Four Reasons Why the Public Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Matters

Four Reasons Why the Public Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Matters

It is April 24 soon – Armenian Genocide commemoration day.

Every year, the public remembrance of the victims of a horrific crime during a tumultuous period becomes political in many places Armenian communities call home, not the least of which in the United States.

The White House has been issuing statements annually on April 24 for more than a quarter of a century now, but always avoiding the term “Armenian Genocide”. The massacres and deportations are duly and solemnly condemned by each president. However, calling it by that explicit term – genocide – would be detrimental to relations with Turkey, because the government in Ankara has long held either denialist positions or has pushed forward modified arguments about the broader historical context, general widespread suffering and chaos during the First World War, and so on. It is comparatively rare in Turkey nowadays to hear outright denial of killings, dispossession, and the exile from Anatolia and Asia Minor of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other communities in 1915 and later. But describing it as genocide remains taboo in most Turkish circles.

There have been reports that President Biden will invoke “the g-word” this year. Congress, for its part, has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide on a few occasions, most recently in October, 2019, when relations with Turkey were at a low. Almost all state governors or state houses have made various proclamations or passed resolutions on the Armenian Genocide during the last few decades, as have many city-level governmental bodies throughout the United States. However, there is no sustained, federal Armenian Genocide policy position consistently adopted and expressed by the legislative and executive branches in Washington. It remains a challenge at the forefront of the impressive and moving efforts undertaken by the Armenian-American advocacy and activist community.

The broader question lingers: why even acknowledge the Armenian Genocide? What’s the point of any public or national commemoration in the US or elsewhere? It happened more than a hundred years ago. Yes, it was tragic, it should be condemned, the community has every right to hold memorial services. But what makes it a live public, political issue?

I think that is a reasonable question. Here are four reasonable responses.

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Shades of Sèvres

Shades of Sèvres

In Turkish public discourse, “Sèvres Syndrome” refers to the looming legacy of the agreement signed in a suburb of Paris in 1920 which envisioned carving up the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Although it gives off an impression of being conspiratorial at first blush, political leaders in Turkey do have a basis in bringing up the notion of foreign powers planning to dismember the country. For over a century, the Eastern Question was on the agenda in the corridors of power in London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Geopolitical rivalries about this and other matters came to a head with the First World War, with mixed outcomes for all the empires involved. The Republic of Turkey – forged out of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 – has far less reason to suspect aspirations regarding its territory today, Kurdish separatists notwithstanding.

A sovereign Armenian state was foreseen by the Treaty of Sèvres, to include vast swathes of modern-day eastern Turkey. By contrast, Lausanne did not even involve any Armenian delegates during its negotiations, given the inroads made by a resurgent Soviet Russia and the consequent collapse of the infant Armenian republic in the Caucasus next door. As a result of the tumultuous first quarter of the 20th century (among other eras), hindsight and the notion of “historical justice” and “the restoration of historical justice” is ingrained in Armenian public discourse, even featuring in the country’s declaration of independence from the USSR. Nothing could be more emblematic of such a sentiment than Sèvres, which, unlike in Turkey, is shorthand for a missed opportunity alongside insufficient support or intervention from any of the Great Powers, the United States, or the West in general.

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Renewed Hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh

On September 27, fighting over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus broke out on the greatest scale since the cease-fire of 1994. Amid an unstable situation developing in the former Soviet space at the cusp of eastern Europe and the Middle East, the University of North Texas and the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech held an online discussion about the facts on the ground, the key local and regional players including Azerbaijan, Armenia, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Russia, Turkey, the EU, and the United States, as well as the role of civil society and development efforts in the face of the conflict.

Identity, Narratives, and Symbolism in Conflict Resolution

Identity, Narratives, and Symbolism in Conflict Resolution

Too often the Karabakh conflict is reported in the Western media with great emphasis on oil and gas pipelines. While energy infrastructure is indeed a significant component of that complex issue, the rhetoric from the political leaders and from common voices in the region hinge overwhelmingly around national identity, historical narratives, and symbolism.

For example, the President of Azerbaijan complained in his interview on Al Jazeera English that towns and villages in the region have been re-named in the past decades. Now we see that the Azerbaijani armed forces claim to have taken over the village of Mataghis/Madagiz and Ilham Aliyev’s official Twitter account very soon proclaims a new name for it, rather – “I reinstate the historical name … Sugovushan”.

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Armenia in 2018, Belarus in 2020

Armenia in 2018, Belarus in 2020

It is difficult to avoid drawing parallels between the political developments that took place in Armenia in 2018 and the ongoing events in Belarus. There are significant overlaps, but also substantial differences.

