The Politics of the ‘G-word’

In a recent opinion piece written by Thomas de Waal for Foreign Policy, he writes that “In recent years, the issue of whether the U.S. president will use the “G word” — genocide — in his annual April 24 statement has degraded what should be the commemoration of a historical tragedy into grubby political bargaining.”

What does that mean exactly?

It has been the decades-long expectation for Armenian-Americans that the President of the United States use the word “genocide” when describing the events of 1915 against the Armenian population in Turkey in his annual April 24 commemoration address. The influential impact of the word “genocide” is not contained to President Obama. Also, it’s not only about commemorating a tragic event. It’s about changing the geopolitical dynamics in the region. Turkey would no longer be the “bad ass” on the street, bullying its smaller and in many ways weaker neighbors because it would lose the clout it enjoys. Turkey loves being the neighborhood bully, it always has, and its favorable geographic location has historically legitimized its aggressive strong-hand policies, since so many nations who turn a blind eye are dependent on utilizing Turkey’s location to their advantages–geostrategically and economically.

A now largely symbolic closure of the Armenian-Turkish border in no way hampers business being conducted between Turkish and Armenian businessman–on the contrary, Turkish goods completely flood the marketplace and have been predominant for years. There isn’t a sector of Armenian business where Turkish products cannot be found in ample, not to mention cheap supply. And that supply is not going to end when the US president says “genocide.” Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan will huff and puff for a week and calm down because he will have no other choice but to. Turkey needs its western neighbors just as much as they need it. And Turks enjoy making money off Armenian consumers.

Then, debate about not only atrocities committed against the Armenians but against Assyrians, Greeks and others will also rise to the surface. The Turkish government will need to address them all in kind and atone for its sins, just like the schoolyard bully after being called into the principal’s office for beating one too many kids. Turkey needs to understand that it cannot be the bully forever, that it needs to be humbled. The US president’s use of “genocide” in his annual address will start that transformation. There is no need to fear that the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process will be jeopardized–Turkey has already seen to it, being the regional antagonist that it is. President Obama’s use of the “G-word” will only jump-start that process and ensure that it doesn’t stall again. And it has to happen now.

I often hear or read about people’s experiences when visiting Eastern Turkey, or more accurately although perhaps not “politically correct,” Western Armenia. Some tell me that they want to go, just to visit although they have no roots there, or to find the villages where their grandparents were born. I’ve recently learned that the obscure village where the Russian clan once thrived, called Sursury situated on the fringes of Kharpert (now Elazig) still exists. My grandfather, Hagop Russian, was born in that village. When I visited the Kharpert Museum of New Kharpert which is just beyond (or now barely within) Yerevan’s city limits, five years ago with my parents, we were surprised to learn that an Armenian monastery had once existed there.

I want to find it, just as I want to explore the village’s streets and perhaps, based on the few clues at my disposal, find the house where my grandfather was born, or else the location of it. I want to run a handful of soil of that land between my fingers, and plant a tree in honor of the fallen Russians. But I won’t, so long as the Turkish government fails to recognize the Armenian Genocide and stop its antagonistic, narrow-sighted state policy that is based on deceit, denial and the spilled blood of innocents once and for all. I will continue to distrust any Turkish citizen, no matter how sincere his overture of accepting the legitimacy of  the Armenian Genocide. I want to hear the Turkish government tell the world, and to acknowledge the Armenian historical presence on those lands. Until that happens, I don’t care if the border opens or not, and I won’t step foot into a land where my ancestors were unwanted and annihilated.

The Armenian Genocide is a historical issue as much as it is a political one. These days the recognition of its occurrence is certainly an issue left chiefly to politicians to resolve. If Western powers–especially the US–expect the region to transform and for Turkey as de Waal hopes as well as many others to become a “neutral player” in the region–whatever that is supposed to mean–and for peace (not to mention lucrative commerce) to prevail, the Genocide must be officially recognized by the Turkish government, there’s simply no other way for reconciliation to happen between Turkey and Armenia.

Good neighborly relations are based on trust, and Turkey has presented absolutely no indicators that it can be sincerely trusted by Armenia or any Armenians in its Diaspora before or since the protocols were signed. And as we all know, without trust, there is no peace.