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Igor Torbakov 2/01/05

As Turkey prepares for what promises to be a lengthy European Union accession process, officials in Ankara are striving to remove obstacles that stand in the way of their integration ambitions. Accordingly, authorities appear to be welcoming a research project by Turkish historians designed to shed additional light on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-1923.

Armenian leaders have campaigned for international recognition of what they insist was genocide committed by Turkish forces amid the chaos of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Yerevan’s calls have received support in the capitals of some influential EU capitals, in particular France, which has a sizeable Armenian émigré population.

In early January, the Turkish Historical Society – a semi-official institution founded in the beginning of the 1930s – announced that it had finished a large research project commenced in 2001. The result of the historical exploration is four volumes of documents in which “the allegations made by Armenians are answered one by one,” according to a Turkish journalist familiar with the research. The project marks the first comprehensive attempt by Turkish scholars to challenge the Armenian version of the tragic events of the past.

Armenian officials and historians assert that the Young Turk government in power in Istanbul in 1915 ordered the systematic slaughter of Armenians. Turkish leaders have insisted the mass deaths of Armenians did not constitute genocide, alleging that Armenians were largely victims of a vicious partisan struggle during and after World War I.

The authors of the recent four-volume study appear to endorse the mainstream Turkish view of events. They also advocate the continuation of research, calling for a multi-national inquiry into the events. Professor Yusuf Halacoglu, head of the Turkish Historical Society, said in a January 12 interview with the Reuters news agency that the commission should comprise scholars from Turkey, Armenia, the United States, France and Britain.

Turkey is due to start EU accession negotiations on October 3, while on April 24 Armenians throughout the world will mark the 90th anniversary of what they call the “first genocide of the 20th century.” Many Turkish officials and experts believe Yerevan may attempt to engage Ankara in a “battle over history.” According to Turkish media reports, commemoration activities will include conferences, meetings, exhibitions and new publication projects. A few Turkish commentators are urging the Turkish government to adopt a more pro-active stance in the ongoing debate. “Saying ‘we never committed genocide’ is no longer enough. We will be forced to pay the price for inactivity. We need to do something,” wrote Mehmet Ali Birand in a commentary published by the Turkish Daily News on January 4.

Right after EU leaders agreed last December to open accession talks with Turkey, both the European Parliament and France, urged Turkey to recognize the 1915-1923 killings of Armenians as genocide. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. “We will raise all the matters, including the Armenian genocide, to hear Turkey’s response in the course of accession negotiations, which will be very long and very difficult,” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was quoted as saying.

Halacoglu, the Turkish historian, believes that France’s stance can be viewed as an “opportunity.” “Armenian and Turkish historians should sit down and debate the matter,” he said in a December 15 interview published in the daily Milliyet. “This has nothing to do with the EU. Let the historians resolve the matter.”

Such a direct dialog on the “genocide” issue between Turkish and Armenian historians actually began last year when researchers from the Turkish Historical Society and their colleagues from Armenian Academy of Sciences and Yerevan’s Genocide Museum formed the so-called Vienna Armenian-Turkish Historians’ Platform (VAT). At VAT’s first meeting held in Austrian capital in July 2004, the two sides started exchanging archival documents pertaining to the events of 1915-1923. But VAT’s next meeting, reportedly scheduled for last December, was cancelled. And in mid-January, the Anatolia news agency reported that a VAT meeting due to take place in May 2005 had also been cancelled.

Whatever the reason for VAT’s difficulties, it appears that the work of this bilateral forum has virtually come to a standstill. This may explain why Turkish researchers and pundits urge the formation of an international commission of inquiry. This commission, in Halacoglu’s opinion, would ideally work under the auspices of the United Nations, or another international body, to help ensure impartiality and to encourage all states to open up their archives to the panel. “The Armenian archives, which are closed, should also be opened to the public,” Halacoglu said.

The idea of forming an international commission appears to be part of Ankara’s broader strategy of seeking rapprochement with Armenia. As Birand points out, “If these [“genocide”] studies are initiated, we will gain time. In addition, while this process continues, Turkey can broaden its economic relations with Armenia and open the border gate.”

In the meantime, however, Turkish historians are getting ready to debate their Armenian colleagues on the basis of their latest research. Speaking January 5 on the CNN-Turk television program, Hikmet Ozdemir, head of the Turkish Historical Society’s Armenian Desk, said a publicity campaign would be launched in February.

Editor’s Note: Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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