By Ben Bronstein
On March 15th 2011, the ‘Yerkir’ Union and the Caucasus Institute held an international conference on Building Awareness of Turkish Society Regarding the Armenian Genocide. Speakers included Armenian experts as well as Cengiz Aktar and Ali Bayramoğlu, two Turkish experts who initiated the ‘I Apologize’ campaign in Turkey. The ‘I Apologize’ campaign was launched in 2008 by a group of Turkish intellectuals, allowing Turks the opportunity to personally apologize for the Armenian Genocide by signing an online petition. At present, approximately 70,000 people have signed the petition.
The first talk overviewed the history of denial of the genocide by the Turkish government and society as a whole. Despite the many years of negative attitudes towards recognition of the genocide, the speaker, David Hovhannisyan, felt reason for optimism after his time with the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission because of the understanding and compassion he and his Turkish colleagues eventually came to share.
In his talk ‘Developing a Policy of Memory in Turkey’, Cengiz Aktar addressed various kinds of memory – academic, cultural, personal and public. In each case, Mr. Aktar stressed that, while developing a widespread policy of memory in Turkey will take time, there has been progress. Mr. Aktar pointed to the influence of Hrant Dink, the impact of Armenian film and music, the restoration of Armenian churches and the growing public discourse surrounding Armenia and Armenians.
Ruben Melkonyan, in his talk entitled ‘The Turkish Government Policy Toward the Armenian Community in Turkey’, described the history of the Turkish government’s discriminatory treatment of Armenians (as well as towards Kurds, Greeks and Jews) during the 20th century following the genocide. In closing, Mr. Melkonyan addressed the issue of how the Armenian community in Turkey has been pressured to oppose recognition of the genocide.
Anush Hovannisyan addressed the history of Turkish attitudes towards recognition of the genocide. Her talk pointed to the changes that have taken place over time in Turkey and the various positions held by Turks today, from the extreme to the pragmatic.
During his talk on the ‘I Apologize’ campaign, Ali Bayramoğlu stressed that recognition of the genocide is not enough; relationships must be repaired and the political and cultural connections between Turks and Armenians must be mended.
The final talk, by Richard Giragosian, focused on the need for both Turks and Armenians to make efforts to repair the damaged relationship between the two peoples. For Turkey, Mr. Giragosian emphasized the need not only for recognition of the genocide, but an overall revolution in thinking about history. For Armenia, Mr. Giragosian accentuated the negative effects of constantly defining ones’ self with victimhood, and the detrimental effect of using the genocide as a test of ‘good or bad Turks’. Finally, Mr. Giragosian underlined the fact that complete reconciliation will not be possible until both Armenia and Turkey make serious progress in democratization. Because of this, he emphasized the importance of normalizing relations between the two countries – including opening the border – as a first step. Mr. Giragosian’s final words were that ‘neither country can go back and the only way is forward’.