Remembering and Demanding: How Armenia and the Diaspora are Approaching the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide

The main trends

In spring 2015 the streets of Yerevan are full of images of forget-me-nots, the symbol chosen for Genocide remembrance, often accompanied by the motto “Remember and demand.” The meaning of the first part of this statement is obvious for all Armenians: honoring the memory of victims of the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. However, when it comes to the second part of the motto, there is a room for varying interpretations. Yes, it is a demand that the Genocide should be recognized, but questions still remain. To whom is this demand addressed: Turkey, the US, or the international community? And who should pursue this campaign: Armenia, the Diaspora, or both? Can it be combined with efforts at normalizing relations with Turkey? What is the significance of recognition? Should it be followed by restitution? Is it associated with territorial claims on Turkey? And ultimately, why does recognition matter?

In attempting to answer these questions at least four approaches can be identified. One, which can be labeled “traditional,” has been present in Armenia, and even more so in the Diaspora, at least since the mid-20th century. This discourse is based on the concept of “Hay Dat” (“Armenian Question” in a rough translation), i.e. it is centered on the concepts of recognition and retribution. Another approach, which for the purposes of this article can be labeled the “innovative” or “global human rights” approach, does not openly contradict the traditional discourse but shifts the stress from issues of the Armenian-Turkish historical rivalry to the global significance of Armenian Genocide recognition. Like the traditional approach, it prioritizes Genocide recognition, but formulates that demand in terms of protection of human rights and the responsibility of the international community to prevent future crimes against humanity.

A third discourse, which can be labeled “official,” reflects the Armenian government’s official position. This discourse reproduces many elements of both the “traditional” and “innovative” discourses while stressing the role of the Armenian government. Finally, a fourth discourse, which can be described as the “opposition” or “dissident” discourse, openly challenges the official-traditional discourse. While, it does not question the importance of recognition per se, it criticizes the recognition campaign from a position of realpolitik, stating that at the current stage there are more urgent issues to be addressed, including normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations and resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as issues of Armenia’s internal development.

Redefining the recognition campaign: “100 lives” and “wake up the souls”

As 2015 was approaching there had been a significant increase in campaigning efforts, focusing on governments and legislatures, which had been traditionally carried out by Diaspora organizations such as ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America) and AAA (Armenian Assembly of America) in the US, and their counterparts in other countries. In addition to that there is a search for innovative ways of campaigning which would allow organizations to work directly with the grassroots public, rather than state institutions.

One such initiative is the “100 lives” project, which has been put forward by a group of influential Diaspora Armenians including Russia-based businessman Ruben Vardanyan. “100 lives” was presented as a celebration of the lives of Genocide survivors and the people who helped them. It includes creation of the “Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity” (named after an Armenian woman named Aurora Mardiganyan who survived the Genocide and acted in the 1919 film “Ravished Armenia”). The award will be bestowed upon figures noted for their efforts in the field of human rights protection, which they would be expected to then pass on to organizations which had inspired them.[1] The initiative received support from public figures such as actor George Clooney, an active participant in human rights campaigns (his wife, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, helped the Armenian team in Genocide-related hearings in the European Court of Human Rights[2]).

Another example of the grassroots approach is the Genocide recognition campaign carried out by System of a Down, a heavy metal band comprised of American-born Diaspora Armenians. Lead singer Serj Tankian is known in the US for his leftist views and campaigning for human rights issues. System of a Down (which disbanded several years ago) has reconvened for a special recognition tour called “Wake up the Souls,” devoted not only to honoring the memory of the victims but also raising awareness about the Genocide and advocating its recognition. The tour will conclude with a performance in Yerevan on April 23 (which will also be live-streamed). As in the case of “100 lives,” System of a Down claim that their message is not restricted to what happened to Armenians, but carries global significance, as Tankian said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine: "Part of it is bringing attention to the fact that Genocides are still happening, whether you use the word 'genocide,' 'holocaust' or 'humanitarian catastrophe'"[3]

The Official Approach

While traditional and official discourses may seem quite similar in form, they are best viewed separately. The traditional discourse represented first of all by Diaspora organizations as well as some political forces in Armenia (e.g. the Dashnaktsutyun party) has been consistent for the past half century, since the 1960s. In contrast, the Armenian government’s position has been fluid throughout the period of independence. Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan criticized traditional approaches to the “Armenian Question,” while second President Robert Kocharyan supported them. Armenia’s current government attempted to distance itself from the traditional approach during the so called “Armenian-Turkish football diplomacy” but has gravitated toward the traditional discourse since it became obvious that Armenia-Turkish normalization had failed. One of the aims of the Armenian government in its Genocide recognition efforts today is to restore its moral authority among the Armenian Diaspora, which had suffered considerably as a result of the unsuccessful attempt at restoring Armenia-Turkey relations.

