IPS - Italy
ANKARA, Oct 16 (IPS) - The decision last week by the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Relations to adopt a resolution recognising as genocide the massive killings of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 by Ottoman military forces in eastern Anatolia has marked a decisive turn in the relationship between the legislative of the United States and the Turkish government.
The sign has been on the wall for some time, as U.S. Armenians have been trying for the last two decades to get an official condemnation of Ottoman Turks for the atrocities perpetrated nine decades ago.
Armenians, a Christian minority community which together with the Greeks and Jews formed the economic backbone of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries, were from time to time subject to pogroms, often encouraged by the state. Persecution became systematic towards the end of the 19th century, and large-scale massacres took place in 1894-1896 and in 1909.
Following his defeat January 1915 by the Russians in a World War I battle at Sarikemish, Ottoman minister of war Enver Pasha blamed the Armenians for "fifth column" activities that had advantaged the enemy. In that battle in the Caucasian plateau, 85 percent of the 100,000 strong Ottoman force perished, chiefly because of Pasha’s inexperience as military commander.
But it is also true that, as Russian forces were advancing into Turkey from the East, Armenian factions had supported them, hoping to gain independence for their ethnic group after the war.
In spring 1915, Enver and minister of interior Talaat Pasha rolled out a programme to deter Armenian villages from collaborating with the Allies. The Ottoman Empire fought World War I on the side of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.
On April 24 of that year, 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up, jailed and executed. In May, a deportation law was passed, authorising massive displacements of Armenian populations and confiscation of their property. Conscripts, serving in the Ottoman army, were summarily dismissed and used as hamals, low-ranking manual labour in worker battalions. Most of those who survived mistreatment and famine were executed or disappeared.
Atrocities against Armenians in the countryside, particularly the east, continued through the following year. Reports from the dozens of British, German and U.S. consulates and missions spread throughout Turkey at that time alerted the West about the violence taking place.
Henry Morgenthau Sr., U.S. ambassador to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, today’s Istanbul, reported extensively to Washington on the situation and pleaded to Enver and Talaat to use restraint, to no avail. The United States remained neutral in the war until 1917.
Meanwhile, adventurer and author Gertrude Bell, on mission in the region for the British intelligence services, persuaded the British and their allies to protest to the Turkish government.
Morgenthau’s and Bell’s claims have been used by Western historians to assess the extent of the massacre, and it seems they have been corroborated by records of German diplomats and senior military staff posted in the Middle East during the Great War.
According to Western historians, up to 1.5 million Armenians, representing the majority of the ethnic group’s population at the time, were driven to a long march through Mesopotamia in extremely harsh conditions.
A large number, the exact magnitude of which has never been established, died. Survivors escaped to neighbouring countries and to the West. Kurdish tribes, enrolled as special gendarmes by the Ottomans, were at the forefront in raping, torturing and slaughtering the deportees.
The Turkish version of the events differs widely from that of the foreign historians and the descendants of the Armenian diaspora.
Ankara has consistently minimised the gravity and size of the events, describing them as an "Armenian incident". The number of victims has periodically been revised downwards now to around 300,000. Turkey considers that this number is practically equal to that of Muslims who died during the same period as a result of intercultural clashes in that part of the country.
It is a fact that Armenians too stained their hands with enemy blood during the 1918 riots at Baku in Azerbaijan, following earlier massacres of Armenians by the Azeri population, which was allied to the Turkish cause in World War I. Scholars of the Great War period in the east tend to agree that the conflict brought out the worst of human behaviour in all factions.
To minimise the damage to the image formed by international public opinion, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has in recent years played a realpolitik card, admitting that atrocities, even massacres, were perpetrated under Ottoman rule, but that they were no longer relevant.
In a pre-emptive move, following repeated attempts in 2000 and 2005 by the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution using the term genocide, it has proposed that a mixed panel of Turkish and international academics search official records and jointly present their findings. "It is a matter for historians, not politicians," is the official view.
Foreign historians have not been forthcoming, as it is known that the Ottoman administration was frugal in keeping meaningful records of population displacements or measures affecting religious minorities. The U.S. has been hesitant over the past 90 years to take a firm position on the issue. Forty of the states in the U.S. have already passed legislation or proclamations qualifying the events as genocide, but only two presidents, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, have used this term in public. All U.S. presidents, including now George Bush, have, however, used the Armenian-proposed figure of 1.5 million as the toll in victims.
Twenty countries and transnational organisations, including the European Parliament and the European Council, have acknowledged the genocide. The term was coined in 1943 by Prof. Raphael Lemkin, who was motivated by the slaughters of Assyrians by Iraqis in 1933, the Armenian massacres of World War I, and the Nazi extermination of European Jews during World War II.
Retaliation by the Turkish government has been selective. Canadian and Italian companies enjoy good business from the public sector, although their respective countries have recognised the genocide. France and Switzerland, on the other hand, have frequently been excluded from such dealings because of their parliaments’ decisions on the subject.
In 2006, French products were boycotted after legislators passed a law forbidding denial of the Armenian genocide. France hosts the second largest Armenian community after the U.S. It is estimated that there are eight to 10 million Armenians living outside of their country.
At the same time, reference to the Armenian genocide in Turkey is taboo, and can lead to legal prosecution. Nobel Prize novelist Orhan Pamuk and editor-in-chief Hrank Dink were brought to trial and faced jail sentences for doing so. The latter was shot dead last year by a Turkish nationalist.
The World War I killings encouraged the Allies to grant Armenians their own land in 1918. The young Democratic Republic of Armenia (DRA) had a short existence. Turkish troops invaded a large part of the country in 1920, but a swift attack by the Bolsheviks from Russia threw them back. In 1922 the DRA joined the Soviet Union until 1991, when it recovered its independence from Moscow.
Armenia staged a protracted war against neighbouring Georgia in the 1990s and occupied the Nagorno Karabakh province, home of 150,000 Armenians. In retaliation Turkey closed its border with Armenia, a diplomatic status still in effect. Isolation from its western flank has, however, not affected Armenian trade. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is 4,250 dollars, behind Turkey’s (5,400 dollars) but not all that bad by regional standards.
It is estimated that 40,000 to 70,000 Armenians live in Turkey today. Many are clandestine workers. Proposals by Turkish politicians after the U.S. House Committee resolution include expelling such individuals.
It seems that in the Middle East region old ghosts neither die nor fade away. (END/2007)
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