Recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey is a secondary issue – interview with Harut Sassounian
Harut Sassounian is a prominent public figure, author, publisher of The California Courier newspaper, President of the United Armenian Fund, Lincy Foundation Vice President.
REGNUM: A number of the US-based Armenian organizations are currently advocating the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. At present, 226 US Congressmen are reportedly advocating the adoption of a resolution on the Armenian Genocide. What is your opinion of the prospects for the adoption of the resolution? What is the importance of the resolution, considering the fact that Armenian political circles have no clear idea of their further steps after the worldwide recognition of the Armenian Genocide?
Regarding your question about the prospects for the adoption of the resolution by the US Congress, I can say that more than half of the 435 Members of Congress have co-sponsored the resolution. This means that, if the resolution is submitted to a vote even tomorrow morning, it will be adopted without any problems. I think that around 350 Congressmen will vote for the resolution and just a few will vote against it. The major problem is whether the leadership of the US Congress will submit the resolution to a vote or, under Bush administration pressure, the resolution will be shelved, which was the case in 2000, when Speaker Hastert withdrew the resolution at the last moment. Otherwise, it would have certainly been adopted. The question is whether the scandal similar to that in 2000 will recur or the resolution will be submitted to a vote. I think that this time the resolution will be submitted to a vote, and its adoption has almost a hundred-per-cent chance, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been making statements advocating the recognition of the Armenian Genocide for 20 years. Besides, when I contacted her last November, before she was elected Speaker, she stated that she had been advocating the recognition of the Armenian Genocide for many years and intended to do so in the next year as well. Thus, we have a promise made by Nancy Pelosi who has not changed her position for many years. Also, a majority in the US Congress favors the adoption of the resolution. The submission of the resolution to a vote was postponed because of the parliamentary and, later, presidential elections in Turkey. We did not want the Armenian side to be accused of aiding the radicals in the Turkish elections. Now we have nothing to wait for and the resolution will certainly be submitted to a vote.
Of course, a tough struggle over the resolution has started. The Turkish Government is constantly blackmailing the United States, making statements on severing relations, putting obstacles for US troops in Iraq, and so on. The blackmail is actually senseless, as each statement like that damages the image of Turkey itself. Turkish commentators have recently pointed out that the time of threats have passed, and the blackmail damages Turkey itself. Alternative ways of admitting past events need to be found. We are now witnessing the formation of a favorable atmosphere both in the US Congress and in Turkey. However, the Turkish side still does not find the courage to admit this Crime Against Humanity, and the most likely reason is a psychological barrier – it is difficult to admit the fact that their forefathers committed such a barbaric act against another people. Turkish leaders realize that the Genocide is a fact, and their statements on the necessity for studying and discussing the issue are a political game. They do not need either historians or studies, they know the truth. However, Turkish authorities fear that the admission of the Armenian Genocide will cause a negative reaction by their public and radical forces. But for this fear, the Genocide would have been admitted long ago.
The United Nations has recognized the Armenian Genocide. Over 20 countries, the European Parliament, hundreds of specialists in genocide and Holocaust, historians and other scholars recognized the Armenian Genocide long ago. But, the most important thing is that the US Congress has already approved a similar resolution on the Armenian Genocide in 1975 and 1984. Moreover, in 1981, US President Ronald Reagan signed a Presidential Proclamation designating the events of 1915 as Genocide. Since the US President has admitted the fact of the Armenian Genocide by signing an official declaration and the US Congress has approved the aforementioned resolution twice, the adoption of the resolution for the third time is of little importance. The Armenian Genocide has already been recognized and the resolution will not add anything new.
The only problem is that the Turkish side is fighting the resolution, claiming that it is the first resolution of this kind. If the Turkish side did not fight it, I would not care about whether the resolution would be adopted or not. However, since the Turkish side is waging a political struggle, and the resolution has been submitted, we cannot retreat. Otherwise, it will be viewed as the Armenian side’s defeat. The real purpose of the resolution is not recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but a political struggle – the issue of which side has a larger political capital in Washington.
