, A Shameful Act : The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2006 and From Empire to Republic : Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide, Zed Books, 2004
 Hamit Bozarslan, Histoire de la Turquie Contemporaine, La Decouverte, Paris, 2004.Author : blogs@ELIAMEP