The US House of Representatives recently passed by a sweeping 405-11 majority a resolution calling the killings of around 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War “a genocide.” Shortly after, Senator Lindsey Graham blocked the resolution in the Senate, noting that lawmakers should not “sugarcoat history or try to rewrite it.”
This year, Armenia marked the 104th anniversary of the mass atrocities—and of the Republic of Turkey’s refusal to accept its predecessor’s crimes. Every April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians commemorate the tragic historical event as they pay homage to the victims by visiting the Armenian Genocide Memorial in capital Yerevan. Diaspora Armenians and citizens residing outside of Armenia march in dozens of cities worldwide as they remember and fight for justice at the same time.
Despite extensive scholarship and the general consensus of the genocidal nature of the atrocities, the Armenian Genocide is not recognized by many countries around the world. Among those that have recognized it are Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Russia, and Brazil, alongside some international organizations, such as the Council of Europe. While asserting truth and historical justice may factor into recognition by certain powers, diplomatic relations with Turkey are a far more important variable in the calculus of genocide recognition.
Ever since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Armenia has prioritized promoting the recognition of the genocide in the framework of its foreign policy—for good reason. It is undeniable that extensive lobbying on the part of the diasporans, alongside strengthening diplomatic relations with foreign countries, has pushed for the acceptance of historical truth that is so central to millions of Armenians around the world. This approach is ambitious, however, since it expects short-term results from self-interested foreign powers. While campaigning for historical justice is important, policymakers and diasporans should focus on more long-term, sustainable strategies to push for genocidal recognition—specifically, strengthening Armenia’s democracy. This requires a reinforcement of a forward-looking, innovative, and democratic culture in Armenia.
The History of the Genocide
The mass killings of Armenians and other ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire is regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-German lawyer known for the coinage of the term “genocide,” used the example of the atrocities committed against the Armenian people to think about the term.
Although there were previous attempts of a systematic extermination of Armenians and other minorities in the Ottoman Empire, the most violent wave started on April 24, 1915, when authorities in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) rounded up more than two hundred Armenian intellectuals. The date of the killing of these leading Armenian figures—poets, clergymen, community leaders—motivated the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day from the 1960s onwards. What followed this initial stage of extermination was a systematic campaign of mass murder. Among the causes of the victims’ deaths were death marches, mass burnings, “drowning, torture, gas, poison, disease and starvation.” The exact death toll is uncertain and ranges between six hundred thousand to 1.5 million people. The number of Armenians in Turkey dropped from two million to fewer than four hundred thousand, both due to killings and deportations.
There was extensive international press coverage at the time. New York Times covered atrocities in Turkey 145 times in 1915 alone, characterizing them as “systematic,” “authorized,” and “organized by the government.” The gruesome crimes against humanity committed by the Ottoman authorities were relatively well known by diplomats and foreign missionaries in the empire. United States Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr. gave specific insights about the local authorities’ motivations. He noted, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact”.
The Plea for Recognition
One of the consequences of the mass extermination campaign propagated by the Ottoman authorities was the creation of an enormous refugee population of Armenians and other ethnic minorities. Effectively stateless, these populations fled Ottoman Turkey for Russia, the Middle East, and especially the West. The United States notably opened its borders to around eighty thousand Armenians fleeing the atrocities.
The formation of giant Armenian diaspora communities in foreign countries is itself due largely to the persecutory, deliberate policies of the Ottoman Empire at the time. The Guardian called Armenia “[a] small country but a big nation.” There are an estimated seven to ten million diaspora Armenians living outside of Armenia, compared to barely three million residents of the Republic of Armenia today. There are around one million people of Armenian descent currently residing in the United States alone.
In 1965, several diaspora communities commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the genocide, which prompted Armenians in the Soviet Republic to rebel against the Soviet rule against the demonstration of national identity. On April 24, massive demonstrations were organized in Yerevan and other cities in Soviet Armenia, which led to the construction of the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex in 1967. This set the stage for the eventual systematic campaign for recognition, both domestically and abroad, especially following the independence of Armenia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Dynamics in International Politics
The increasingly vocal Soviet Armenia and, afterwards, the Republic of Armenia started actively pursuing the goal of an international recognition of the genocide in an effort to assert historical justice and heal as a nation. There are currently several dozens of countries that officially recognize the genocidal nature of the atrocities, alongside several United Nations bodies and forty-nine US states (Mississippi remains the last state to recognize the Armenian Genocide). Some countries go as far as to criminalize the public denial of the Armenian Genocide. France punishes such denials by an imprisonment of one year or a fine amounting 45,000 euros. A similar offense in Greece could be punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine up to 30,000 euros.