So we must not give up the struggle and allow Turkey to gain victory by exerting pressure. We must struggle for the adoption of the resolution so that Turkey’s political strength should be sapped once and for all.
As regards your question about the potential benefit from the adoption of the resolution and further steps, the following can be said: the recognition of the Genocide is not the Armenians’ demand. The Genocide did take place, and we know it. The Genocide was admitted as far back as 1915-1923, when it was actually taking place. When our forefathers were being killed, no one had any doubts about what was going on. The Turks, who organized the Genocide, were well aware of what they were doing. So the recognition of the Genocide is not a step to be viewed as a great achievement. No, the recognition is an actuality – for 92 years. The issue should be considered from quite a different angle, and the Armenian people must come to realize it. If the resolution is passed, and should Turkey admit the Armenian Genocide, Armenians who are not well-grounded in politics will think that they have achieved their cherished dream. No, the admission of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey is an issue of secondary importance for us. The following issue must be raised: a cruel crime was committed against the Armenian people. The whole nation was actually annihilated, our lands were seized and our 3,000-year-old culture was destroyed. This is not only a cruel crime, but also a great injustice. Therefore, our true demand is compensation for this injustice. The world must know about what happened, and we have to a great extent succeeded. The Turkish side is well aware that the step to follow the admission of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey will be a demand for compensation and return of the lands. This is the reason why Turkey will not admit the Armenian Genocide, thereby trying to force the Armenians to stop at this stage, so that we keep demanding the admission of the Genocide for hundreds of years and will be unable to go to the next step. I declare with all responsibility that it is not so, the admission of the Armenian Genocide is of no value. Our demands are: Turkey must compensate for the damages and return our lands. Our demands do not depend on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide before going on to the next steps. This is the reason that a symposium recently was held at the University of Southern California. Renowned specialists in international law were invited. They explained the rights the Armenian people have under international law, and to which courts Armenians could apply to settle this issue. Now specialists must study the lawyers’ advice and decide which issue should be submitted to which court, as there is the International Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights, US Federal Courts, etc. This is a most important issue. It must be studied with all seriousness, because, if we lose in court, Turkey will claim that Armenians have no legal demands.
REGNUM: There is an opinion that Armenian Diasporan organizations, while dealing with the issue of the Armenian Genocide, do not pay enough attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Do you agree with this viewpoint, and is it possible that the international community should recognize the Armenian Genocide, without saying anything about the necessity for compensations, and oblige the Armenian side to make certain concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue instead?
I disagree with the opinion that the Diaspora is ignoring the Artsakh problem (In our conversation, I would prefer using the historical name of Nagorno-Karabakh – Artsakh). I have heard such an opinion, but I can state with confidence that not only this point of view is wrong, but also the real situation is quite the opposite. Our people, neither in Armenia nor in the Diaspora, have political sophistication. This has been true throughout our history. Armenians have always had an advanced culture, we have many excellent musicians, a rich literary and architectural heritage, but, in contrast to Turkey, we have never had political maturity. And no wonder. Turks ruled an empire for 600 years. We never had such an experience. We have always been under other nations’ yoke. All that we do in the political arena, including on the issue of the Armenian Genocide, is unprofessional and insufficient. We speak of the Armenian Genocide everywhere, make statements and give the impression that we are making great efforts towards the settlement of this issue. However, these are mere words without any value. The same is true in the Artsakh problem. Everybody says: We are for Artsakh. This is our historical land. But what is really being done for Artsakh? Yes, some young men went to war and sacrificed their lives for Artsakh’s freedom, which is the most valuable thing they could do. But what are others doing? They are only talking. We are always only talking. So I do not agree that we do more in this area than in another, and this is the reality.
