The Use and Abuse of Armeno-Turkish Dialogue


Armenian Review
Volume 50 • Number 1-4 (Fall–Winter 2008)

The issue of Armeno-Turkish dialogue has received international attention and been the source of serious controversy for several years. In the last five years, in particular, there has been a proliferation of civil society dialogues. But to determine which forms of dialogue are capable of truly increasing understanding between Armenian and Turkish societies, one must first look at the earlier attempts, understand why they failed or succeeded, and from that draw the needed lessons to avoid future pitfalls. I will examine three major initiatives for such dialogue that have been undertaken: the government-to-government dialogue of the early 1990s, the civil dialogue known as Track Two diplomacy, and the ongoing academic dialogue.

Government-To-Government Dialogue

Establishing dialogue with Turkey was an integral part of the foreign policy of the Levon Ter-Petrossian administration and his Armenian National Movement [ANM], which governed Armenia from the outset of independence in 1991 until 1998. From its inception, the ANM had a distinct worldview, one that went out of its way to differ with the mainstream of decades of Armenian political thought. The principles and approach outlined in its platform “asserted that Armenia must not rely on other states for protection.”1 It emphasized the need for Armenia to live in peace with its neighbors and so portrayed the ideology of Pan-Turkism as no danger to Armenia, unless Armenians continued to inveigh against it.2

A key principle of the ANM was that foreign policy had to be limited by Armenia’s relative weakness and so, in the name of realism, Armenia had to establish good neighborly relations with all its neighbors and especially Turkey. This decision was underpinned by an analysis of Armenian history that certain ANM figures had been expounding. They compared Armenia’s situation with that of the First Armenian Republic and sharply criticized the naïveté and incompetence of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation [Dashnaktsutyun or ARF] leadership of the First Republic, who they claimed depended on the West or Russia to protect them instead of establishing direct relations with Kemalist Turkey. Thus the incorporation of the Armenian regions of Nagorno Karabagh and Nakhichevan into Azerbaijan in the 1920s was due to the lack of realism by the ARF and its utopian attitude,3 criticisms that could conveniently also be applied to the modern-day ARF. As part of this line of thinking, both the ARF in 1917 and the ANM’s rivals in 1989 were accused of antagonizing and cursing Armenia’s neighbors while relying on Russia as their only protector against Pan-Turkism and as the force that would return Armenian lands.4 This historical justification for his foreign policy, and dismissal of those who disagreed, was aptly summed up by President Ter-Petrossian in his 1990 “State of the Republic” speech to Parliament: It is time, finally, that we study seriously the lessons of our bitter historical experience; instead of an audacious, romantic nation, we must become a cold, realistic and pragmatic nation, whose each step must be circumspect, based on concrete and faultless calculation.5

But the desire to have direct and normal relations with Turkey immediately ran into the same nettlesome issue all Armeno-Turkish dialogue must deal with—the Armenian Genocide and its consequences. The ANM decided that establishing relations was paramount and thus, the Armenian Genocide had to be left off Armenia’s political agenda (Contrast this with the efforts of the Kocharian administration, which would place the issue firmly on its political agenda). When a majority of the Armenian parliament voted, over ANM objections, to include a clause about the Genocide in the Declaration on the Independence of Armenia, they were derided by Rafael Ishkhanian who stated that: “Armenian simplistic emotional elements [had] once more prevailed over rationality.”6

This emphasis on developing close relations on an ‘East-West’ axis with Ankara and Washington, as opposed to a ‘North-South’ axis with Moscow and Tehran, was consistent with the ANM’s dislike of the Soviet Union and Russia.7 The dislike was understandable given that its leaders were intellectuals who had lived “in a self-imposed exile outside of the corrupt communist system” during the Soviet era.8 Another example can be seen in the administration’s delays in establishing formal diplomatic relations with Iran, relations that would have been helpful when Azerbaijan instituted an energy blockade in January 1991 given that Iran has the world’s third largest reserves of oil and natural gas. The US State Department discouraged Armeno-Iranian relations and unsuccessfully pressured Armenia to isolate Iran.9 Ironically it was with the appointment of an Armenian-American, Raffi Hovannisian, as foreign minister that diplomatic relations were established.10 In order to defend themselves from the inevitable criticism of their de-emphasis of the Genocide as a political issue, ANM spokesmen dismissed the decades of political activity by the Armenian Diaspora. At the Second Congress of the ANM, one speaker contrasted the ‘realistic’ policy of the ANM with that of the Diaspora stating “Did a strategy of liberation based on anti-Turkism and anti-communism, on fear of Pan-Turkism and hatred of the Turk, cause the return of an inch of Western Armenian territory or bring us any closer to Turkish recognition of the genocide?”11 Another wrote: “The European Parliament has its own calculations, and for the umpteenth time, it used the Armenian Question as small change. . . . Generally speaking, it is meaningless to seek recognition of the Genocide by different countries or the UN.”12 This line of argument was useful because Washington was also pressing the government to de-emphasize the genocide issue in order to get normal relations with Turkey and for Armenia to take part in the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline.13 In order to further buttress their stance, members of the government began to trivialize the Diaspora’s concern with the Genocide by dismissing it as emotionalism, irrationalism, or adventurism.14 Armenia’s Representative to the US, Alexander Arzoumanian told a Boston audience that his government understood the “great emotional complex” that Armenians in the Diaspora had regarding Turkey, but that relations were being established strictly along economic lines, “with no political attachments.”15 When Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian addressed the issue of relations between Turkey and Armenia at a meeting of the Council of Europe in Istanbul, all he did was twice mention in passing the Genocide as an outstanding item that affects those relations. Yet this caused him to be chastised by Ter-Petrossian, have his remarks labeled as “emotional” and “in contradiction with Armenia’s foreign policy” by a presidential spokesman, and soon led to his resignation.16 It has been observed that: “The fact that Hovannisian . . . made this statement and was consequently forced out of his position is indicative of the extent to which the Ter-Petrossian government has gone to assuage Turkish concerns over the issue of the Armenian Genocide.17 These same types of arguments were also used to defend the government when it was being accused of being willing to allow Karabagh to remain part of Azerbaijan as long as its “cultural autonomy” was guaranteed.18 One of the government’s defenders in the Diaspora would echo their arguments: The opposition to the government’s position tends to be emotional rather than rational. Any serious analysis of the situation would show that the Azeris outnumber the Armenians and are . . . better armed . . . It is only a matter of time before the Azeris attack Karabagh in force and reoccupy it. . . . They seem to be saying that if they cannot have Karabagh, they are willing to risk losing Armenia in the bargain.19