The Armenian diaspora around the world has been instrumental in influencing the official stance of many countries on the genocidal nature of the events. Affluent Armenian communities in many countries, including the United States, were imperative in advancing the interests of the Republic of Armenia in the larger context of the genocide. In their book Ethnic Lobbies And US Foreign Policy, David M. and Rachel Anderson Paul find that the Armenian diaspora in the United States is “one of the most influential ethnic communities in the foreign policy process” resulting in “one of the most active ethnic lobbies.” The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), one of the most powerful Armenian lobbies in the United States, has advanced the recognition of the genocide, as well as blocked “several deals and aid packages with Turkey,” even though the United States still does have a semi-close relationship with Turkey.
However, Turkey is facing no tangible consequences, mainly because recognition could result in countries’ alienating Turkey. As Turkey is an affluent member of NATO, whose economic and military position in the world is far more important for certain global powers than the advancement of historical justice, potential repercussions for recognition are far worse than the benefits of a closer relationship with Armenia.
In justifying his decision, Graham said that “he was objecting [to the resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide] ‘not because of the past but because of the future.’” On the other side of the Atlantic, in 2006, the European Union dropped genocide recognition as a condition for Turkey’s ascension to the EU just three weeks after it had been proposed. Albeit humiliating for millions of Armenians worldwide, these defeats for those in favor of genocide recognition reinforce the most fundamental assumption of neo-realist international relations scholars: that self-interested powers will compete to increase their relative powers is a pattern widely exhibited in the real world. Aggravating relations with Turkey would be a significant blow, given Turkey’s role in the Middle East. Another ironic and arguably hypocritical example is Israel’s non-recognition due to its close relationship with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The Declining Relative Power of Turkey
Though this lack of recognition deeply disheartening, the self-interested behavior by several international actors comes as no surprise. The recognition of the genocide at large is contingent on the relative power of Armenia and Turkey. While the main objective of policies and initiatives implemented both domestically and abroad by Armenians was focused heavily on advancing agendas of recognition, these efforts cannot fully come to fruition as long as Armenia is economically and politically unattractive for the outside world. For Armenian policymakers and nationals worldwide, this should signal the need for adopting alternative strategies to achieve their goals, which is now more important than ever for two principal reasons.
First, Turkey is eroding politically. With President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strengthening his grasp over the country, the democratic quality of the country has been eroding steadily. The central authorities have an alarming degree of power over the media, as reported by Freedom House, aggravating the freedom of expression in the country. Jailing journalists and political activists and crushing dissent, Erdoğan has become a worrisome and alienating ally for the largely democratic West. With its human rights record in ruins, Turkey has also ventured to implement several uncalculated foreign policy moves that have seen a degree of retaliation from the West. Following its military offensive in northern Syria in October 2019, Turkey faced sanctions from the United States on its defense and energy ministries, alongside several bills in the House and the Senate—including H.Res. 296 that incidentally recognized the Armenian Genocide. It is not a secret that the H.Res. 296, alongside other measures that were taken, was retaliatory in nature. Therefore, the recent decision to advance the resolution in the House—and to terminate it in the Senate—was a function of the United States’ relationship with Turkey and only tangentially of the influence of Armenian lobbies.
Second, Turkey is weakening economically. Following the 2008 crisis, Turkey excessively borrowed cheap foreign loans that initially boosted the economy but hurt the country tremendously when interest rates eventually soared. This resulted in slower investment into the country as residents in Turkey began to be faced with a continually depreciating lira (the currency of Turkey), as well as inflation that hit almost 15 percent as of August 2018. In turn, Erdoğan advanced his nationalist stance, blaming Western powers and pushing for Turkish residents to boycott American products. With its economy in decline and highly dependent on foreign powers, Turkey is now alienating its Western allies more and more, which puts itself in a very precarious situation.
While Turkey is plunging into a democratic and economic downfall, Armenian policymakers and communities must be especially alert in acting strategically to attract Turkey’s key Western allies. It is no use to argue that Armenia can become an economic and military actor as powerful as Turkey, which has twenty-seven times the population and thirty times the area of Armenia. Nevertheless, given the continually deteriorating relationships between Turkey and many Western countries that have shown to be effective in advancing Armenia’s cause, Armenia should be keen on offering the West something that Turkey is currently struggling with: a democratically robust and economically viable country with a high level of human capital. Fundamentally, the quality of the society can add greatly to the cause of the genocide recognition by Western actors. This is especially true of Armenia that has just recently emerged from its so-called Velvet Revolution, forcing out a deeply entrenched corrupt regime.