As regards the possibility of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide in exchange for certain concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, such an idea does not exist, it is senseless. I have said that the Genocide is a fact, and its recognition is not a concession, as we do not benefit anything from it. If anyone, guided by political games, denies this fact, then this is that person’s problem. Moreover, we have reached a stage where the admission of the Armenian Genocide is more in Turkey’s interests than that of Armenians. If Turkey should admit the Armenian Genocide even tomorrow, the Armenians, who are politically naive, would think that they have achieved their dream. That is, the Armenian side will just relax and stop trying to achieve its true goals, namely, the return of lands and compensation. The Armenian people must be mature enough to realize their true goals. In this context, if Turkey admits the Armenian Genocide, it will be the first to benefit. Although no official demand for the admission of the Armenian Genocide is made on Turkey in the context of the country’s admission to the European Union, this issue is constantly raised and used as a lever for exerting pressure on Turkey. That is why, if a Turkish leader admits the Armenian Genocide today, the next day the entire world will praise him as liberal and progressive, for having admitted his forefathers’ crimes. He will be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and many other prizes. Moreover, even if Turkey fails to meet all requirements for the admission to the European Union, the positive reaction to its admission of the Armenian Genocide will be so great that a blind eye will be turned to other shortfalls, thereby facilitating the process of Turkey’s entry into the EU. Thus, Turkey will benefit much, without losing anything. The principal error of both Armenians and Turks is that they think that, in case Turkey admits the Armenian Genocide, Armenians will demand their lands. In fact, the two issues have nothing in common. If, in conformity with international law, the Armenian people can demand their territories, it is not at all necessary to wait for Turkey to admit the Armenian Genocide for 90 or 900 years. Even if tomorrow we apply to court and demand our territories, no court will say: no, you cannot demand territories until Turkey admits the Genocide. This is tantamount to refusing to convict a murderer until he admits his guilt.
REGNUM: You often visit Armenia and, naturally, are acquainted with the situation. If you had to enumerate the priorities of the country’s foreign policy, which issues would you first of all point out?
If we establish certain problems as priorities, the first thing to note is, of course, Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, as the conflict over Artsakh is unresolved. The major problem is a state of war or rather a bloody ceasefire with Azerbaijan – shots can be heard on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, both sides sustain losses.
The second issue is the Armenian-Turkish relations – from the viewpoint of both the past and the current blockade of Armenia
The third item is, I think, the Armenian-Georgian relations, which are not problematic in general, but we have a problem of the Javakhk Armenians – not a territorial issue. However, the problem is the observation of the rights of the Armenians residing there. Of course, some problems of human rights, social conditions, schools and churches must be resolved in the context of friendly relations with Georgia.
REGNUM: The necessity for concessions has recently been spoken of more and more often in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. From the viewpoint of the Armenian Diaspora, what is the degree of concessions?
Conflict can be settled through compromises – this is a fundamental principle. Another way of settling conflicts is a decisive victory over the enemy in military operations. The issue is settled either at the negotiating table or on the battlefield. We gained a victory on the battlefield, and cannot be defeated at the negotiating table. I do not think that there exists any threat of resumption of hostilities. Azerbaijan is not ready for war. If they were, they would resume military operations without asking anyone. If hostilities are resumed now, Azerbaijan may lose all the other territories, particularly Shahumyan. That is, if Azerbaijan unleashes a war now, it will lose more than it may gain. I disagree with the opinion that the Armenian side must not cede even an inch of land. Some territories surrounding Artsakh, which are of no strategic importance or historically Armenian lands, may be ceded. It is not up to us to decide which particular region, town or village may be ceded to the Azerbaijani side. Time will come, and representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh, standing over a map, will draw a border. However, we must not just cede the territories to them, stating that this is our concession. In exchange, we must have them recognize Artsakh as an independent state or as part of Armenia. A relevant document must be signed, and an international peacekeeping force must be stationed in adjacent territories. That is, concessions are only possible in case of concessions on the part of Azerbaijan and observation of the aforementioned terms. I think it must be a comprehensive solution.
REGNUM: Do you think that the Azerbaijani side will agree to such a solution?
If they do not, we have nothing to propose to them. We gained a victory, and the Artsakh problem is resolved for us. We have nothing else to solve. We are quite satisfied with the present-day situation – Artsakh was liberated, full stop! It is in Azerbaijan’s interest to propose something to us, and concessions on our part will be possible in exchange for that something.