Contrary to this prediction, Karabagh Armenian forces would decisively defeat the Azeri assaults and even capture surrounding lands from which Azerbaijan staged its operations and bombarded population centers.20

From that point on, Turkey would insist on linking the Karabagh conflict and the establishment of diplomatic relations and would institute its own blockade of Armenia by sealing its border in April 1993.21 Thus, removing the Genocide from Armenia’s political agenda brought little reciprocation from Turkey. Masih and Krikorian analyze that Ter-Petrossian and his government failed to see that there was a faction within the Turkish government that believed “the collapse of the Soviet Union would usher in a new period in which Turkey would be ascendant in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. This faction believed that they should support their Turkish brothers in Azerbaijan.” Armenian military victories only strengthened their hand within foreign policy making circles and “Armenia’s belief that they could have beneficial relations with Turkey exclusive of the conflict in NKR proved incorrect.”22 After all was said and done and despite all the concessions made by the Ter-Petrossian government, the policy of normalizing relations with Turkey at almost any cost, failed completely. Rather than showing any flexibility, Turkey set as preconditions to diplomatic relations: “Armenia’s explicit abandonment of territorial designs on Turkey, of allegations of Turkey’s culpability for the ‘genocide’ of Armenians, and a Karabagh solution . . .”23 Even a little flexibility by Turkey could have helped legitimatize the ANM ‘new approach’. Many Armenians, including his successor Robert Kocharian, believe that Ter-Petrossian’s policy turned out to be counter-productive because it gave the impression that Armenia was desperate and thus ready to accept almost any concession to get normal relations and a lifting of the blockade. Actually, it was humiliating for the people of Armenia to see their government almost in the position of begging Turkey to establish relations.24 In fact, the issue of the blockade was used extensively in the Diaspora as an argument for dropping both the Genocide and the Karabagh issues. One heard repeatedly that Armenia was struggling for its very survival and could not afford the ‘luxury’ of demanding justice for the Armenian Genocide or self-determination for Karabagh. Even in more recent years, when the ongoing blockade is nowhere near an existential threat, writers continue to invoke it to belittle diasporan pursuit of genocide recognition. Thus, one hears the claim that “In Armenia itself, Turkish denial of the genocide barely registers as a concern among the citizens of the tiny republic, who are lucky if they get through each day with enough running water and electricity to put dinner on the table.”25 Yet such claims are not supported by any quantifiable evidence of this supposed indifference to genocide denial in Armenia. To the contrary, the issue of the genocide is “strongly felt throughout Armenia” and much of the population opposes opening the border unless Turkey first recognizes the Armenian Genocide.26

Gerard Libaridian, who was a presidential advisor and one of the prime architects of the policy towards Turkey, continues to defend it today, even while attacking Kocharian’s approach. In an interview, he dismisses its failure by stating: “should our policy be assessed only by the standard of full success, i.e. the establishment of normal relations? Isn’t it important that under the circumstances Turkey showed much restraint during the war” between Karabagh and Azerbaijan?27 But did Armenian policies prevent Turkish intervention in the war, or was it that when President Turgut Ozal threatened war in 1992, Russian Marshal Shaposhnikov publicly announced that should one Turkish soldier cross the border it would lead to World War III?28

Civil Dialogue (Track Two Diplomacy)

The ANM policy of establishing relations with the Turkish government did not end with the fall of the Ter-Petrossian, ANM government in 1998, however. In August 2001, the establishment of a Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission [TARC for short] was announced, a continuation in different form of the ANM’s efforts to establish a dialogue. This commission had been organized and meeting in secret as part of Track Two diplomacy and was coordinated by David Phillips, formerly of the US State Department. Armenian President Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian had given at least tacit support to the group although publicly the Foreign Ministry stated that it had “nothing to do with” its establishment.29

Now Track Two diplomacy is supposed to bring together members of civil society, not governments, to establish dialogue and relations where government-to-government relations do not exist. In theory, this makes sense. But once one looks at the details of TARC, one sees that the reality was nowhere near the theory. Of the six initial Turkish commissioners, three were retired Foreign Service officers including a former foreign minister, and one a retired Air Force general.30 Not only are they indistinguishable from the Turkish government, at least some are part of the ‘deep state’ military apparatus that has been shown to hold the levers of power in Turkey no matter which party controls the Parliament.31