The Pan-Armenian Declaration on the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide is a comprehensive statement setting out the official position of the Armenian government. Though it has been promulgated on behalf of the “State Commission on the Coordination of Events Dedicated to the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide,” i.e. a government body of the Republic of Armenia, it claims to be “expressing the united will of the Armenian people.” Most likely to substantiate this claim, it was added that the declaration was adopted “in consultation with regional committees in the Diaspora.”[4]

The language of the declaration is quite assertive. It “calls upon the Republic of Turkey to recognize and condemn the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire, and to face its own history and memory through commemorating the victims of that heinous crime against humanity and renouncing the policy of falsification, denialism and banalizations of this indisputable fact.” It also includes references to “the Sevres Peace Treaty of 10 August 1920 and US President Woodrow Wilson’s Arbitral Award of 22 November 1920,” which could be interpreted as a not-so-subtle hint at territorial claims on Turkey. At the same time, the declaration emphasizes the international significance of Genocide recognition from the point of view of human rights protection. In some cases, negative attitudes towards the Turkish government are counter-balanced by conciliatory references to Turkish society and people. Thus the declaration “supports those segments of Turkish civil society whose representatives nowadays dare to speak out against the official position of the authorities” and “expresses the hope that recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey will serve as a starting point for the historical reconciliation of the Armenian and Turkish peoples.”

The Pan-Armenian Declaration came to be against the backdrop of a propaganda battle waged between the Armenian and Turkish governments and launched by Turkey’s announcement of a commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli scheduled for April 24. The Gallipoli celebration has added its share of nervousness to Armenian government concerns regarding the attendance of international leaders on April 24. At this point, the Armenian government has announced that it is expecting the attendance of at least some prominent world leaders including Vladimir Putin and François Hollande. However it is not completely clear whether these promises will be honored. It does seem though that if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s celebration fail’s to attract a high level of foreign representation, the Gallipoli plan may backfire.

Critical Voices

While some Armenians are looking for new ways to advance the Genocide recognition agenda, there are also Armenian voices calling for a critical review of recognition efforts. According to this approach, honoring the memory of Genocide victims is indeed a duty for all Armenians, but it does not necessarily mean that the Armenian state should be engaged in recognition efforts.

Arguably the most influential figure contributing to the discourse has been first President Ter-Petrosyan, who recently sharply criticized the official position of Armenia’s government as reflected in the “Pan-Armenian declaration.” He criticized the current government for claiming to represent all Armenians worldwide and extending claims of retribution from Turkey from this position.[5] Ter-Petrosyan believes that the Republic of Armenia should focus on mending relations with Turkey while the issue of Genocide recognition should be left to Diaspora Armenians who, as citizens of various countries, have a legitimate right to demand Genocide recognition from their governments (this most of all refers to the USA, as most other countries with significant Armenian communities have already adopted laws recognizing the Genocide). Ter-Petrosyan also rejects the idea that Armenia should demand any form of compensation from Turkey, although he recognizes the legitimacy of individual claims of Genocide survivors’ descendants against Turkey.

There are critical voices in the Diaspora as well, which question the rationale behind the Genocide recognition campaign in its current form. Some of Ter-Petrosyan’s views were echoed by Gerard Libaridian, who acted as the former President’s adviser during the 1990s and currently teaches history at a US university. Libaridian shared Ter-Petrosyan’s skepticism toward the international recognition campaign. “To be contingent on international recognition means to be a hostage to what they say and what they do not, and thus link our future, psychological and intellectual independence to others” said Libaridian in an interview and: “I personally no longer care much whether Obama or Merkel will recognize the Armenian Genocide or not. I find it insulting that having suffered the massacres and the Genocide we should beg for recognition.” [6]