Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Armenian Genocide Debate: Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Politics of Memory

Lebanese Armenians demonstrating in Beirut today

Today (April 24th), symbolically at least, is the 97th anniversary of the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal campaign against its Armenian population, a campaign later continued by the empire’s successor, the Republic of Turkey.  Out of a population of 2 million or so, only a few hundred thousand survived, scattered to the ends of the earth.  I say symbolically because, although April 24, 1915, is the date when Ottoman authorities began rounding up Armenian intellectuals as the first stage of the massacres, Turkish persecution of Armenians had already been a long-standing pattern.

Whether to call it a genocide is an emotionally charged and polarizing issue in international geopolitics. It doesn’t need to be.  It manages to be so because the Turkish government and military (to the extent that one wants to distinguish between the two) and Turkey’s nationalist intelligentsia continue to deny that the murder of a million and a half (at least) men, women, and children and the destruction of 3,000 churches (Armenia was the only major Christian nation under the Ottomans’ Muslim domination) was anything other than the, as we would now call it, “collateral damage” in the messy conflicts that took Turkey from the end of the First World War to the establishment of Kemal Atatürk’s republic.

This jingoistic pig-headedness would not matter if it were not for Turkey’s strategic position.  During the Cold War, Turkey was (not counting Norway’s slim frontier above the Arctic Circle) the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country bordering the Soviet Union.  Culturally, it sits on the boundary between Christendom and Islam, between Europe and Asia.  Its massive military guards the entrance to the Black Sea, looks over the shores of the Holy Land, controls much of the shipping and the flow of oil and natural gas between the Middle East and Europe, and is the only stable democratic major Muslim country in the developed world.  During the Cold War it made a lot of sense for the U.S. and western Europe to do whatever Turkey asked.  Let them invade half of Cyprus?  Sure, no problem.  Treat millions of Kurds like second-class citizens, and bomb their villages and repress their language and culture?  Whatever.

With the end of the Cold War, Turkey tried to reposition itself as still useful to the West, opening up its military bases to the United States and its western European allies in 1990 for the United Nations–sanctioned war to liberate Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.  But two things have turned the tide against Turkey’s centrality since then: the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq and the Arab Spring.

First, the Arab Spring of 2011-12 has eroded Turkey’s distinction as leader of the democratic Muslim world.  Now Egypt and Tunisia are fledgling democracies, Jordan and Morocco have been pressured to liberalize, Iraq had already been dragged bloodily into the democratic world, even Libya has elections scheduled, while Syria and Yemen may even be fully democratic before long.  Although Islamism is making inroads in some of these areas after the revolutions, the West, if it plays its cards right, could have a whole host of friendly regimes to work with all over the Middle East.  And not all of them will be as grumpy and difficult as the Turkish government usually is.  Moreover, this year Arab Spring–style street politics has begun to make an appearance in Turkey’s large Kurdish communities in a big way (see my recent blog article on the Kurdish Spring).  Ankara has not yet figured out how to respond to this, and it is intersecting messily with Syria’s ongoing civil war, where Kurds are participants with shifting alliances (see my recent blog article on these dynamics).  Turkey is now at serious risk of looking unambiguously like one of the Bad Guys in the movement for democracy in the region, no matter how strongly it sides against Syria.  (See my blog article on prospects for the partition of Syria.)

Secondly, earlier, in the Iraq War, the U.S. occupied and established a long-term military presence in Iraq and replaced Saddam Hussein with a democratic (more or less) government that includes an autonomous Kurdish quasi-state in the north.  The U.S. treats Iraqi Kurdistan in most respects like an independent state, and Turkey fears it is potentially sympathetic to Turkey’s deeply popular but brutally repressed Kurdish separatists just over the border and their armed resistance.  Because of the Kurdish entity, which came into existence gradually in the decade between the two Iraq wars under U.S. nurturing, and for other reasons, Turkey was not so accommodating to the U.S.-and-allied military during that second Gulf War.  Then, as Israel and the U.S. (NATO, not so enthusiastically) have swiveled their gunsights over to Iran as the next great Satan to be defeated, Turkey, though it borders Iran, is not really needed at all anymore.  Iraqi Kurdistan and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan are the new staging grounds for U.S. and Israeli cold war and covert ops against Iran.  For Turkey, this stings: Azerbaijan, a fellow Sunni Muslim and Turkic-speaking nation, did not turn out to be as staunch a Turkish ally as was hoped, and now Azerbaijan’s new B.F.F.s seem to be Israel and America.

With Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus, that brings us back to question of the Armenian and Kurdish pogroms, since the tangle of South Caucasus politics is largely responsible for Turkey’s increasing alienation from the West and the desperate sharpening of the rhetoric over nearly-century-old massacres.

Whether to side with Armenians or with Turks in the question of recognizing the genocide had already long been a political football, but new ethnic conflicts in the South Caucasus have made it a proxy discussion for the question of who will control the strategic borderlands between Europe and Asia.  South Caucasus geopolitics since the fall of Communism in 1989-91 remained, and remains, polarized, like a messy loose end of the Cold War, but newly oriented, with Russia, Iran, AbkhaziaSouth Ossetia (more on them below), and Armenia on one side and Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the U.S., and Israel on the other.  This first became clear with respect to the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the swath of Azerbaijan that Armenia rolled into after Communism fell.  Having written off predominantly-Christian Georgia as a new close ally of the U.S. and Azerbaijan as a natural extension of Turkish influence, the newly independent post-Soviet Russia tried to court Armenia as the one of the new three South Caucasus states that it could bring into its political orbit.  Armenia is one of only two former Soviet republics west of the Urals still friendly to Russia; the economic and political basket case that is Belarus is the other.  Russia actively backed the Armenian invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh (an Armenian-populated chunk of Azerbaijan that Vladimir Lenin promised to transfer to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic after Red armies retook the briefly independent South Caucasus states in the 1920s, though he never got around to it).


Armenia and Russia, in the bloody struggle for that small patch of territory, labored mightily to keep Turkey from being drawn into the battle; nor did Turkey want to get involved particularly.  NATO, in fact, probably took a strong hand in preventing Turkey from sending troops in to defend Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia.  If that had happened, then the first bullet fired by an Armenian soldier into Turkish territory would, by treaty, have required fellow NATO member states to side with Turkey against, essentially, Russia.  No one (except Azerbaijan) wanted that.  That left Azerbaijan feeling a bit abandoned.

But in Turkey, where anti-Armenian bigotry runs deep, emotional and rhetorical support for Azerbaijan’s plight is official policy.  Earlier this year, Turkey and Azerbaijan and their diaspora pressure groups launched a laughable international effort to attach the label of “genocide” to the 1992 Khojaly massacre, in which Russian and Armenian irregulars killed about 600 Azeri civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh region.  Now, for those 600 and their loved ones, there is no minimizing the tragedy, nor should there be.  It is not the massacre—which, like any, deserves to be remembered and learned from—which is laughable.  Rather, the vastness and intensity of the Khojaly memorial campaign is comically—or infuriatingly, take your pick—out of proportion to the long litany of heinous slaughter that was the twentieth century.  And, really, the Turkish government has a lot of chutzpah to push this issue with a straight face while simultaneously sweeping literally millions of Armenian and Kurdish corpses riddled with Turkish bullets under the rug.  At the 20th anniversary of Khojaly massacre, in February of this year, “genocide” memorial rallies in Istanbul (as reported in this blog) quite predictably devolved into anti-Armenian hate rallies, with Turks holding signs reading, “Don’t Believe Armenian Lies,” and, “You Are All Armenians, You Are All Bastards.”  When it comes to the whole “never again” lesson to be drawn from genocide memorials, Turkish nationalists are very, very unclear on the concept.

Anti-Armenian demonstrators in Istanbul marking the Khojaly massacre

But it is not just Nagorno-Karabakh that has been dragged into the politicization of Armenian history.  Just this past week, members of the Russian Federation’s large Armenian diaspora who have ancestry in the Republic of Georgia’s Javakhk region urged the Georgian government to recognize the Armenian genocide.  Some background: Armenians in Javakhk itself have recently been pushing for an autonomous region in the Javakheti half of Georgia’s Samtskhe–Javakheti province, on the Armenian border.  Armenia—which got majorly shafted after the First World War when Woodrow Wilson’s promise, in the Treaty of Sèvres, of a large independent Armenian homeland was preempted by the abovementioned genocides and Atatürk’s souped-up jingoism—has lost most of its original territory and so takes little chunks where it can.  But if it was ever possible to cajole Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to recognize the Armenian genocide, the request from the Javakhki diaspora pretty much makes sure he never will.  Saakashvili is ardently anti-separatist.  He crushed a rebellion in Georgia’s autonomous region of Ajaria early on in his presidency and started the fight with Russia in 2008 that gave his country a bloody nose over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgian possessions which are now de facto independent client states of the Russian Federation.