From April to May 2018, Armenia overthrew Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who attempted to stay in power by changing the constitution of Armenia. Through peaceful demonstrations spearheaded by the opposition “My Step” alliance, the Parliament with majority-Sargsyan party members agreed to appoint Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the opposition, as prime minister who later maintained this position in a snap election. At the dawn of Armenia’s post-revolution reality, the West applauded the peaceful, democratic, and coordinated effort to establish a transparent, politically accountable regime in Armenia. The European Union envoy hailed the “success in the recent civic disobedience campaign in the country, promising a more intensive process towards the ratification of CEPA (Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement).” The United States Ambassador Richard Mills noted, “This is a great moment for the Armenian people and the spirit of democracy in this country.”
Arguably, this is also a great moment to advance the agenda of genocide recognition by investing in the long-term development of Armenia’s economic and social strength. Economically, Armenia should continue its policy of attracting foreign investments, especially in fields where Armenia is advanced (e.g. information technologies). Continued economic growth in the country is imperative in achieving a stable democracy that is attractive for the West. However, what is especially important for the country at this time is strengthening the state of democracy in the country in order to send a message that democracy is a fundamental value that is shared between Armenia and the West. In particular, Armenia should make sure to develop strong democratic institutions. One example of this would be to restructure the country’s judicial system, whose courts still have judges that are remnants of the corrupt ancien regime. Additionally, the government should work to facilitate the creation of a democratic culture on an individual level - ensuring that individual freedoms are guaranteed in spite of the nation’s conservative culture. Furthermore, Armenia’s geographic proximity to Russia and Iran creates an additional incentive for Western countries to have special interests in cooperating with Armenia and potentially advancing Armenia’s interests in return.
Thus, Turkey’s economic and political woes have provided an opportunity for Armenia to strengthen its bonds with Western countries. However, it will only be through the encouraging of democratic measures—both at an institutional and individual level—that the country will be able to reap the full benefits of such relations, which could act as a stepping-stone to the eventual goal of genocide recognition.
Challenges for Post-Revolution Armenia
It is worth noting that, while the transition in regimes has certainly resulted in a more robust democratic system, some events that have taken place so far could significantly jeopardize the steady growth of democracy in the country.
Upon taking office, the newly-elected Pashinyan has pledged to seriously and systematically uproot corruption through transitional justice. Armenia has already witnessed the trial of several high-profile leaders of the old regime propagated by the current administration. One of them included ex-president Robert Kocharyan who faced a trial for “overthrowing the constitutional order” in his complicity in the post-election violence in 2008. While advancing a legacy of transitional justice is commendable, Pashinyan has been shown, directly and indirectly, to have had a degree of involvement in the judicial process. In September 2018 when the criminal case was taking place, leaked phone calls between two senior Armenian intelligence officials confirmed Pashinyan’s judicial meddling. Later in May 2019, Pashinyan ordered his supporters to block the entrances of the courts after Kocharyan was freed from custody. Armenia was slapped for its violations of the independence of government branches by foreign powers. The United States embassy released a statement condemning the authorities’ intervention in judicial independence and stressed the need for a reform “commensurate with the Armenian Constitution.” Pashinyan’s at-times unconstitutional pursuit of the old regime may create a sense of distrust in Armenia’s Western allies, which might jeopardize its larger efforts in the international arena regarding the genocide.
Another challenge that the post-revolution Armenia should embrace is strengthening its civil society. At its core, Armenia is still very much a conservative country with traditional ideas that hampers the full development of a liberal civil society. For instance, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention (on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) has caused significant divide in the country where a large part of the population showed their socially conservative views. Stating that gender is a social construct, the Convention prompted many, including the Armenian Church, to oppose the ratification in parliament. This led to Pashinyan’s party to hold off the ratification process, emphasizing the government’s propensity to follow the public’s commands in an effort not to lose popularity. Although widely popular, Pashinyan is seen to have been motivated by pleasing the crowds rather than sincere motivations to push the legislation that would strengthen democratic society in Armenia. To be fair, societal change in Armenia is unlikely to be swift, but the solution to this is not a blind-folded push of old-fashioned, conservative ideas. It is, therefore, imperative that Armenia have a clean human rights record by solving some of its most salient problems (e.g. domestic violence, gender inequality, etc.). This would not only be helpful for Armenia’s own development but would also send positive signals to the West about the state of democracy in the country.
Fighting for historical justice is a venture Armenians have taken for years. While seeking short-term solutions is alluring, focusing on long-term growth and domestic issues can have a far weightier impact for the larger goal of genocide recognition. Only when Armenia presents itself as a strong enough ally—through significant investments in democratization—will historical justice prevail in the international political landscape at hand.The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The license can be found here. The original image, posted by Rita Willaert, can be found here.