Thursday

20th Feb 2020

Feature

The Armenian genocide: more than history

  • Children playing at canonization event (Photo: EUobserver)

German recognition of the 1915 genocide might have implications for Armenia’s “European” future. But regional politics hold captive its present.

Bells rang 100 times in the Berliner Dom and in the Koelner Dom, the principal churches in Germany, at 19.15pm Armenian time on Thursday (23 April).

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They also rang in churches in Europe, the Middle East, the US, and in Etchmiadzin - the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Yerevan, where thousands of native and diaspora Armenians came together on the eve of the 100-year anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to exterminate the Armenian people.

It was the first European genocide of the 20th century and a direct precursor of the Holocaust.

Germany, the Ottoman Empire’s ally in WWI, sent officers to study its methods and used them in WWII.

German president Joachim Gauck on Thursday referred to the events as “genocide” despite pressure by modern Turkey. The Bundestag is expected to follow suit on Friday.

It’s more than the EU foreign service, the UK, or the US are willing to do, for fear of alienating the West’s “strategic ally” in a sensitive region.

Germany risks more: Trade relations aside, it’s home to 3 million Turks and Ankara has warned Berlin that it risks civil disorder if it goes ahead.

It might sound like a matter for historians.

But it's still part of questions on Armenia’s future: Will it stay in the Eurasian Union, Russia’s counter-EU bloc? Will it stay locked off from Europe behind closed borders with Turkey due its conflict with Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan? Or will it, one day, go back down the road of EU integration?

Armenia’s U-turn

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan caused shock in September 2013 when he said he’ll join the Russian union instead of signing an EU association treaty.

He did it under duress.

Russia, Armenia’s security sponsor, had threatened to side with Azerbaijan, impose economic sanctions, and make life hard for Armenians in Russia.

Sargsyan later said the Eurasian Union is unlikely to last and that he’ll rebuild EU relations in better times.

He repeated the message to the European Commission and to German chancellor Angela Merkel on a visit to Brussels in March.

He also told them, Armenian sources say, that wider EU recognition of the genocide will help incubate pro-EU sentiment in Armenian society.

EU diplomats see him as an opportunist, who is more interested in retaining power than in Armenia’s welfare.

“Sargsyan recently abandoned the protocols [an Armenia-Turkey peace accord] not because of any Turkish action. He did it because he wants to make Turkey look wicked at any price and to make himself look like a statesman who commands international sympathy,” an EU contact said.

“Symbolic acts [like German recognition] have no power to bring Armenia closer to the EU without the association treaty”, he added.

“The treaty would have given us real leverage to transform the country”.

The analysis may be correct.

But Sargsyan’s message - that the 1915 genocide is central to Armenia’s European, as opposed to a “Eurasian”, identity - rings true.

Armenian identity

The Armenian church, on Thursday, in an ornate ceremony at Etchmiadzin, canonized all 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s victims.

The church leader, Karekin II, told the crowd that Armenia, the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion, is the cradle of European culture.

He noted that it has lived, for centuries, in isolation in a “difficult” region, but that it’s waiting, with “patience”, to join a united Europe.

Gevork, a 24-year old Armenian priest, told this website: “We are making them [the genocide victims] into saints because they’re martyrs who gave their lives for Christianity … they were told to renounce Christianity if they wanted to live, but they refused”.

“Armenia is a Christian nation and a European nation”.

“If the world recognises the genocide, then those who perpetrated it will be forced to do the same, and if they do, it will make it less likely to happen again”, he added.

His words show why 1915 is part of Armenia’s contemporary politics.

In contrast to Germany’s reconciliation with Jewish people, Turkish aggression could reignite despite the passage of time.

The conflict with Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan, saw a deadly skirmish on the Nagorno-Karabakh contact line on Wednesday.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a populist whose ruling party will contest elections in June, also used inflammatory rhetoric.

In a speech on Thursday in Istanbul he mocked the genocide solemnities, saying: “They [the Armenians] will play and dance on their own on 24 April”.

For her part, Dana, a 65-year old US-born Armenian novelist, who came to Etchmiadzin, echoed Gevork.

“[US president] Obama is stupid: If the US and the UK, like the rest of Europe, recognise the genocide, it would leave Erdogan without any allies unless he does the same”.

Celebration of life

Despite the security concerns, strategic calculations were far from most people’s minds on Thursday.

The Etchmiadzin event took place in an atmosphere of celebration rather than hostility.

Armenian children played on the grass under giant video screens, which showed testimonials from genocide survivors, while Karekin II said the canonization transformed the “victims” into “patron saints … of peace”.

The atmosphere jarred with Sargsyan-sponsored billboards in Yerevan.

One image showed a Turkish fez as a pie chart with a black segment representing the dead. Another one showed gore-stained “tools” - sickles and rifles - of the killings.

Developments in Turkey also belie Erdogan’s intransigence.

He forbid churches in Turkey to ring bells at 19.15pm.

But Turkish civil society held an Armenia memorial in Istanbul on Thursday and Turkish liberals are to hold a peace rally on Friday.

The Hrant Dink Foundation, named after a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was murdered in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist, also brought Turkish newspaper and TV media to Etchmiadzin.

“It doesn’t matter if they use the word ‘genocide’ or not. The important thing is that there’s coverage of the event in Turkish households”, a member of the NGO, who asked to remain anonymous, told this website.

Nanee, a 26-year old French-born Armenian, agreed.

“Of course recognition is important, also in terms of reparation claims”, she told EUobserver.

“The atmosphere in Etchmiadzin is a celebration of life. But I can assure you, that when I visited the genocide museum [in Yerevan] yesterday, I could hardly bear it. I had to leave”.

But she added: “What’s more important to me, though, is that Armenian and Turkish people learn to understand each other, learn to live together in future”.

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