The process of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide is perceived in the public consciousness as an integral part and result of the existence of the Republic of Armenia.
However, this notion is deceptive. The process started before the independence of Armenia, and in the first years of the Republic of Armenia, supporting the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide was not declared a foreign policy priority of Armenia.
The Conspiracy of Silence
In the post-genocide period, when the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia was established, the topic of the Armenian Genocide was kept under wraps as Soviet leaders did not want to aggravate the already tenuous relationship with Turkey. Moreover, memories of the Genocide were associated with connections to Yerkir (Էրկիր), or Western Armenia. This was something that was beyond Soviet ideological control. The homeland or historical Armenia aroused national and nationalist sentiments, which went against Moscow’s policy of leveling and aligning pathways. National sentiments were permissible as long as they didn’t directly oppose the idea of the Soviet man, or Homo Sovieticus. Under these conditions, in the 1920s and 1930s, many Genocide survivors were forced to destroy relics brought from the homeland such as pictures, letters, and written memoirs, because during the repression era they could have been used as proof of having connections with the bourgeoise and nationalist forces, in particular with the Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) Party.
However, it should not be assumed that only Soviet-Armenian society was affected by this conspiracy of silence.
The world had forgotten the tragedy of the Armenians and the promises made to them by the Allied Powers during the First World War. It was as though people around the world wanted to forget the sufferings of the war and Armenians were too few, too scattered, and too consumed with concerns of daily survival.
Hundreds of thousands of Western Armenians who survived the Genocide were forced to leave their homeland under Turkish pressure. They found refuge in places like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, the South Caucasus, France and the U.S. They started a new life deprived of everything, from basic material goods to social ties, and in completely new environments. They would later leave the refugee camps and many would become prominent members of their host societies, but they were still primarily concerned with survival and were still too weak and disorganized to launch the fight for justice.
Gradually, however, Armenian communities became organized and new national institutions were created whose objective was to restore and preserve the Armenian identity in the Diaspora.
The Armenian Genocide was often a repressed memory within Armenian families in the Diaspora for many years. Many chose to live only in the present and for the future. Any mention of the Genocide was met with the urging to “forget”. For some , the traumatic memories were so overwhelming that many believed they had no right to impose the victimhood complex on their children.
However, everything changed in 1965.
By the 1960s, the Diaspora was completely transformed. It was a network consisting of well-established communities integrated into and within different societies––a network that could take on Turkish denial in an organized manner.
1965 marked the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. This heralded not only the beginning of bringing the issue out of the shadows and into the public space, but also the beginning of the political struggle of the Armenian people. A new generation of Armenians began to criticize the older generation for their silence, their passive attitude. Protests and rallies were organized near Turkish embassies and consulates in different countries around the world. The subsequent actions of militant organizations like the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG) also raised awareness of the genocide. Newspapers around the world began to write about the reasons behind these groups’ activities that caught the world’s attention and also awakening memories within Armenian society.
Immense changes also took place in the USSR as well. While Armenian communities around the world were marking the 50th anniversary, Soviet authorities decided to construct the Armenian Genocide Memorial that year in response to an initiative of Armenia’s scientific-cultural and party elite as well as public protests in support of a memorial. April 24, 1965 was marked by a rally held by a hundred thousand people in Lenin (now Republic) Square and a march to Opera (now Independence) Square, in addition to other official ceremonies which were held in the Great Hall of the Opera. On November 29, 1967, the Armenian Genocide Memorial was officially opened, becoming the central place to honor the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
The Priorities of the Republic of Armenia
In 1988, the Armenian Genocide became one of the key themes of the Karabakh Movement. Numerous publications, discussions, and speeches tried to shed light on dark or forgotten issues and go beyond the limits set by Soviet censorship, which included authorizing restricted discussions on the Genocide after 1965.
The independence movement could also not ignore the Soviet attitude toward the crime of genocide and the need to develop a future strategy. After heated debates in 1990, Article 11 was included in the Declaration of Independence which was adopted on August 23: “The Republic of Armenia supports the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.”