Then one looks at the Armenian commissioners and of the four, two had been members of the Ter-Petrossian government and were ANM members, including the party chairman. A third, Van Krikorian, was the Chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, the ANM’s closest ally in the Armenian Diaspora.32 None of the other political parties, in Armenia or in the Diaspora, were represented.33 When asked why there wasn’t broader representation of the Armenian Diaspora on the commission, Krikorian told an interviewer, “We are not presently aware of anyone within the ARF/ANCA ranks who can meet the criteria for membership. The ARF/ANCA is a political party . . . and we felt it would interfere with their designee’s ability to act as a team player on the Commission.”34 Similarly, David Phillips writes in his book that just as he excluded Turks like former Ambassador Omer Lutem of the denialist Institute for Armenian Research in Ankara, “For the same reason, I excluded Dashnaks. The participation of extremists would have obviated any chance for constructive dialogue.”35 The problem with this construct is that it throws the ARF in the same ‘extremist’ boat as virulent anti-Armenians like Lutem while implicitly making the Turkish commissioners, like Ozdem Sanberk and Gunduz Aktan, ‘moderates.’ Yet, this same Ozdem Sanberk announced that: “The basic goal of our commission is to impede the initiatives . . . in the U.S. Congress and parliaments of Western countries on the genocide issue”36 and “The Republic of Turkey will never recognize the Genocide for the simple reason that it didn’t happen.”37 Gunduz Aktan declared that Turkey should conduct a “war” against Armenian claims of genocide, which he labeled “the Armenian lie.”38 As can be seen, the Armenian commissioners represented but one slice of Armenian society. Thus this supposed Track Two diplomacy between civil societies was little more than an attempted continuation of the failed policy of the ANM government to establish dialogue with the Turkish government, only now sponsored by the US State Department. Despite the financial and institutional backing of the State Department, TARC quickly faced withering criticism, both in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. Much of the criticism stemmed from the membership of the commission, from both the Turkish and Armenian sides, as well as the questionable motives of the State Department, and especially the commission’s avoidance of discussion of the issue of the Armenian Genocide. This last point was evident even in the name of the commission, in which the word truth was conspicuously absent.39 Ever since South African President Nelson Mandela authorized a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where former policemen and other government officials were offered amnesty if they confessed their human rights violations under the apartheid regime, this model has been used to reveal past wrongdoing. Yet unlike such commissions in El Salvador, South Korea, Panama, Liberia, Peru, and Sierra Leone, TARC avoided the word truth while maintaining a similar acronym. Reflecting on the contrast with these cases, one analysis of the time noted: But the Armenian-Turkish case does not fit neatly into the model of reconciliation. In fact, the premise of the TARC’s mission jeopardizes the proper pursuit of Armenian–Turkish relations by replacing bilateral diplomacy with private initiative. Such a private effort, manifested by the TARC, offers Turkey (and Washington for that matter) an effective avenue to bypass the obligations and rules of dealing with Armenia imposed by the accepted norms of international relations and diplomacy. . . . By presenting Turkey with an opportunity to claim its participation in the TARC as a façade of cooperation . . . with Armenia, the Armenian government is faced with a daunting new challenge to any success in pressuring Turkey to end its blockade or to refrain from disrupting the delicate balance in the Nagorno Karabagh peace process.40

It seems that the commissioners hoped that such criticisms could be deflected by superior public relations ‘spin’ and by ‘shooting the messenger’ whenever possible. Thus, when Phillips reflects on the criticisms of TARC’s name, he does not mention the truth issue: “TARC’s name was the object of gratuitous scorn. Some asked why the Turks were mentioned first.”41 When the Armenian commissioners were caught off-guard by the strength of the immediate criticism they faced, they issued a statement that clearly echoed the ANM ideologues from ten years earlier:

The Armenian people have lost faith in the false promises of demagogues. No third country has or will put its own national interest aside and force Turkey to reconcile. And Armenian historians have noted that in retrospect naïve belief in third countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not save our nation.42

Beginning with the public announcement of the establishment of TARC, the Armenian Reporter, a New York-based newspaper that had aligned itself with the Armenian Assembly, repeatedly asserted that only a few political partisans opposed the commission. Its readers were told that an observer noting all the criticism of TARC should not “conclude that the Armenian people opposes it. When the truth is projected, then it becomes clear that only the ARF is opposing it for self-serving purposes.” The party was accused of acting due to its “dissatisfaction at being left out of this historical initiative” and “because the ARF has to once again take a back seat to a more forward-and progressive-thinking Armenian organization” and of using “its special brand of personal, vitriolic and timeworn attacks.”43

A second line of attack denigrated the decades of advocacy work done by the Diaspora to confront the Turkish government with its responsibility to recognize the Genocide. Despite the tens of millions of dollars the Turkish government had been obliged to spend on public relations firms, lobbying, congressional junkets, grants to academics, and Turkish studies chairs to try to combat diasporan advocacy efforts, readers were told: “For seventy years, we chose to carry on a hostile campaign against a powerful enemy, with the campaign failing miserably.”44 One commentator stated that for the opponents of TARC, “it was preferable to keep pressure on Turkey through Genocide resolutions and the like, even though from a practical standpoint this strategy has not helped Armenia one iota.”45 The editor of the Reporter reported that: “For eight decades the Armenian people have screamed their heads off against Turkey with absolutely no result or without any success.”46

Yet when such attacks failed to blunt the broad criticism, TARC commissioners and the Reporter tried to silence critics through intimidation or by portraying them as mouthpieces of the ARF. When history professor Levon Marashlian was quoted in the Glendale News Press criticizing TARC, he received a letter from commissioner Van Krikorian in his other role of Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Armenian Assembly. Marashlian protested to Krikorian and the Armenian press that the letter was “an insidious way of raising doubts about a person’s character through innuendo.”47 In a similar vein, the Reporter editorialized against the California Courier when it criticized the Armenian Assembly for softening its position in support of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act that barred US governmental assistance to Azerbaijan as long as it blockaded Armenia. The editorial accused the Courier of misrepresenting the Assembly’s position and that:

