The Grammar of Denial: State, Society, and Turkish–Armenian Relations

Seyhan Bayraktar (*)

The existing literature on the denial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 tends to concentrate on either the Turkish state’s policies or the civil society’s increasing openness to alternative readings of the event. In my opinion, both approaches reduce denialism to an ensemble of political practices and defense mechanisms of Turkey by prioritizing the role of the state as agent of genocide denial. Although the state is indeed a dominant actor of denialism, to juxtapose state and society means to overlook the intrinsic power of the discourse and its pervasiveness across different—at times even competing—social and political settings. Recent literature conveys how shortsighted it is to attribute denial only to the Turkish state. The fact that descendants of former perpetrators have vivid memories of Armenians being killed by their ancestors has led some to conclude that the “Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population [in contrast] remembers”.  Such an equation between social memory and genocide acknowledgment is problematic, however, as it is the tendency in recent literature to evaluate the current memory boom about the Armenian Genocide as an indicator of a true critical discourse. Hence, the debate surrounding the denial of the Armenian Genocide tends to underestimate the contested character of the concept of genocide in the Turkish political discourse and to undermine the importance of the almost century-long political struggle of the victims for genocide recognition.

My own research on the rhetoric surrounding the Armenian Genocide in Turkey during “critical discourse moments” between 1973 and 2005 has shown that the quantitative increment of the discourse does not necessarily indicate a paradigmatic shift toward self-critical discourse in which the needs of the victims have priority over national identity. On the contrary, the denial produced by the state and its agencies in the 1970s and 1980s has not ceased gaining sophistication. While the state has adopted new strategies to counter international genocide recognition–e.g. proposing a Turkish–Armenian history commission, announcing the restoration of Armenian cultural places, or developing and football diplomacy–discourse frames invented for political purposes–namely, the so-called “Armenian terrorism”-have proven particularly pervasive. Indeed, not only they have survived over time, but they have also reached an increasingly wide range of social and political actors. I will show that the denial of the Armenian Genocide has taken a sophisticated turn that determines the boundaries of Turkish–Armenian interactions by giving a brief overview of the different stages of denial and of the structures and key patterns in public and political memory that have dominated the debate on the genocide topic. Most importantly, I will link this discourse to the material context of Turkey’s foreign relations, particularly with the European Union (EU) in the early 2000s, when the pressure over Turkey to address its past reached an unprecedented peak.
Before doing this, however, I want to clarify some fundamental principles of my approach. In studying genocide denial, I adopt the post-structuralist position that discourses—in this case, memorial patterns about the Armenian Genocide in Turkish society and politics—are not epiphenomena of politics, but key elements in the production and reproduction of power structures. Both access to discourse and control and selection of discursive patterns are both derivation and source of power relations. However, following Ole Wæver, I adopt a softer interpretation of the relationship between discourse and actors than the one defined in post-structuralist discourse analysis. While the latter assumes that discourses are prior to actors in the sense that speaking subjects do not exist outside discourse, the present study conceptualizes discursive structures as they are produced, reproduced, or transformed through a practice between actors. Applied to the study of the denial of the Armenian Genocide, this means that the existing discourse frames about the Armenian Genocide (regardless of their origin) and Turkey’s politics of the past together (a) determine the range of possibilities of how to frame the destruction of the Armenians, and (b) at the same time, they are themselves dependent on actors producing them. It is this kind of “linguistic structuration” that allows discourses to evolve.
Prior to the turn of the millennium—though particularly in the 1970s and 1980s—remembrance of the 1915 genocide occurred almost exclusively as a reaction to external triggers in the form of political pressure. The memory politics of diaspora Armenians (whether militant attacks on Turkish state representatives or political mobilization for recognition of the genocide, particularly in the United States) and international debates about genocide recognition not only raised awareness about the genocide worldwide, but also made it impossible for Turkey to avoid the topic. Consequently, this phase of Turkish denial is marked by its reactive rather than proactive character. On one side, “Armenian terrorism” became then the only and systematic explanation for Armenian attacks on Turkish officials; on the other, clear attempts at distinguishing between Armenians in Turkey—“our Armenians”—and “revengeful” Armenians in the diaspora were noticeable. The need to explicitly differentiate between inside