Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On becoming a pawn 

Readers might remember my trip to Armenia last January, in which I wrote:
The purpose of the conference I spoke at was to assess the economic and social consequences of opening the border between Armenia and Turkey, closed by Turkey as a response to the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1993. Closing the border is a political decision. Now my job was just to talk about what the effect on foreign investment would be in Armenia if the border was re-opened -- the opening would be, in my view, a representation that the risk of external conflict was reduced in the region. But we were told that we could not talk about politics at all. There was the acting ambassador here to make sure we didn't and when he left the local USAID guy kept watch on the proceedings. The local community is upset that the issue cannot be raised. Worse, the Turkish scholars here -- who either didn't get the memo or weren't obeying it -- tried to say something about how to solve the political issue. For this, they have been hammered by the more nationalistic Armenians here. In one sense I feel bad for them, but frankly there's one that keeps putting his foot in his mouth, so to heck with him. Yet if the US government wasn't so nervous as to place an imperfect gag order, none of that would have happened. They would have debated, and at the end hopefully we all have food and drink.
A few weeks ago people believed Speaker Nancy Pelosi might bring a bill to the floor of the U.S. House that would recognize the massacres in 1915 in Turkey of Armenians as a genocide. Executive branches for years have begged Congress not to pass these rules, as Karoun Demirjian notes in today's Chicago Tribune, and this year is no different.
In a letter to Pelosi and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that Turkey -- which borders Syria, Iraq and Iran -- is "a linchpin in the transshipment of vital cargo and fuel" to U.S. troops in the Middle East.

A negative reaction from Turkey to a resolution on the Armenian genocide "could harm American troops in the field, constrain our ability to supply our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and significantly damage our efforts to promote reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey," Rice and Gates wrote.
That letter included this remark:
Efforts such as the recent USAID-supported conference in Yerevan entitled "The Economic and Social Consequences of Opening the Armenian-Turkish Border," which was attended by both Armenian and Turkish civil society representatives, demonstrated that the U.S. approach to this difficult issue is, indeed, working.
That was the conference I was at. The board of the organizing research group (of which I am a fellow, but not a board member) responded that the letter was wrong,
With the full agreement and insistence of the U.S. government donor supporting it (USAID), all political issues were intentionally kept off of the conference agenda, and the proceedings were run in a manner to maintain an exclusive focus on non-political issues. Therefore, as an apolitical academic event that deliberately avoided the topic of Genocide recognition, the conference cannot legitimately be described as a component of a process of reconciliation. That process must fundamentally address a number of political issues for which the conference was not designed.
It's intriguing to get caught as a pawn in this game. But it's mostly sad. Today marks the 92nd anniversary of the day when 250 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul, marched out of the city and shot. The systematic massacres began the next month. (I note that my father's family roots by this time had left Turkey; my grandfather had fled to America for four years already, and my grandmother to a Beirut orphanage after losing her father in an earlier pogrom.) Regrettably the condemnation of Jewish Holocaust deniers has never been visited on a worldwide scale on those who deny the Armenian genocide (type the last two words into Google and you'll find denial sites quite easily.) Indeed, in the interest of Israeli-Turkish relations, even the Knesset has rejected a statement of recognition.

Regrettable even more is that a topic that should be left to historians and archaeologists has instead become a "process" that "must fundamentally address a number of political issues". Letting politicians decide history is how we got into this mess; hard to believe there's no other way out.

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