This effort appears to be in line with the efforts of the publisher, who, in recent times, has echoed the positions of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in opposition to the creation of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission. While we recognize the right of everyone to free speech and to express their opinions about such issues, we nevertheless did not anticipate that such views would be voiced by a small publication which claims to be impartial and independent. By opposing the Assembly or the TARC, the California Courier and its publishers have revealed their true colors and have exposed the fact they serve not the interests of the Armenian people, but rather the interests of one single political party, which has been left out of the process of reconciliation between two longtime adversaries.48

Ramifications Of The Civil Dialogue

Despite the drumbeat of charges against the critics of TARC, many of the misgivings that they had expressed came to be justified. This was clearly evident when the existence of a “civil initiative” was used as a primary argument by opponents to head off Armenian Genocide resolutions in the US Congress as well as in the European Parliament’s report on Turkish accession to the European Union (EU). The latter case is particularly significant because there has been longstanding support in the European Parliament, dating back to 1987 and as recently as 2000, for resolutions placing conditions on Turkey’s admission into the EU. These conditions included recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey and the lifting of the Turkish blockade of Armenia. Could it possibly a coincidence that the TARC came to life just three months before the Parliament was to adopt new resolutions on Turkish EU accession?

Sure enough, when in October 2001 the issue was voted, all mention of recognition of the Armenian Genocide had been removed from the European Parliament’s resolution. And this was explicitly linked to TARC as the reason given for the exclusion was to avoid preempting the work of the newly established commission, “the aim of which is to arrive at a common understanding of the past.”49 It is clear that preemption had already occurred, but in reverse. Critics had also charged that the TARC initiative had the potential to divide the Armenian community and, worst of all, divide it on the one issue that had unified the Diaspora: Armenian Genocide advocacy. These misgivings too, came to be realized. The proof was not only in the harsh rhetoric over TARC noted above, but in clashes between the Armenian Assembly and the ARF-affiliated Armenian National Committee of America over the tactics of introducing a resolution commemorating the Armenian Genocide in the US Congress.50 In another example, front page stories in the Armenian Reporter claimed that TARC had been endorsed by the Ramgavar (Armenian Democratic Liberal) Party and the Armenian commissioners, in their initial statement, claimed that: “From around the world, most Armenians have offered support, both publicly and privately.” Yet Azg, the official newspaper of the Ramgavar Party in Armenia, editorialized in response that “the signers of this statement are simply lying” and accused “the Armenian Assembly of emulating the propaganda ploys of the Armenian National Movement.”51 Despite the best efforts of its proponents, TARC remained widely criticized in Armenia and the Diaspora.52 The final blow that showed that TARC did not have the widespread public support that it claimed and that its critics were not limited to political hacks and their fellow travelers, came in its effect on its foremost diasporan supporter—the Armenian Assembly. On December 1, 2001, the Assembly issued a statement distancing itself from the initiative and stating: The AAA is no longer involved with TARC. Should individuals affiliated with the Assembly choose to participate in the re-activated TARC, they will be doing so in their private capacity and not as a representative of the Assembly.53

Being associated with TARC seriously damaged the reputation of the Assembly in the eyes of much of the community, including many erstwhile supporters. There were even reports of dissension within its Board of Directors amongst those who had not been consulted before the start of the initiative. The Assembly has yet to fully recover from this blow and this may partly explain the emergence of USAPAC, a rival organization led and staffed by individuals who had been part of the Assembly. In the end, the Armenian commissioners in TARC were forced by public pressure to address the issue of the Genocide and it directly led to the dissolution of the group. When the Turkish commissioners reneged on an agreement to request an analysis of the applicability of the UN Genocide Convention to the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian commissioners withdrew in December of 2001. The group was later revived and the International Center for Transitional Justice commissioned the legal analysis, which found that the events in the Ottoman Empire did constitute genocide as defined by the treaty but that the Convention could not be applied retroactively. Although the Turkish commissioners welcomed the latter point, they objected to the former and so withdrew from the commission and TARC was dissolved in 2004.54 The demise of TARC led to another assault on its critics and even on its lukewarm supporters. President Robert Kocharian was accused of being “increasingly beholden to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation,” for whose support he was forced “to make the recognition of the Armenian Genocide a high-priority government policy, even at the expense of relations with its largest neighbor, Turkey.” The Reporter also claimed, “ARF pressure caused the Kocharian administration to distance itself from this very worthwhile effort.”55 In his book about TARC, David Phillips reserves the harshest scorn for Kocharian and Foreign Minister Oskanian. He claims Oskanian had committed to “publicly endorsing the initiative,” but that he “backed off in the face of vocal opposition and intimidation” and that “instead of standing by its commitments, the Kocharian government ran for cover.”56 The criticism of Kocharian and Oskanian raised questions in the Armenian community, where there have long been suspicions that the State Department prefers a politically weak Armenian president who might be more pliable in the Karabagh peace negotiations. Since the ARF had led the opposition to TARC, it was branded as ‘refusing to speak to Turks.’ But this is a false claim because its opposition was not to all dialogue, but to these two flawed cases. The key flaw in both was the obvious power imbalance between the participants, as described above. True dialogue is impossible when the Armenian participants are in an inferior position of power as compared to their Turkish counterparts. Genocide scholar Henry Theriault has noted that: “Genocide can shape and exacerbate a pre-existing sense of superiority,” and that: “Many if not most Turks today continue to have an attitude towards Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and others reminiscent of the pre-genocide millet days.”57 This attitude was most obvious in the statements and actions of the Turkish TARC commissioners, but can also be seen in the stress on genocide denial in the government-to-government dialogue. Because if, “Denial is not entirely an end in itself, then, but also a tool of domination,”58 then the setting aside of any discussion of the Genocide exposed the dominance relationship. In many ways, this replicated the power relation between Armenians and Turks that existed in the Ottoman Empire before and during the Genocide.

