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Thomas de Waal: “Great Catastrophe” is a very powerful term


Mediamax’s interview with Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Thomas de Waal
– First of all, let me congratulate you with your new book “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide”. What is the main message of your book and who you consider the main audience: Turks and Armenians, or the Western world?– Thank you. The starting-point for all my books is in identifying a “gap in the literature” that I believe needs to be filled. In the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16, there has been some very good writing in recent years by academic historians about what happened and why. I am thinking of the work of Donald Bloxham, Raymond Kevorkian, Taner Akcam and others. Ronald Suny is about to publish a new book which looks excellent. However, much less has been written about the aftermath and politics of the issue and the way it has changed over the last 100 years. I am thinking of the struggles in the Armenian diaspora about the Soviet Union, Stalin’s territorial claims against Turkey in the 1940s, the terrorism of the 1970s and the Turkish response, the re-awakening and demonstrations of 1965. In particular, over the last 12 years an enormous amount has happened in Armenian-Turkish relations much of it very positive. I write about my trips to Turkey, the “Armenian opening” in Diyarbakir and the re-discovery of oral histories and Islamicized Armenians. So I wanted to write a book that reflects on all those issues.Who is the book for? Anyone who takes an interest in the whole complex of Armenian-Turkish relations. Also, anyone who is interested in a bigger question that cuts across morality and politics, “What do we owe to the past and those who suffered? What do we need to remember and honor and when should we let go?”

– Are there any plans to translate the book to Armenian and Turkish?

A respected Turkish publisher, Iletisim, is working on a Turkish version of the book. Obviously I would be delighted to see an Armenian version too, but there are no proposals at the moment. I think there are a lot of information and episodes in the book which are little known to both Armenian and Turkish readers.– When naming the book “Great Catastrophe” you meant “Medz Eghern” – how the Armenians call the Genocide?– Yes, that is right. One question I wanted to investigate in the book was about the naming of the catastrophe that the Armenians suffered in 1915-16. “Great Catastrophe” seems to me a very powerful term. I know that there are other Armenian words as well and that Marc Nichanian likes to use the word “aghed”. The Turkish intellectual Cengiz Aktar also calls the Armenian Genocide the “Great Catastrophe of all Anatolia”.

– In your recent piece in the Foreign Affairs you have suggested that Armenians focus too much on the “G-word”. Do you think that Armenians could make better use of President Obama’s usage of “Medz Eghern” term?

– When beginning my work, I set myself to answer two research questions. First, “When, how and why did the catastrophic trauma that Armenians called ‘Medz Eghern’ come to be called the ‘Armenian Genocide?'” Second, “How come that usually the first question people ask when the issue comes up about the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians is ‘Was it genocide?'” I do find it a bit strange that for most people this has become the question remind people that there are other big questions to be asked and answered.

– Don’t you think that there is too much hypocrisy around this issue? Everybody in the West accepts that more then 1 million Armenians were killed in 1915 and it obvious that such a massacre was a planned operation against particular nation. So, everybody agrees that it was genocide by a definition, but prefers to name it with other terms. Don’t you think that this hypocrisy makes Armenian angry and unable to fix their attention on other conceptual issues?

– I understand that Armenians get angry about this. The Turkish Republic didn’t carry out the killings but it has suppressed the history of what happened-although that has begun to change. And most scholars, starting with Raphael Lemkin, who have studied the history, agree that what the Ottoman state did to the Armenians fit the category of “genocide,” the word Lemkin invented in 1944. As I say, I also use the term “Armenian Genocide.” It’s become a standard scholarly term and I prefer to be on the side of those who use it, including many Turks, rather than those who do not.

Having said that, I wrote the book and also the Foreign Affairs essay in part to invite Armenians and others to consider the negative side of the word “Genocide.” The term has become very politicized and there are endless legalistic arguments about the meaning of the definition used in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention of Genocide. It is used as a political term of abuse and numerous ethnic groups aspire to call their historical suffering “genocide.” In my view all this hullabaloo throws up a barrier to ordinary people understanding the human story of the Medz Eghern and to ordinary Turks recognizing it. So, yes, there is a certain logic to the use of the “genocide” word but it’s also, in view, a rather cold legal ugly term. It is somewhat equivalent to a man whose grandparents were murdered going around and telling friends and families and strangers “My grandparents were the victims of homicide.” Correct, but not so conducive to getting them to listen to your story.

– What you think – what went wrong with the Turkish-Armenian protocols process? Armenians miscalculated the situation and were tricked by the Turks who just wanted to gain time and were not going to normalize the relations? Or the Turks underestimated the level of Azerbaijan’s influence on them? Or something else?

– I think everyone miscalculated a little. One part of the worldwide Armenian community and one part of Turkey – the Armenian government and one half of the Turkish government-wanted to normalize relations, open the border and work on the problems from a position of greater trust. But others were skeptical or fearful–I am thinking of many Diaspora Armenians, some Turks, and Azerbaijan above all. And the negative voices prevailed. I talked to most of the people involved in the negotiations that began in 2007. The Swiss mediators did a very professional job. The United States government pressed hard, but I think it’s clear now that the Americans should have devoted many more resources to persuading the doubters of the value of the Protocols-and in the first place Azerbaijan, which played the key role in blocking the deal.

– Armenian President needs to make a tough decision before April 24, 2015. One option is that he calls off the Armenian signature under the protocols – and this move will be hardly welcomed by the Western partners and U.S. in particular. Another option – he keeps the protocols while understanding Turkey will not ratify them for another 5 years. It seems that Turkey wins in both cases and Armenia gets nothing. What you think? Or maybe you see some third option?

– I believe that President Sargsyan gains more internationally by keeping the Armenian signature on the Protocols than he does by revoking it. But of course he is a politician and he will use the fact that he can revoke the document to win some leverage. It should not be forgotten that the 2015 centenary puts pressure on Turkey to take some constructive steps. I hope we can see some progress on some symbolic issues – Armenian churches in Anatolia, the renaming of monuments and street-names-as well as some practical ones, such as the laying of a fiber-optic cable to the Armenian border. We should not forget that there are many people in Turkey who still want a normalization of relations with Armenia–and some of them are still in the government. If the Armenian-Turkish wall cannot be pulled down all at once, efforts can at least be made to take it down brick by brick.

– What you think about Russia’s role in Turkish-Armenian process? Sergey Lavrov was present together Javier Solana, Hillary Clinton and others during the protocols signing but it seemed that Russian was not very much involved in the preparation process. And what is Russia’s position today regarding Turkish-Armenian relations given the fact of Putin-Erdogan rapprochement.

– I think the Russian government basically played “both sides” on this issue. They saw benefits from a successful Armenian-Turkish rapprochement, especially economic ones for the Russian-owned companies in Armenia. But the failure of the Protocols process also enabled them to strengthen the military alliance with Armenia.

Ara Tadevosyan talked to Tom de Waal



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