The position of Javakhk in an historical (and, for some, future envisioned) “Greater Armenia”

So the large bite Armenia took out of Azerbaijani territory in Nagorno-Karabakh—they took all the land in between as well, and set it up as a de facto independent client state recognized only by Armenia—fits well with the tactics Russia has employed in wrenching Abkhazia and South Ossetia away from Georgia.  Armenia and Russia, with their massively differently scaled but similarly motivated irredentist agendas, make natural allies.  Georgia and Azerbaijan, by contrast, can now position themselves as Western-leaning countries that oppose separatist movements incited by foreign bullies like Russia and Armenia.  (Azerbaijani nationalists used to covet the Azeri-dominated regions of neighboring Iran, wanting to make them part of a “Greater Azerbaijan,” but that idea is much less popular now that the urgency of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue makes that kind of irredentism look hypocritical.)


That all makes it difficult for Turkey to champion, even rhetorically, Azerbaijan’s right to its territorial integrity.  Never mind the swallowing up of half of Armenia and the denial of the Kurdish nation’s rights and identity: Turkey simply pretends those things never happened and aren’t happening.  I mean Turkey’s illegal and internationally unrecognized and condemned occupation of the northern third of the island of Cyprus via the puppet state of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  The Cypriot issue is becoming more and more of a stumbling block now that the rest of Cyprus—which continues to claim the whole island—is in the European Union (a club, incidentally, that Turkey is more or less barred from joining because of its medieval human-rights record).  (See my recent blog article on Northern Cyprus.)

What the Treaty of Sèvres envisioned for Armenia and Kurdistan

So Turkey has of late begun trying to establish some diplomatic relations with Iraqi Kurdistan (figuring it might need a northern pipeline to bring its oil to market if it ever has a messy divorce with the central government in Baghdad) (see my blog article on prospects for the partition of Iraq)—and if you think being nice to Kurds shows Turkey is getting desperate, Ankara is even trying to build diplomatic bridges to Iran as a way of extending some influence in the region.  Turkey’s increasing diplomatic isolation and what the swivel-eyed, foam-flecked hyper-nationalists that run the country nowadays will do to vent their aggressions as this trend continues may turn out to be one of the major subplots of Middle Eastern geopolitics over the next few decades.  A big part of why it is happening is the way it has mishandled the game of managing and responding to separatist crises.

Today, only 21 out of 193 countries recognize the Armenian genocide as a genocide, including, however, major countries like Russia, France, Canada, and the Netherlands.  Lebanon is the only predominantly Muslim country to do so.  If Israel—which was founded with the idea that it would be the world’s conscience on such questions—joined that club, it would be a public-relations coup, but it is not likely any time soon.  Genocide, needless to say, is something which Israelis tend to set a rather high bar for.  A less kind way to put that would be to point out that for many Israelis the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust is a core rationale for the exceptionalist (“we can do whatever we want”) attitude which prevails in modern Israeli foreign policy.  But by no means are all Israelis united on this issue.  Here, for example, is a courageous opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post on this question.  A whole lot more Israelis than Turks “get” the central universal, humanitarian lesson of the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, the vast and powerful Armenian lobby in the United States—California alone has more Armenians than Armenia itself—has once again failed to mobilize their elected representatives sufficiently to press the White House to call what happened to Armenians in the 1910s and 1920s a genocide.  One elected representative who used to favor such a designation was a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, and he had the Armenian vote in his presidential run in 2008 all sewn up on the strength of a campaign promise to call genocide genocide.  But power changes people, doesn’t it?  Obama’s fourth Armenian Remembrance Day address today again skipped the G-word, for the fourth time in a row.

If Obama wins a second term, we can only hope he will fulfill that promise, and that that—or some other crisis or wake-up call—might prompt the current regime in Turkey to either make way for a more tolerant and progressive strain of Turkish civil society to begin repairing its relationships with its neighbors, or—sadly, perhaps more likely—continue to alienate its former friends and marginalize itself, so that at least the rest of the region can move forward anyway to heal the wounds of history and honor the dead.  Right now, unfortunately, the world’s major powers are tackling this question with the granular geopolitics of Middle Eastern and Caucasus politics in mind.  In three years will be the centennial of the Armenian genocide.  That would be a good time for most of the world to come around to calling it what it was.

[You can read more about Nagorno-Karabakh and other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

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