As the 20th century drew to a close, many Armenians worried that the 1915 Genocide might recede from the collective memory and, ultimately, be forgotten. In reality, the opposite has happened as the new millennium proceeds. The issue is generating more discussion today than perhaps ever before.
Greater debate could lead to new geopolitical possibilities. Indeed, in seeking broader recognition of the Genocide, Armenian leaders are seeking to promote greater regional security.
For Armenians April 24 is a solemn occasion. This year in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, tens of thousand people placed flowers at the eternal flame at the Dzidzernagapert memorial. Commemoration events were also held in Lebanon, France, the United States, and other countries with large ethnic Armenian communities.
April 24 commemorates the day in 1915 when 235 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Istanbul. Those arrests sparked mass deportations and massacres that left an estimated 1.5 million Armenians dead. Eastern Anatolya the historical land of the Armenians -- was effectively "cleansed" of its Armenian inhabitants. Other Christian minorities including Greeks, Arameans and Assyrians -- suffered similar fates between 1915-1923, amidst the general upheaval caused by World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, today only 150,000 Christians reside in Turkey. In 1914, the total figure of Ottoman Christians was estimated at nearly 5 million.
In the 85 years since the tragic events of 1915, Armenians have sought to win international recognition of the Genocide. Turkey, meanwhile, has generally sought to deflect blame for the killings, and to play down the number of victims.
''The world community has not yet recognized the fact of the Armenian genocide, but we will steadfastly fight for this,'' Armenian President Robert Kocharian said during a televised address on the Genocide anniversary. Kocharian went on to assert that greater understanding of the Armenian tragedy could help promote a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey.
"We are fully aware that lasting stability in our region and the development of regional cooperation hinge to a great extent on the raising of the Armenian-Turkish relationship to a new level," Kocharian said. "The recognition of the historical truth should facilitate the creation of an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding."
In the wake of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia, which were characterized by ethnic cleansing, the international community has demonstrated a willingness to re-examine the events surrounding the Armenian Genocide. Some states have revised their official views. On March 29, for example, the Swedish Parliament passed a decision to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Equally significant is the increasing number of Turkish intellectuals engaged in movements for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and for a constructive Armenian-Turkish debate. A decade ago this work was started by a handful of committed intellectuals, such as sociologist Tanner Akcam, and publisher Ragib Zarakolou.
Akcam's first book "The Armenian Taboo" was published in Germany, while his second on the topic "Human Rights and the Armenian Question" was printed in Ankara. A recent conference in Chicago brought together Armenian, Turkish and other international experts. Addressing Turkish colleagues at the conference, Akcam said, "I am so happy to be here. I don't feel so alone now."
In Germany, a coalition of Armenian and Turkish associations petitioned the German parliament to recognize the Armenian Genocide. In a joint communiqué they called on Berlin to exert diplomatic pressure on Ankara. Recognition of the Genocide, the communiqué said, would "support the process of democratization in Turkey, as well as those citizens of Turkey who in their homeland are still persecuted by law if they attempt to study the past in an objective way."
Armenia's effort to gain wider recognition for the 1915 tragedy perhaps resonates the most in Israel. At the April 24 memorial service conducted by Armenians in Jerusalem, Education Minister Yossi Sarid suggested the 1915 tragedy of Armenians should be included in the school curriculum, in a unit dealing with "genocide." An editorial in the Haaretz newspaper also urged greater awareness. "Whoever turns a blind eye to historical occurrences of genocide is liable to do the same when genocide takes place in the present," the editorial said.
Vicken Cheterian is a freelance journalist, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian political affairs.
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