This was a benchmark for Armenia’s future development. However, the first government of Armenia, under the leadership of first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, considered the establishment and development of bilateral relations with Turkey as a priority and not the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a policy priority. Ter-Petrosyan himself considered the inclusion of the Genocide issue in the Declaration of Independence not appropriate from a political and diplomatic point of view.
In 1998, Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan raised the issue of the Armenian Genocide from the podium of the United Nations and made the recognition of the Armenian Genocide one of the main goals of Armenia’s foreign policy. This renewed position was quite effective and could be considered to be the catalyst for a new round of recognition: the Armenian Genocide was not only recognized by more than a dozen states (including France) but also became more actively discussed in the international press and the significance of this factor rose in general. It was during this time, that then prime minister of Turkey, now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote a letter to Kocharyan, proposing to create a commission of historians to investigate and determine whether the mass deportations and systematic massacres constituted genocide.
This process continued during the administration of Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s third president. It slowed somewhat in 2008-2010 when Armenian-Turkish relations were prioritized once again. However, with the failure to establish better relations and the approaching centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the importance of this issue in Armenian diplomatic and political arenas increased once again. The events of 2015—commemoration of the 100th anniversary—were the peak in terms of both public attention globally and politically. The sheer number of events in Armenia and in the Diaspora provided considerable weight to the recognition process, the consequences of which were felt even after the official events ended.
Under Nikol Pashinyan’s however, international recognition of the Armenian Genocide lost its role as a diplomatic priority. Although the government’s 2018 and 2020 programs included international recognition, it was clear, however, how little importance was given to it in Armenia’s foreign policy agenda. Aside from the government’s inertia, the 2020 Artsakh War and the ongoing Armenia-Turkey normalization process also has to be taken into consideration.
Two Mechanisms for Recognition
Very often people don’t appreciate or overestimate recognition of the Armenian Genocide by different countries, cities, and even smaller administrative units or organizations. A more common perception is that the topic of the Armenian Genocide is constantly being used as a tool for manipulation in international politics. This disproportionate assessment, as well as sensitivity toward the issue, oversimplifies this phenomenon.
The recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide is in itself an important phenomenon, which, although anchored by the topic of the Armenian Genocide, has acquired a certain “life of its own” in the present behind which there are tens of thousands of people, large national and supranational structures, international interests, and curiosity.
In each individual case of recognition of the Armenian Genocide, there are two mechanisms at play.
The Armenian Factor
Recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide by countries, cities, and organizations is often linked to the presence of a large or active Armenian community and the presence of effective Armenian diplomacy Community resources are put into action, parliament members are lobbied, both by constituents and communities, as well as at the political or diplomatic level.
For Armenian communities, being part of this process is an important way to maintain and emphasize their own Armenian identity.
The International Political Factor
Some countries may not have a large or strong Armenian community, and the Armenian embassy in a given country may not consider Genocide recognition as the most important policy to pursue. Sometimes, however, the topic of recognition is used by various states to bring pressure to bear on Turkey. Often, the deterioration of a state’s relations with Ankara can lead to the preparation of recognition by one of their political forces, and in some cases, it can become draft legislation.
However, there are also successful examples such as the recognition of the Genocide by the United States which, after many ups and down, took place in 2019 with the adoption of a resolution by the two houses of Congress. In addition to this, in 2021, President Joe Biden used the phrase Armenian Genocide, which, although did not have any serious legal implication, was very important from a psychological point of view. Some of the most recent recognitions of the Genocide took place successfully in Germany and Syria which were the result of difficult relations with Turkey.
As horrific a crime the Armenian Genocide was, so too was the international political consequence that arises from discussion of that issue. Serious crimes can become a powerful weapon in the hands of the international community against a criminal state. It can be argued that in many cases, this topic is more influential in the international arena than in the Republic of Armenia.
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