Wednesday, 18 October 2006

THE POLITICS OF FRANCE\'S CRIMINALIZATION OF GENOCIDE DENIAL

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By Emil Souleimanov (10/18/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Although Armenian diasporas scattered around the world have long tended to push their countries of residence to recognize the alleged Armenian genocide in legal terms, this gained momentum as a national priority issue in the aftermath of Robert Kocharyan’s coming to power in Armenia in 1998. The reason for adopting this new policy were manifold. First, president Kocharyan, a native of Mountainous Karabakh with strong ties to the Russian military, saw as his main task to improve national unity, which was gradually reduced in domestic squabbles in the wake of Armenia\'s victory over Azerbaijan in the 1988-1994 war.
BACKGROUND: Although Armenian diasporas scattered around the world have long tended to push their countries of residence to recognize the alleged Armenian genocide in legal terms, this gained momentum as a national priority issue in the aftermath of Robert Kocharyan’s coming to power in Armenia in 1998. The reason for adopting this new policy were manifold. First, president Kocharyan, a native of Mountainous Karabakh with strong ties to the Russian military, saw as his main task to improve national unity, which was gradually reduced in domestic squabbles in the wake of Armenia\'s victory over Azerbaijan in the 1988-1994 war. Supported by nationalists and the Kremlin, Kocharyan replaced former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was forced to resign due to his apparent willingness to make serious concessions to Baku on the Karabakh issue. Kocharyan\'s policies worsened chances of a resolution to the conflict, further contributing to frustration in Azerbaijan and increasing calls there for a military solution. Importantly, the images of the Turks and Azerbaijanis have been made to increasingly coincide in Armenian society, both being regarded as \'Turks\'. The systematic exploitation of the genocide issue is linked with this, as it has a strong mobilization potential and is key to nail the link between Armenians in the Republic and those in the diaspora. Being central to Armenian nationalism, it is also believed to slow the assimilation of the young generations of diaspora Armenians and improve their attachment to the Armenian homeland. Kocharyan’s recent steps to allow dual citizenship should be seen in this light. Partly as a consequence of the aim of cultivating the image of an external enemy, substantial financial aid from diaspora Armenians to Armenia and Karabakh intensified in recent years. Armenian diasporas in Russia, America, France and elsewhere have worked ever more closely with the Armenian state, especially as regards genocide recognition issues. Starting from 1998, a new wave of countries in Europe and America have seen various authorities recognize the massacres of 1915 as genocide. In brief, this policy is expected to strengthen Kocharyan\'s position in the country where strong objections prevail to his regime\'s legitimacy. Yerevan\'s objective to achieve genocide recognition by the international community have had a momentous international dimension. Importantly, the series of states recognizing the massacres as Genocide creates a group of states to which Ankara is anxious to use reciprocal means. This in turn contributes to the worsening of Turkish relations with those states and isolating itself on the international scene. Naturally, the more states recognize the massacres as genocide, the stronger the international pressure on Ankara to follow suit. With the crucial assistance of its diasporas in the EU states, Armenia seeks to tie Turkish genocide recognition directly with the prospects of Turkey\'s entrance into the EU. In backroom talks, Armenian strategists admit that under certain historical circumstances, Yerevan might invoke the issue of \"regaining the territories of Western Armenia\", as Armenians refer to several provinces in Eastern Turkey. This very ambitious project could become realistic only in the event of Turkey\'s disintegration. Some circles in Armenia and elsewhere speculate this could happen in the next 40 to 50 years if the long-standing demographical boom in Kurdish-populated areas continues, which could lead the numbers of Turks and Kurds in Turkey to even out, while the growth of Kurdish nationalism and separatism alongside the ongoing establishment of a de facto Kurdish political entity in Northern Iraq complicates matters. Of course, Armenian analysts of this persuasion neglect the key fact that the areas they consider to be Western Armenia are now inhabited by millions of primarily Kurdish people who consider these territories their own. Hence there is little hope that even in the remote – not to say delirious – proposition of Turkey falling apart, these inhabitants would show much understanding for Armenia\'s age-long aspirations. A more modest expectation, shared by many more Armenians, is seeking compensation from the Turkish state for the lives and properties of the murdered Armenians by their descendants.

IMPLICATIONS: Whether Ankara proceeds to genocide recognition or not, this will have serious implications for the nature of the Turkish state. In fact, the modern Republic was built by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his fellowmen in clear opposition to the Ottoman Empire, and does not consider itself the latter’s successor per se. Furthermore, the massacres of Armenians were carried out while a narrow group of high-ranked Young Turks (Enver, Talaat, Cemal) de facto ruled the country during the World War I. To recognize a purported genocide carried out by a non-existent state and a despised former leadership, and to bring formal condolences about it may seem to be the easiest way out the situation. Yet this prospect, seemingly logical to outsiders, neglects both growing nationalism in Turkey and the role of the Turkish military. Indeed, the Army is considered the guarantor of the Republic\'s secular character, its independence and unity, and hence has a nimbus of holiness. A \"defilement\" of the Turkish Army by admitting the to a genocide is thus completely unacceptable for the influential Turkish military brass and large numbers of Turks. The top brass, moreover, consider genocide recognition would not only disgrace the army but also bring about far-reaching effects for the country’s sacred unity. A number of EU member states, opposing Turkish EU membership for various reasons, seem to have incorporated genocide recognition along with other issues such as Kurdish rights and Turkey\'s Muslim identity to their agenda. These countries, including France and Austria, appear to view the Armenian question more as a way to stop Turkey than an issue in its own right. As accession talks intensify in the years to come, this trend could easily gain salience. This has already led to a certain modification of Ankara\'s view on what happened to the Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish position now acknowledges that up to 300,000 Armenians, just like hundreds of thousands of Ottoman citizens regardless of their ethnic origins, lost their lives in Eastern Anatolia as a result of civil warfare, diseases and famine that afflicted the countryside during the first world war. Recent commentaries even admit that many Armenians died as a consequence of their forced displacement from war zones into the Syrian Desert. Yet though some Turkish voices do use the term \"massacres\", officials outlets stress the point that no state-sanctioned policy of genocide existed. In recent years, some Turkish historians and part of the country\'s intellectual elite, based mainly outside Turkey, have called on Ankara for recognize the genocide. Yet resistance against such claims is compact. Similarly, in Armenia the reverse picture is true: even references to the killings of thousands of Turks and Azerbaijanis by Armenian nationalists in Eastern Anatolia and Armenia proper during the first world war and its aftermath are a strict taboo. Turkish society remains heavily uninformed about the topic; its rather neutral attitude towards Armenians turns negative only in the reaction to what is considered \"Armenian lies\", as well as in relation to the Karabakh issue, in which the Turks side with their Azerbaijani Turkic brethren.

CONCLUSIONS: With its long-term goals remaining vague and hardly predictable, Yerevan’s stance to have the international community recognize the massacres of 1915 as genocide have contributed to a visible deterioration of Armenian-Turkish relations, and hence increased Armenia\'s one-sided dependence on Russia, which is seen as the country\'s only security guarantor vis-à-vis hostile Turkey. Accordingly, in an effort to ensure a devoted ally in the strategic South Caucasus region, Moscow is thoroughly opposing a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, just as it opposes a resolution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. Whereas the Karabakh conflict has considerably limited Yerevan’s space of maneuver in the Caucasus, the genocide recognition issue has done very much the same in Armenia\'s relationship with its Western neighbor, pushing Ankara into Baku\'s firm embrace.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is senior lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is author of \"An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective\" (Peter Lang, autumn 2006)

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