One major difference is in the leadership. Nikol Pashinyan had a long track record as a journalist, opposition activist, and politican, a visible part of street protests that had characterised politics in Armenia since the mid-2000s. He and his team had quite clear methods and tactics in 2018, drawn from years of experience.

I do not know enough about Belarus, but, from as much as I can follow, it seems that the movement is more sporadic, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who was unexpectedly thrust onto the scene because of political machinations targeting her husband. It is a different dynamic, even though – quite clearly – both in Armenia in 2018 and in Belarus in 2020, a large proportion of the population expresses the same demand of changing entrenched political leadership.

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Scenarios of Power in De Facto States: Karabakh’s 2020 Presidential Inauguration

Scenarios of Power in De Facto States: Karabakh’s 2020 Presidential Inauguration

Gerard Toal & Nareg Seferian

All states have their iconographies and rituals designed to project their legitimacy and power. They organize space as sacred patrimony and time as memory, anniversary and the eternal. Presidential inaugurations are occasions where we see this process in scenarios and ceremonies of power. The United States has an oath-taking in front of dignitaries and a majestic Capitol building. France and Russia have public ceremonies featuring the journey of the elected leader to regal buildings of power, these very setting and their elaborate interior décor signifying a treasured and transcendent patrimony of the nation and state.

It is hardly a surprise that de facto states – states that have established territorial control and internal legitimacy in a contested region, but lack recognition in external legitimacy as states among other states in the international community – look to the ceremonies of established states when inventing their own ceremonies of power. How they do so is an interesting window into their prevailing constructions of the time-space of their visions of their territorial nation-stateness.

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SAS Podcast #41 – Levon Avdoyan

SAS Podcast #41 – Levon Avdoyan

Dr. Levon AvdoyanReflections on Armenian Studies V.

Interviewed by Nareg Seferian (School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech)

The aim of the Reflections on Armenian Studies series is twofold: to interview senior figures about their experience in and contribution to the field, and create a digital archive for future generations in the field. 

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A Couple of Notable Words in Arayik Harutyunyan’s Inaugural Address

A Couple of Notable Words in Arayik Harutyunyans Inaugural Address

The fourth president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh took his oath of office on Thursday, May 21. There are many observations that could be made about the ceremony – the broadcast and the narrative it creates, how it portrays and situates the new leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, within it, the implicit and explicit context created by the visuals, locations, and music, alongside the protocols surrounding the inauguration.

I was drawn to one paragraph in Harutyunyan’s speech:

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Երեւանում Գանդիի Արձանը՝ Ողջունելի Փաստ | A Statue of Mahatma Gandhi is Welcome in Yerevan

Երեւանում Գանդիի Արձանը՝ Ողջունելի Փաստ

Պատրիկ Ազատյանը Երեւանում տեղադրուելիք Մահաթմա Գանդիի արձանի գաղափարին դէմ իր յօդուածում բովանդակալից փաստարկներ է առաջ բերում: Գանդիի քաղաքական ժառանգութիւնն իսկապէս վիճայարոյց է: Ինչպէս Ազատյանն է նշում, Գանդիի առաջնորդած Հնդկական Ազգային Համագումարը 1920-ականների սկզբին Խալիֆայութեան Շարժմանն էր աջակցում՝ որպէս երկրի հսկայ մահմեդական բնակչութեան հետ համագործակցելու հարթակ: Այն օսմանեան փլուզուող կայսրութեան սուլթանի հանդէպ գաղութատիրական ուժերի կողմից տեղադրուած սահմանափակումներին ընդդէմ շարժում էր. սուլթանը խալիֆն էր՝ այսինքն, սուննի մահմեդականութեան առաջնորդը: (Երբ Մուսթաֆա Քէմալը անցաւ իշխանութեան եւ աշխարհիկ հանրապետութիւն հիմնեց Թուրքիայում, նա խալիֆայութեանը ամբողջովին վերջ դրեց, այնպէս որ այդ շարժումը մարուեց:) Հայ ազգայնականների համար Գանդիի կապը Խալիֆայութեան Շարժման հետ բացասական կէտ կարող է հանդիսանալ:

կարդալ մնացածը

A Statue of Mahatma Gandhi is Welcome in Yerevan

Patrick Azadian puts forward some meaningful arguments in his article against the plan for a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Yerevan. Gandhi’s political legacy is indeed controversial. As Azadian outlined, the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi supported the Khilafat Movement in the early 1920s as a platform for co-operating with the large Muslim population in the country. They were protesting the limitations placed by the colonial powers on the Ottoman Sultan – who served as Caliph, or head of Sunni Islam – as the empire was collapsing. (Once Mustafa Kemal came to power and established a secular republic in Turkey, he abolished the caliphate outright, so that movement subsided.) For Armenian nationalists, Gandhi’s association with the Khilafat Movement could be a sore point.

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