Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marashlian: Accepting the History Sub-Commission Is Like Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

By Levon Marashlian

The dangers of the sub-commission on the "historical dimension" are so obvious that it is difficult to understand why so many supporters of the Armenian-Turkish protocols do not see them. Some Armenians who support the sub-commission do acknowledge the risks, but they also see the possible benefits; some say it will provide an opportunity to discuss consequences of the genocide, others say it may encourage more open debate within Turkey, while others say it may eventually lead Turkey closer to recognition. Supporters do not seem to realize that the chances of benefiting from these possibilities pale in comparison to the probability of suffering the damage caused by the dangers.

Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian emphatically declared "No, and once again, no," to accusations that "we are calling into question the fact of the Armenian Genocide, that we are obstructing the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide." Nalbandian and other defenders of the sub-commission do not see that the Armenian government's willing participation in "an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives," during which the other side will call into question the fact of the genocide, will create a misleading impression that will be skillfully manipulated.

One of the consequences will be that when independent scholars and diasporan organizations continue their work for genocide education and international recognition, it will become harder because the Turkish government and some third parties, armed with or misled by the appearance of progress being made, will have the excuse to say that recognition efforts are not necessary for now, since Yerevan is already talking directly to Ankara about resolving the issue. This has already happened, as when President Obama referenced the Ankara-Yerevan talks to justify reneging on his promise last April.

During meetings of the sub-commission, meanwhile, historians and other experts chosen by Yerevan will want to discuss the consequences of the genocide and will try to reject efforts by the "Turkish side" to engage in denial. And if a debate does take place, the "Armenian side" will probably prevail inside the meeting room. Nevertheless, the process can still be a victory for Turkey outside the room-so long as the process continues-because Turkey's central objective is not to reach a consensus that it was not a genocide, but simply to further distort and delay, to hinder the pursuit of international recognition as we near the year 2015. Turkey will try, but may not expect to "win" the academic argument in the sub-commission. And eventually Turkey might pay a little price in terms of public relations if its true intentions are exposed. Still, Turkey will have succeeded in obstructing-maybe for years-the increasingly successful momentum generated by decades of dedication, sacrifice, sound scholarship, and public advocacy.

Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand's CNN TURK interview in 2005 with Yusuf Halacoglu, the then-president of the Turkish Historical Society, reflected the extent to which this momentum has been succeeding.

Birand, sometimes agitated during the discussion, exclaimed that although academic work on "the Armenian Question" should continue, the time has come to take "political steps, to make gestures, to shock." Halacoglu agreed: "We are not going to change international opinion regarding Armenian Genocide claims only by publishing documents and books. It is necessary to take more serious political steps, for example, by establishing a research commission in the United States, by taking steps that will create a shock." Halacoglu added that the approach Turkey has been using has not worked, and "if things continue this way, in the end we will lose."

Two months later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian suggesting the establishment of a commission of historians. This "gesture" by Turkey confirmed that the writing of truthful history by Armenian, Turkish, American, Jewish, and other historians, along with the diaspora's advocacy of recognition, was making impressive advances. In this context, with Turkey's back against the wall, the recommendation to form a commission was a decision by an almost-desperate government to stall those advances, with a clever trap. And President Serge Sarkisian has walked right into it.

Levon Marashlian is a professor of history at Glendale Community College.

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