Academic Dialogue

To have a viable example of dialogue that can be used to measure others against, one must look at the third example—the dialogue between academics. This is superior to the first two examples for two reasons: 1) a drastic improvement in the power imbalance between participants, and 2) although not all the academics in it would use the word genocide, none were deniers, unlike the two prior cases where some were virulent deniers. So, on the most contentious issue, the dialogue began with some common ground, and on a much more equal basis.

The results of this dialogue can be seen in the activities of the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship (WATS), an informal grouping of academics organized by Ronald Suny of the University of Chicago and Fatma Müge Göçek and Gerard Libaridian of the University of Michigan. Its aim has been to examine Turkish-Armenian relations, especially during World War One, in a historical, sociological, and political science context removed from the current politics of Armenian genocide recognition advocacy and the Turkish government’s denial campaign. Its main activities have been a series of periodic academic workshops and the establishment of an electronic listserve discussion list. Although it was initially greeted with suspicion, WATS was awarded the Middle Eastern Studies Association’s Academic Freedom Prize in 2005.59 It is also significant that this initiative is funded by academic institutes and is independent of governments.60 Six workshops have been held, starting in 2000, with the participation of Armenian, Turkish, and Western scholars and observers. Over 100 papers have been presented at the workshops, providing a forum for scholars to present new research on the history and politics of the last decades of the Ottoman Empire as well as other issues related to Armeno-Turkish relations. Some of the important panel topics during these workshops have included: Turkish and Western historiography on the Genocide, “Ottomanism, Turkish Nationalism, and Pan Movements”, “Armenian Nationalism and the Political Parties,” “The Young Turks: Party and Ideology,” “Explaining Genocide,” and “Forms of Collective Violence and Symbolic Violence against the Armenians and other Groups.”61 Over the course of these workshops, the organizers have reported that there has developed a general agreement among participants that: “the Turkish official narrative has little to do with history and scholarship.” Also, “the Armenian discourse often lacks the context, the rigor and the amplitude that would explain all aspects of events; that it is particularly weak in exploring the causation process . . .” On the most critical issue, while “there is general agreement on the role of the CUP and the government and organizations it controlled in executing the mass deportations and massacres of Armenians during World War I. . . . Some still do not see this policy as genocide . . .” Finally, “there are disagreements on the timing of the decision for the calamitous policies.”62 Another notable development was the active stance taken by some of the key Turkish academics from the dialogue in the organizing of a conference held in September 2005 at Bilgi University in Istanbul entitled, “Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy.” The conference was originally scheduled for May but was postponed when the Turkish Minister of Justice Cemil Çiçek described it as “a stab in the back to the Turkish nation” and accused participants of “treason,” and an opposition MP, former Ambassador Şükrü Elekdağ, called it “a treacherous project” aimed at disseminating pro-Armenian propaganda.63 The conference was postponed a second time due to a court ruling but went forward after being endorsed by Turkey’s premier and its foreign minister. Its participation was limited to Turkish citizens and Turkish academics as its organizers stated that it was time “for Turkey’s own academics and intellectuals to collectively raise their voices that differ from that of the official [state] theses and put forth their own contribution.64 The conference was not ideal, but it was a clear step in the right direction. It was the first chance for the Turkish public to be educated on the facts concerning the treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide by Turkish academics. This is a critical issue and is the only way to overcome the opposition by the ‘deep state’ in Turkey. As one of the organizers pointed out: “Conferences on the Armenian question have been organized for years in this country. All of them have been one-sided; historians that criticized freely were never invited.”65 At the same time, the assassination in January of 2007 of one of the participants in the conference, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, shows that the ‘deep state’ and the ultranationalists it encourages will not give up without a fight. There are some drawbacks in the academic dialogue. For instance, some of the Armenian participants conceded too much up front in order to get it started. Without any documentation or doing the research themselves, they declared that the decision to commit genocide was an act of desperation in response to battlefield disasters that was not taken until March of 1915. There also was unnecessary criticism of other Armenian academics who wouldn’t make similar concessions in order to participate. This included the denigration of Armenian academics who individually had already begun a dialogue with their Turkish counterparts. The proof that such concessions on the Genocide were not needed to start dialogue can be seen in the person of one of the Turkish academics who does use the word genocide, Taner Akçam, whose involvement in the issue came after a lengthy dialogue with Vahakn Dadrian—an Armenian academic who makes no concession on the ‘premeditation’ of the Genocide and finds its roots in 1894, 1896, and 1909.66 Even within the listserve, which now has over 400 participants, there are those who ardently try to squelch any discussion of reparations and try to drive the conversation away from topics that are connected to political consequences for the Genocide. One way in which this is done is by equating Turkish nationalism and Armenian nationalism. Under this false comparison, since Turkish nationalists have been supposedly excluded from the list because overt genocide deniers are not admitted, anyone who states Armenian nationalist sentiments should also be excluded. While some list members have pointed out the obvious difference that there is no massive anti-historical government apparatus promoting Armenian nationalists, this shows that continued vigilance and dialogue are necessary to prevent this beneficial venue from being distorted. One active participant in the listserve has noted that there is one group of Turkish scholars who are eager to discuss the Armenian issue and who are not genocide deniers, but “view the activities of the Armenian Diaspora to keep alive the issue of genocide recognition . . . with remarkable distaste” and fear. Similarly to the example above, they view the Diaspora’s ‘fixation’ on the issue of the Genocide “as the mirror image of their own government’s fixation on denial.” One of these scholars has gone so far as to describe the two positions as a “bilateral fetishism.” Yet it ignores the fact that there is no chance that “they could be having this conversation if not for decades of diasporan activism and scholarship.”67 On the other hand, many of the participants in academic dialogue come from the Turkish Left. This has created opportunities for solidarity between Turks and Armenians as progressives as is evident in those Turkish figures who have most actively engaged the diasporan Armenian community. The potential pitfall that must be avoided is what Henry Theriault has described as the tendency of some progressive Turks “to treat the Armenian Genocide instrumentally, as a tool for transforming Turkish society toward liberal democracy” while disparaging efforts by Armenians “to keep the focus on issues of concern to the victim group.” While the democratization of Turkey would benefit the Armenians of Turkey, it would not by itself end anti-Armenianism and would not resolve the dominance relationship between Armenians and Turks. “In fact, proper democratization depends on ending this domination, not the other way around,” Theriault finds.68 In conclusion, the issue of the best forms of dialogue is critical as the next few years will see more initiatives to bring Turks and Armenians into the same room. Given the danger, and specific examples shown above, of the mere existence of a dialogue being manipulated for political gain, each dialogue project must be closely evaluated. A productive dialogue requires that the participants share some common ground on substantive issues and that there not be a yawning power imbalance between them. Manipulation by governments, whether it is Turkey, the United States, Armenia, or any other, must be guarded against. It is also vital that it be made clear from the start of any dialogue, who the participants do and, as importantly, do not represent. The WATS initiative has not tried to present itself as anything other than a gathering of scholars attempting to better understand history and contemporary Armeno-Turkish relations. One key flaw in the ANM government’s dialogue with Turkey was that it appeared to be making irrevocable concessions on the issue of the Genocide without gaining the support of, or even consulting with, the Diaspora. TARC too was perceived as making decisions on behalf of all Armenians, while its participants were not representative of either the Armenians of Armenia or the Armenians of the Diaspora. It is unfortunate, but even the best dialogue projects can suffer in the public eye due to what has gone before. It is also not helpful that the proponents of earlier projects repeatedly tried to present a false choice between the concerns and demands of the Diaspora on the one hand, and the very survival of Armenia on the other. Projects to increase understanding between Armenians and Turks hardly do any favors to the idea of dialogue by increasing misunderstanding or distrust between Armenia and the Diaspora or between proponents and skeptics within the Diaspora.