Armenians (“our Armenians”) and “diaspora Armenians” in the Turkish print media in the 1970s was accompanied by calls to stay cool and not repeat the violence of September 6 and 7, 1955, when state-orchestrated riots in Istanbul targeted the Greek and the non-Muslim population, respectively. In this early phase of the discourse, political exchanges between Turks and Armenians in Turkey’s public space were nonexistent. Because of its highly vulnerable position, the Armenian community of Turkey remained unseen and did not actively take part in the discourse about its own historical experience and destruction. Instead, the patriarch represented the community in the public arena and, in the instances when Turkish diplomats were killed by Armenians, offered his condolences in its name. This pattern of Turkish–Armenian relations in Turkey, where Armenians were invisible in the public arena, only began to crack around the year 2000.
The following example is highly illustrative, for it shows not only the uncritical use of the frame in the context of Turkish–Armenian relations, but also its apparent acceptability far beyond Turkish state and nationalist circles: as Turkish public intellectuals organized the “Apology Campaign” in 2008, nationalists organized a counter-campaign demanding an apology from Armenians. Such a reaction—though reversing the perpetrator–victim relationship and confusing historical cause–effect processes—was relatively unsurprising to anyone following the highly tense issue of genocide in Turkey. But, surprisingly, one of the main organizers of the “Apology Campaign,” the well-known  intellectual Baskın Oran, also argued in favor of a public apology by Armenians for the crimes of the Armenian Secret Army of the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). Oran reasoned that such an apology would have an immense effect on the growing critical awareness in Turkey about the genocide and would contribute to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Thus, he equated the need for Turkey to come to terms with the Armenian Genocide, a foundational event in the creation of modern Turkey, with Armenians’ coming to terms with the violence of a terrorist organization. The equation of different instances of violence involves the risk of them justifying one another. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, such an equation is but another indicator of how even the most progressive Turkish actors use the state invented denial frame of “Armenian terrorism” without taking into account Turkey’s lack of a critical historical regard of the past and the lasting effects of the genocidal process on Armenians.
The years 2000–2002 were a period of transition during which the “Armenian issue” gradually became part of everyday political debate in Turkey. The main difference between this stage of denial and the previous one was that the destruction of the Armenians - as well as that of other groups in the Ottoman Empire, such as the Assyrians - was increasingly dealt with independently of specific and concrete external triggers. In this phase, Turkey also began to revise its politics of the past, for its conventional approach to the problem, centered on security and terrorism, had not halted international recognition of the genocide. France’s genocide resolution in 2001 led Turkey to rethink its politics vis-a-vis the Republic of Armenia. After having practiced a politics of putting pressure on Armenia by isolating it, Ankara started a cautious rapprochement by encouraging low-profile contacts on the level of civil society and easing visa regulations for citizens of the Republic of Armenia. In so doing, Turkey aimed at bypassing the political efforts of the Armenian diaspora. However, neither the politics of isolation nor the politics of rapprochement produced the results that Turkey sought: they did not prevent further genocide acknowledgments or halt the Republic of Armenia from advocating for other international declarations.
Then comes the phase in which the Armenian Genocide became part of everyday political communication with the 90th anniversary of the genocide, as well as the most critical year in Turkey’s EU accession process—when the EU would decide whether to start accession talks with Turkey. After Turkey had become an official EU candidate in 1999, an intense debate had started in some EU member states, first and foremost France and Germany, over Turkey's eligibility. In this context, Turkey’s problematic relationship with the genocide was crucial for critics convinced that the country was not European enough. On the institutional level, the European Parliament, which approves the membership of candidate countries, reconfirmed its genocide resolution of 1987 at critical junctures, such as in 2000, 2002, and 2005, thereby maintaining constant pressure on Turkey. Hence, between 1999 and 2005 acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide or at least a self-critical reflection on the past became an  informal criteria for Turkey’s EU entry. Against the backdrop of the debate on the Armenian Genocide throughout European countries, the Turkish government made tactical concessions to counter the international pressure. A few weeks before the ninetieth anniversary of the genocide, Prime Minister Erdogan contacted Armenian President Kocharian, suggesting a joint Armenian-Turkish history commission. The government also announced the restoration of Armenian cultural and religious monuments. The renovation of the Holy Cross Church in Lake Van, for