On April 23, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered his condolences to the descendants of the Armenians who were killed by Ottoman troops during WWI in which many consider as the first genocide of the 20th century. Although it is an historic apology, Erdogan’s statement is only a first step that should be followed by other measures to restore ties with the Armenian government.
Stating that “The incidents of the First World War are our shared pain,” Erdogan said, “It is our hope and belief that the peoples of an ancient and unique geography, who share similar customs and manners will be able to talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner.” And he added, “And it is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”
Turkey, however, still categorically rejects the term genocide and claims that only 500,000 Armenians died of fighting and starvation in 1915. In 2013, during a trip to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu called the events of 1915-16 a “mistake” and an “inhuman act”. However, Armenians want Turkey to recognize the killing of 1.5 million people as genocide.
Armenians’ claims received an unexpected support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. During an official visit by Erdogan to Germany in February, Erdogan asked Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Union party to be cautious in addressing the upcoming centennial of the 1915 events.
Undaunted by Erdogan’s request Merkel publicly scolded Erdogan saying, “Turkey must come to terms with its history. We cannot compare the Armenians living in Armenia with the Armenians who were forcibly dispersed around the world.” Erdogan replied, “You are asking us to accept something that we have not done,” adding that the entire Turkish archives are open to the world, an assertion that is not universally accepted.
Also at stake is the opening of Turkey’s border with Armenia. Although Turkey recognized Armenia’s independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, it closed its land border with Armenia in 1993. Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic ties because of Armenia’s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and part of Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.
Turkey’s government claims that it had overcome a “psychological threshold” during the visit to Armenia of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, when he attended a meeting in Armenia of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), where he underlined the importance of improving relations between the two countries.
However, during a visit to Armenia I was able to see that many of these psychological scars still persist, particularly among the older Armenian generation. Talking to an Armenian businessman who conducts frequent trade with Turkey he told me, “Every time I look at Mount Ararat I feel like crying.” Mount Ararat is the national symbol of the Republic of Armenia which was lost to Turkey in 1915.
My talks with several Armenians of different ages allowed me to conclude that there is a generational divide on how to approach relations with Turkey. The older generation insists that the Turkish government should apologize for the 1915 massacres of Armenians and accept their responsibility in the genocide carried out. The younger generation, on the other hand, without rejecting historical facts, believe that they should overcome the negative effects of those memories and move forward to peaceful coexistence between both countries.
Prime Minister Erdogan has taken an important first step. It should be complemented by accepting Turkey’s historical responsibility in the Armenian genocide and by the creation of a commission of both Turkish and Armenian historians under the auspices of the United Nations and with representatives from the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The task of such commission would be to analyze historical documents that can shed light on past events and reach consensus on their significance. It is only by finding out the truth and creating bridges of understanding that we change a paradigm of war for one of peace and progress between both countries.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.