Monday, October 12, 2009

Negotiating bloody history 

I have watched the signing of the protocols between the governments of Armenia and Turkey with very mixed emotions. Part of it is fascination. I note that I co-authored a paper at an early conference on opening the border between the two countries, a paper that got more attention in policy circles than academic ones. The issue, as I said when I gave the paper, is that the issue is political. So what I've written (and many of my Armenian economist friends have written) -- that there are economic benefits to border opening is really quite irrelevant. I've been fascinated therefore by what appears to be the decision by the Armenian government to embrace the economic benefits. That strikes me as both rational and naive -- rational insofar as I think it will help, naive insofar as it ignores the political.

And what a political event it has been! Even the signing turned out to be a political nightmare, with challenges from each side over what the other would say in the signing ceremony. I can imagine "don't mention the Genocide!" being said with the same humorous panic that John Cleese instructs the staff at Fawlty Towers not to mention the war to the German guests. And for the others, don't mention the piece of land and conflict that closed the border in the first place, because they're not to be tied together (as many in the Armenian diaspora fear.) Of course the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has now proven those folks right.

So I see that part as the other emotion, one of complete dread. I have wanted to respect the rights of Armenians in Armenia to live their own lives, and if they want to trade with Turkey it's none of my business (just as my desire to trade with anyone else is none of theirs.) Yet the decision to create a joint panel to decide what happened in 1915 is inappropriate. There is no decision; the history has been written by those who saw it. It's already been heard by a jury once. What I dread is that history is about to be written by an intergovernmental committee. As Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar, wrote in 1996
Those who deny genocide always dismiss the abundance of documents and testimony as contrived or coerced, or as forgeries and falsehoods. Free speech does not guarantee the deniers the right to be treated as the 'other' side of a legitimate debate when there is no credible 'other side'; nor does it guarantee the deniers space in the classroom or curriculum, or in any other forum. Genocide denial is an insidious form of intellectual and moral degradation...
I dread that the international community would decide that, to remove impediments to bringing Turkey into the European Union, the history of the first ethnic cleansing of the 20th Century would become a pawn. (My own reflection on being a pawn here.)