There are already ongoing business, cultural, and student dialogues. At the same time, EU accession has created space in Turkey for a freer discussion of the Armenians and the history of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, even as a right-wing backlash results in the arrests of some of those discussing the issues. The Turkish government may be seeking to find the mildest way that it may acknowledge the Genocide, while denying the Armenian People any right to reparations or return of territories. In such circumstances, dialogue between Armenians and those Turks who do not support their government’s policies and positions vis-à-vis the Amenians is crucial.


  1. Mark Malkasian, “Gha-ra-bagh!”: The Emergence of the National Democratic Movement in Armenia (Detroit: Wayne Univ. Press, 1996), 128.
  2. “Pan-Turanianism: A Response from the Karabagh Committee,” in Armenia at the Crossroads: Democracy and Nationhood in the Post-Soviet Era (Watertown, Mass: Blue Crane Books, 1991), 155-6. A leading ANM ideologue wrote that: “Now these sycophants are throwing at us the scarecrows of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism, so that we Armenians attach ourselves more tightly to the Russian carriage…” Rafael Ishkhanian, “The Law of Excluding the Third Force,” in Armenia at the Crossroads, 23-24.
  3. Ktrich Sardarian, “Hamashkharhayin Heghapokhoutyan Arevelyan Khachmeroukoum (kam te inchpes partoutyan matnvets Hayastani Hanrapetoutyoune?)” [At the Crossroads of the Worldwide Revolution (or How the Republic of Armenia was Reduced to Defeat?] and “1918T. Mayisi Pordze yev Dasere” [The Trial and Lessons of May 1918], in Patmoutyoun yev Irakanoutyoune, [History and the Truth] (Yerevan: Parberakan, 1991), 53-80, 90-96, as cited in Stephan H. Astourian, “From Ter-Petrosian to Kocharian: Leadership Change in Armenia,” Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies: Working Paper Series, (Winter 2000-2001), 19; Ishkhanian, “Excluding the Third Force,” 23-4.
  4. Ishkhanian, “Excluding the Third Force,” 26-28.
  5. Levon Ter Petrosian, “The State of the Republic,” speech delivered to Armenian Parliament on October 22, 1990, in Armenia at the Crossroads, 118.
  6. Rafael Ishkanian, “Patmakan Iradardzoutioun” [Historic Event], in Yerrort Ouzhi Batsarman Orenke: Hodvatsner [The Law of Exclusion of the Third Force: Articles] (Yerevan: Azad Khosk, 1991), as quoted in Astourian, 20. It is noteworthy that, before it came to power, the ANM’s political program devoted three articles (of the thirteen articles expressing its political goals) to the Armenian Genocide.
  7. Astourian, 25, 27; Gerard J. Libaridian, Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2004), 244.
  8. Malkasian, 75.
  9. Libaridian, Modern Armenia, 243.
  10. One observer has noted, “Iran thus became Armenia’s friendliest neighbor…without Iranian trade, Armenia might not have survived the two miserable winters of 1991-1992 and 1992-1993. Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2003), 205.
  11. Gerard Libaridian, “Democracy, Diaspora, and the National Agenda,” in Armenia at the Crossroads, 162.
  12. Ishkhanian, “Excluding the Third Force,” 33.
  13. Astourian, 24.
  14. One of the most outspoken figures on this issue was ANM parliamentary deputy Ashod Bleyan. A close ally of President Ter-Petrossian, he often floated the administration’s trial balloons on the most controversial issues. In 1995, as Acting Minister of Education, he banned the teaching of the Armenian Genocide in elementary and middle schools stating: “We must put an end to those depressing topics,” and “Paruyr Sevak’s Anlerli Zangakatun must be ‘silenced’ in the schools for a long time.” “No Genocide Curriculum in Schools, Says Ashot Bleyan,” The Armenian Weekly, March 4, 1995, 1; “Bleyan at Center of Controversial Education Reform Program, The Armenian Weekly, March 18, 1995, 1.
  15. “Alexander Arzoumanian Addresses Gathering in Boston,” The Armenian Weekly, October 19, 1991.
  16. “In Istanbul Speech, Hovannnisian Criticizes Turkey on Artzakh Issue,” Armenian Mirror-Spectator, September 26, 1992, 10; Antranig Kasbarian, “Hovannisian on Target,” The Armenian Weekly, October 3, 1992, 2; “Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian Resigns Following Demand by the President,” Armenian Mirror-Spectator, October 24, 1992, 1.
  17. Joseph R. Masih & Robert O. Krikorian, Armenia: At the Crossroads (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), 101.
  18. Vartan Oskanian, “Looking Ahead: Armenia’s First Freely Elected President Faces Formidable Challenges and Tough Decisions,” Armenian International Magazine, November 1991, 30; “ANM Willing to Allow Karabagh to Remain in Azeri Hands,” The Armenian Weekly, June 20, 1992, 1.
  19. “Armenia’s Serious Crisis,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, June 27, 1992,
