Globe: Diplomacy of Denial

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It was the first genocide in a century of genocide: hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered for simply being Armenian by the ruling Turkish Ottoman Empire in the Near Eastern front of the World War. It is a story in two parts: part one, the actual events of the genocide, and part two, the diplomatic and historical gymnastics that still drives part of the international politics of Turkey to this day. What exactly happened, and why did the Ottoman Empire commit the genocide?

The Ottomans had historical and geopolitical concerns with the Armenians. When the genocide began in 1914, the Ottoman Empire has entered the World War on the side of the Central Powers. Opposing the Ottomans across the Black Sea and the Caucasus stood the Russian Empire, a member of the enemy Entente Powers and an ancient adversary spanning hundreds of years. Russia coveted control for Istanbul – Turkey’s largest city and power point of the Black Sea. The Black Sea was Russia’s only year-round port; the other ports up north were subject to winter conditions that cut off access. Controlling the Black Sea would present a prime strategic advantage to Russia, and going through Istanbul was the only access point.

The Ottomans were not blind to this reality, and wanted to come down on any collaborators within Turkey’s dwindling empire. That is where the suspicion of the Armenians come into play. The Ottoman Empire was a Muslim power (for the longest time, it was the Muslim power), but the Armenians were a Christian minority – a minority that shared the same religion as Russia. This connection, amongst other things, was enough to question loyalties.

It was estimated that 2 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the genocide. However, it was not only Ottoman Armenians that died – Russian Armenians living in the Caucasus were also victims of the extermination campaign. Much of the violence against Russian Armenians occurred as the Ottomans marched through East Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1918.

It is unclear how many Armenians perished in the genocide. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 2 million were killed between the commencement of the World War in 1914 and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Most estimates conclude that 800,000 died, a number accepted by Ottoman authorities. By any measure, whether it be from killing or deportation, the Armenian population of Turkey plummeted from 2 million in 1914 to 400,000 by 1922.

The methodology of killing was limited only by the imagination. Death by gas, burning, torture, disease, drowning and starvation were all reported. The majority of the deaths occurred on death marches in the Syrian Desert, where the victims died of hunger and thirst.

The genocide itself is widely accepted, yet many nations refuse to use the term “genocide” as national policy in order to not offend Turkey.

Armenia, Russia, Canada, France, Germany, the European Parliament and the Vatican all label the killings a genocide. Germany – the most recent country to recognize the genocide – received threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan if the European nation moved ahead with the recognition. Nonetheless, Germany did so to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the killings.

Countries and political entities that do not recognize or label the killings a genocide include the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Commission, the United Nations and Turkey. Erdogan has gone the furthest of any Turkish leader in acknowledging the killings took place, but still resists the term “genocide.”

Like many things in life, the truth is poisoned by politics. In an age in which terms such as genocide are frequently used, as times more than they should, it might be perplexing why the leading nations of the world have been so hesitant to label the first genocide of the 20th century as a genocide. The answer is simple: countries like the U.S. that do not recognize the genocide do so out of fear of upsetting a sensitive Turkey. Whether by fear of calls for reparations, or a sense of defending national honor, Turkey has made a diplomatic effort to force denial upon the world.

A nation being so sensitive about foreign perception would not be such an issue had it not been for Turkey’s strategic position. In another reason of why Turkey is the odd man of the NATO powers, the U.S. and the U.K. submit to Turkey’s demands of perception in order to keep it close to the West. This is even more of an issue now that Turkey continues to move towards authoritarianism and is seeking a détente with Russia. Turkey is (at least theoretically) the strongest Western ally in the Middle East, and is counted on to do the West’s bidding – although Turkey has failed to do so the last few years.

Despite the diplomatic maneuvering, the genocide is recognized by most within the nations that do not officially use the term “genocide.” April 24th marks the International Remembrance Day for the atrocities, and serves to dismantle whatever political efforts are used cover up the genocide.