REGNUM: At present, Northern Martakert, Shahumyan and Getashen – the last named is part of Nagorno-Karabakh are under Azerbaijan’s control. In your opinion, what is the solution to the problem of the regions in question?
A solution to the problem of the territories may be based on the principle of territorial swap. If we cede part of some territories under Artsakh’s control to Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani side returns the aforementioned territories. Another way is the resumption of hostilities and return of the territories by force.
REGNUM: Nevertheless, you rule out the possibility of resumption of hostilities in the immediate prospect. How long can this neither-peace-nor-war state last?
I am not a prophet. However, I personally rule out the possibility of such developments in the next few years. But we must always be ready for an attack.
REGNUM: What is your description of Armenia’s present-day foreign policy – nationalistic, liberal?
Once again I have to say what I have already said. I am not delighted with the political maturity of Armenians, both inside and outside Armenia. In general, I am not satisfied. I would not like to criticize Armenia’s authorities, because they have the same problem as all Armenians. Armenia’s policy in the international arena is not impressive. I can neither say that they committed major blunders nor can their work be called brilliant.
REGNUM: As a specialist in the field of communication, what is your opinion of Armenian information policy? If we consider the presence of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia in the sphere of information activities, what problems can you see?
Our work in most fields lacks professionalism. Whatever field you ask about, I will have to repeat the same phrase. The work carried out in the information field is equal to zero.
REGNUM: To what do you attribute this deficiency and how can it be improved?
To improve in an area, one should first of all realize its value. Neither the Armenian people nor the authorities realize the value of the information field. For example, when Presidents Aliyev and Kocharyan agree on specific issues, and Aliyev then goes back on his word, it takes our authorities almost a year to reveal this fact. This information must be spread within 24 hours through all media outlets, PR-companies should be employed to flood Western newspapers with analytical articles, to show the world that we are a peaceful nation and ready for negotiations and concessions. And it is not us, but Azerbaijanis, who are the cause of war. We must clearly realize that information is power. It must be collected and used at the right moment.
REGNUM: As seen from Armenia, the Diaspora seems to be strong, but disunited? We have a 3-million-strong community in Russia, rather strong communities in the US and Europe. However, they do not cooperate. In your opinion, is there a necessity for at least these communities to cooperate, or the currently applied method is right and no need for coordination of Armenian communities’ activities exists?
What is going on now is both wrong and a waste of energy. We are a small nation, and cannot afford to be disunited. We need centralization of forces, cooperation not only between the aforementioned three communities, but also among Armenian communities worldwide. I have some ideas of how to organize Armenians worldwide, but I would not like to go into the details at this time. The unification of Armenians around common national ideas is a goal that can be attained. Members of Armenian communities worldwide must set themselves tasks and determine the ways of accomplishing them. Armenians worldwide can elect their leaders by democratic principles, by means of a vote. No one in the Diaspora should declare himself to be a leader without the vote of the Armenian public. Thus, we will have an elected body in the Diaspora that will cooperate with the elected leaders of Armenia and Artsakh.
REGNUM: You are also a representative of the Lincy Foundation. I would like to ask you a question. It is a hypothetical question, to be exact. In your opinion, in the context of the current situation, when Armenia’s borderline villages are hardly populated, would not it be better to direct the Foundation’s resources to the implementation of a repatriation program for Armenians, which is of paramount importance, rather than to the renovation of Armenia’s roads, which is important as well?
It is not up to me to decide where our Foundation’s resources must be directed. In Armenia, I supervise the work carried out under the Foundation’s programs. I am well acquainted with what is going on in Armenia, and if I had the authority, funds would have been directed to the resolution of some other problems. The process of allocating funds is as follows: Armenia’s top-level authorities propose the direction and a schedule of necessary works. The Lincy Foundation considers the authorities’ proposals under the following principle: If we want to do anything good for Armenia, who is better informed of the country’s needs – those living in far away Los Angeles or the ones that grew up in this land, who are governing the country and are responsible for their people’s future?
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