  20. De Waal, 194-6, 209-215. Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Manukian “deliberately omitted to inform Ter-Petrossian” of the extent of operations because he knew the “more politically cautious” president would have misgivings. De Waal, 210, 212.
  21. Libaridian, Modern Armenia, 271; European Parliament, “The Closed Armenia-Turkey Border: Economic and Social Effects, Including those on the People; and the Implications for the Overall Situation in the Region,” Policy Department External Policies Study, August 2007, 3.
  22. Masih & Krikorian, 99.
  23. Carol Migdalovitz, “92109: Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict (Updated December 3, 1996),” in CRS [Congressional Research Service] Issue Brief. November 15, 2000, http:// 11, as quoted in Astourian, 30.
  24. Astourian, 31-33.
  25. Meline Toumani, “The Burden of Memory,” The Nation, September 20, 2004.
  26. Masih & Krikorian, 98; Emil Danielyan, “Gallup Poll: Armenians Against Open Border with Turkey,” en/2006/09/748D4AC7-1282-4400-BEAE-0543AB69FA24.ASP.
  27. “Thoughts on the 90th Anniversary Activities: Aravot Daily’s Interview with Jirair Libaridian,” Aravot Daily, June 28, 2005.
  28. Stephan Astourian, “The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Dimensions, Lessons, and Prospects,” Mediterranean Quarterly: A Journal of Global Issues 5, 4(Fall 1994), 103.
  29. Statement by Dziunik Aghajanian, Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 13, 2001, as quoted in David L. Phillips, Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005), 67.
  30. Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission website, mem.htm; Harout Sassounian, “Efforts to Reconcile with Turks Causes Discord Among Armenians,” California Courier, July 19, 2001.
  31. Turkish dissident scholar Taner Akçam commented that “the Turkish participants are well connected to the very inner circle of the ruling elite, which itself has become a state within a state (derin devlet).” Taner Akçam, “The Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission: A Commentary from the Perspective of Turkish Civil Society,” August 30, 2001,
  32. Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission website,
  33. A joint statement condemning the establishment of TARC was signed by deputies from the National Democratic Union, the Communist Party of Armenia, the Republican Party of Armenia, the ARF, the People’s Party of Armenia, the Constitutional Rights Union, and the Country of Law Party. “Reactions to Reconciliation Commission not Positive,” The Armenian Weekly, August 4, 2001, 1.
  34. According to Krikorian, the minimum criteria for Armenian commissioners were that they must “have significant international and national political experience… be fluent in English” and “be willing to work as part of a team.” “Groong interview with Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) members Van Z. Krikorian and Andranik Migranian,” August 4, 2001, ro-20010804.html.
  35. Phillips, 66.
  36. Ibid., 62.
  37. Sanberk made the latter comment at the end of a panel on Turkish-Armenian relations at the annual conference of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. Van Krikorian was one of the prior speakers. Murat Acemoglu, “Statements by Turkish Member of Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission are Provocative and Inflammatory,” Armenian Reporter International, November 17, 2001, 4; Phillips, 62-63.
  38. Akçam, “A Commentary.”
  39. In the New York Times article that made the commission public, Ozdem Sanberk was quoted as saying, “The intent is not to find what the truth is…” Douglas Frantz, “Unofficial Commission Acts to Ease Turkish-Armenian Enmity; Deep Division Rooted in the Carnage of the Last Days of the Ottoman Empire,” New York Times, July 10, 2001, 3.
  40. Khatchik DerGhougassian & Richard Giragosian, “The Dangers of Privatizing Armenian Foreign Policy,” Armenian News Network/Groong, August 31, 2001, http://
  41. Phillips, 66. Phillips does write in his book of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as those in Chile, El Salvador, and Argentina. Yet he does not attach any importance to complaints by Armenians that the word truth had been omitted.
  42. “Armenian Members of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission Issue Statement,” Armenian Reporter International, August 11, 2001, 1.
  43. “Some Criticism of TARC is Justified, Some Isn’t,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, August 18, 2001, 2; Joseph Vosbikian, “ARFers Just Playing Their Part,” Armenian Reporter International, September 15, 2001, 2; “An Undue Reaction to the Formation of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, August 11, 2001, 2. A number of examples of the rhetoric used in the editorials and commentaries between Armenian-American newspapers are provided in order to portray the climate of opinion that existed at the time. This is significant as there was clearly a public relations battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the community and the outcome of the battle would have a direct impact on the future of the commission.