example, was announced as a step both to improve Armenian–Turkish relations and to counter official genocide recognition throughout the world. With these policy initiatives, Turkey achieved two things: it signaled openness in terms of its contested history reading of 1915; and, at the same time, it depoliticized the issue by delegating it to so-called “experts.” This new strategy was applauded internationally. The Independent Commission on Turkey, for example, a group of high-ranking EU politicians, welcomed Turkey’s move while criticizing Armenia for not responding positively to it. The signs of an opening were further fueled by breaking news in 2005: three of Turkey’s most renowned universities announced the organization of an “Armenian conference” that would step outside the confines of the Turkish nationalist narrative on the Armenian Genocide. But within a few days the organizers—representing the established Turkish academia—met with major opposition and political pressure. In a parliamentary speech, Justice Minister Cemil Ciçek accused them of “backstabbing the nation.” As a consequence, the hosting university decided to postpone the conference.
The second attempt at realizing the conference also encountered major obstacles when a court decided to halt it. This time, however, the same Justice Minister who had criticized the conference as a traitorous project provided the necessary clue to circumvent the court’s decision, namely, by changing the location of the conference. Other leading members of the government, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, also spoke in favor of the conference. Behind the scenes the government pushed for its realization before the EU summit in October 2005, where the EU would decide whether to start formal accession talks with Turkey. Thanks to this backing of the government, the conference finally took place on 24–25 September 2005. The timing of the conference is already a solid indicator that it served Turkey’s interests and its EU bid. In their public statements, the organizers of the conference also stressed exactly the same point: that the conference would ultimately serve Turkey and “be one of the most significant steps taken in our country on the path . . . toward democracy.” In a joint declaration, they stressed that the “demonstration of how Turkey actually contains . . . a rich multiplicity of thoughts would be . . . to the utmost benefit of Turkey”. Hence, the organizers and supporters of the conference not only strongly rejected the accusation that they were traitors and harming Turkey, they also reversed it. In this sense, the counter discourse of Turkish progressives itself relied on a strongly nationalist logic and rhetoric. These vocal actors surrounding the conference did not express the intrinsic need to come to terms with the past as such, beyond the question of its possible benefits for Turkey. Such shortcomings of the 2005 controversy over the “Armenian conference” and the denial of the Armenian Genocide, respectively, have been largely ignored so far. Instead, the conference is predominantly referred as a pathbreaking moment in Turkish–Armenian relations and, particularly, in the process of Turkey's coming to terms with its history.
Meanwhile, since 2005 Turkish–Armenian encounters have considerably intensified on a variety of levels. We have witnessed an interim, tension-fraught rapprochement between the two states (soccer diplomacy, Turkish–Armenian protocols, etc.), as well as numerous encounters between Turks and Armenians from Turkey and from the diaspora. On the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the genocide in April 2015, a remarkable number of diaspora Armenians, together with public intellectuals, human rights activists, and civil societal organizations from Turkey, chose to commemorate the genocide at different sites in Turkey. These joint memory efforts and the unprecedented wave of public commemoration of the genocide within Turkey carried particularly strong symbolic vibes, suggesting a new quality in Turkish–Armenian civil societal relations. Paradoxically enough, although such encounters are important, they do not necessarily signify a meaningful confrontation with the past on the part of the successors of the perpetrators. Turkey’s rhetoric around the time of the centennial became, if anything, more extreme in its denialism. Yet the form, content, and messages surrounding various commemorations revealed how difficult it is to confront the sophistication of denial and pave the way for reconciliation that addresses critical issues such as justice and restitution.
Therefore, it remains to be seen to what extent these encounters between Turks and Armenians from the Diaspora are based on the same language and a common understanding of the historical—and ultimately contemporary—dynamics of Turkish–Armenian relations. Taking into consideration that the 2005 “Armenian conference” has never been questioned in terms of its assumed ground-breaking effects—least of all by the organizing academics and their supporters—it seems that Turkish–Armenian encounters, dialogue, and reconciliation are but a black box. Once opened, this box will likely reveal that the feel-good, symbolic vibes of such encounters have overshadowed the fact that genocide denial has adjusted well to memory, commemoration, and to Armenian–Turkish civil societal co-resistance to such denial.

"Repair" (repairfuture.net), December 16, 2016
(*) Edited by "Armeniaca."

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