  44. “Some Criticism of TARC is Justified, Some Isn’t,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, August 18, 2001, 2.
  45. Michael Haratunian, “TARC-A Lost Opportunity,” Armenian Reporter International, December 29, 2001, 2.
  46. Edward K. Boghosian, “A Visit with the Reconciliation Commission,” Armenian Reporter International, December 1, 2001, 26.
  47. Levon Marashlian, “Armenian Assembly Chairman Van Krikorian Resorts to Intimidation to Suppress Opposition to Reconciliation Commission,” Armenian Reporter International, September 1, 2001, 5; “In the Wake of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, September 15, 2001, 2;  Levon Marashlian, “Deception Being Used to Defend Assembly Chairman Krikorian’s Acts of Intimidation,” The Armenian Weekly, October 13, 1991, 10.
  48. “California Courier Serves Interests of Those Who Oppose TARC,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, October 27, 2001, 2.
  49. European Parliament, “Report on the 2000 Regular Report from the Commission on Turkey’s progress towards accession,” October 11, 2001, 10-13; “Forum of Armenian Associations in Europe Calls on Armenian TARC Members to Resign,” Asbarez, November 5, 2001.
  50. Alexander Arzoumanian dismissed such concerns by columnist Harout Sassounian by describing them as “very inflammatory statements.” He claimed that the Assembly and ANCA had always had the best of relations and that there would be no divisions over TARC in either Armenia or the Diaspora. Sassounian opined that TARC “has had a disruptive effect on intra-Armenian solidarity in both Washington and Yerevan.” Harout Sassounian, “Effort to Reconcile with Turks Causes Discord among Armenians,” California Courier, July 19-26, 2001, 4, and “Pres. Kocharian Must Intervene to Prevent Further Damage by Turkish Commission,” California Courier, August 2, 2001, 4.
  51. “Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission Receives Endorsements from Traditional Parties, Other Organizations”, Armenian Reporter International, August 18, 2001, 1; “Armenian Members of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission Issue Statement,” Armenian Reporter International, August 11, 2001, 1; Harout Sassounian, “Reconciliation Commission Members Deepen Rift by Lashing Out at Critics,” California Courier, August 9, 2001.
  52. De Waal, 78.
  53. Armenian Assembly of America statement, December 1, 2001.
  54. Phillips, 99-101,112-114, 134; Libaridian, Modern Armenia, 278.
  55. “Kocharian and His Friends,” Editorial, Armenian Reporter International, December 22, 2001
  56. Phillips, 61, 67.
  57. Henry Theriault, “Toward a New Conceptual Framework for Resolution: The Necessity of Recognizing the Perpetrator-Victim Dominance Relation in the Aftermath of Genocide,” Paper presented at the 6th Biennial Conference of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, June 7, 2005, 12. Theriault also discerns such a dominance relation in the cases of Native Americans and of the Chinese, Koreans, and other victims of the Japanese during World War II.
  58. Ibid., 13.
  59. Gerard Libaridian, “On the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship,” Report prepared for WATS V workshop, May 10, 2006, news.html.
  60. Libaridian, Modern Armenia, 278.
  62. Libaridian, “On the Workshop.” The CUP (Committee of Union and Progress, Ittihad ve Terraki in Turkish) was the party of government during World War One and
    The Use and Abuse of Armeno-Turkish Dialogue controlled the Special Organization (Teşkilât-i Mahsusa) that played a key role in implementation of the Genocide.
  63. “Dissident Conference Stirs Tensions in Turkey,” Agence France Press, May 24, 2005.
  64. “First Conference on the Armenian Issue Organized in Istanbul, Turkey,” Conference announcement, May, 2005.
  65. Professor Halil Berktay as quoted in “War of Words Before Conference on Armenians,” Hurriyet, May 23, 3005.
  66. Zoryan Istitute, “The Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission: A Commentary by the Zoryan Institute,”, August 10, 2001; Levon Marashlian, “Armenian-Turkish Dialogue and Unfounded Accusations,” The Armenian Weekly, August 19, 2000, 2. Marashlian was the first Armenian scholar to present an academic paper on the Genocide in Turkey when he attended the annual conference of the Turkish Historical Society in 1990.
  67. Marc Mamigonian, “Armeno-Turkish Relations,” Presentation at Armenians and the Left Conference, CUNY Graduate Center, April 8, 2006.
  68. Henry Theriault, “Post-Genocide Imperial Domination,” The Armenian Weekly, Special Supplement on the Armenian Genocide: Controversy and Debate, April 24, 2007, 6.