The debates and tensions that very often characterize the interactions between the Turkish and Armenian peoples do not easily fit into frameworks adopted by studies of international affairs. One problem is that of identifying specific actors: states, diasporas, community-level and international organizations, religious bodies, individuals, broader regional or global players and trends. A second problem is identifying what is at stake: moral, ethical, or religious principles, core hard power interests, legal disputes, economic calculations. The complexity of the case challenges any single approach to analysis but at the same time offers the opportunity for multiple points of view to bring forward meaningful insights. This study uses narratives as a source and as a method.
Narrative moved out of its realm of literature and the arts and began to be applied to the social sciences during the 1970s and 1980s. It provided an alternative to the more rigid theoretical frameworks that reflected natural science methodologies. Accounting for a phenomenon through narrative allows for more personal, more subjective points of view. This is problematic for objective analysis, but can nevertheless prove to be useful for a more comprehensive understanding. In the case of Turkish-Armenian relations, there are no current immediate security threats, no reasonable expectations of hostilities between the two states, much less between dispersed peoples, nor are there any living participants of the most significant episode in Turkish-Armenian relations, namely the Armenian Genocide. Instead, it is the public memory of 1915 in Turkey, in Armenia, and around the world that most deeply informs inter-personal, inter-communal, and inter-state relations regionally and globally. If there is to be any resolution and lasting reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples, it will begin at the level of the narrative.
If there is to be any resolution and lasting reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples, it will begin at the level of the narrative.
For the purposes of this study, narrative is defined as, “Current perceptions and assessments in the general public in accounting for and interpreting historical events and in establishing cause-and-effect relationships that explain and justify current realities while also setting expectations for future trends.” This study uses official publications to present the dominant Turkish and Armenian narratives as systematically as possible, supplemented by interviews with 15 individuals from the political, diplomatic, and academic spheres.
One conclusion from the juxtaposition carried out in the study is that the dominant Turkish and Armenian narratives both fall within nationalist frameworks that strongly reflect one another. Both deeply value their ethno-national identity and strive to achieve or consolidate statehood as the ultimate expression of that identity. Both perceive themselves as victims and as survivors in that process, having been duped by the self-interested Western world. This similar prism of accounting for history may in fact serve as a meaningful basis for the two peoples to understand the perspectives of one other.
Both Turkish and Armenian narratives also do not dwell much on the experiences of the Muslims of the Balkans and the Caucasus who likewise underwent the same processes as did the Armenians and others in 1915. Giving a greater place in the public memory for those victims may likewise serve as a basis for empathy – even though the potential of damaging relations with Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, or others and watering down the Armenian experience would not sit well with Turkish and Armenian nationalists respectively.
There are a number of factors at play in the complex history of that period, some episodes of which still require further research, for example, the exact demographics of Anatolia and Asia Minor during the turn of the 20th century, the effects of the Balkan Wars and the role that Armenians and other minorities played in them, and the participation of Armenians and other minorities in fighting for the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, such as at Çanakkale/Gallipoli, to name just a few. Other experiences of narrative building and narrative shift could likewise be researched and applied to the Turkish and Armenian case, such as relations between Turkey and Greece, or the public memory and policies regarding the experience of native populations in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, or, even more broadly, narratives of former imperial powers in post-colonial societies.
The Turkish narrative ignores or downplays voluminous research on the Armenian Genocide and such significant episodes as the massacres of 1894-1896 and 1909. The Armenian narrative circumvents Armenian terrorist groups and militias in the run-up to the First World War and armed actions later on, in the Caucasus, Cilicia, and elsewhere, as well as the more recent acts of violence aimed mostly at Turkish diplomats during the 1970s and 1980s.
One conclusion from the juxtaposition carried out in the study is that the dominant Turkish and Armenian narratives both fall within nationalist frameworks that strongly reflect one another.
If there were to be a narrative shared by the Turkish and Armenian peoples, this study suggests a few key elements: non-violent nationalism; non-intervention by external actors, especially from the West; less focus on the word “genocide”; more acknowledgement of the experiences of the Balkans and Caucasus Muslims and non-Armenian minorities of the Ottoman Empire; re-assessments of individuals and episodes based on new, objective research; meaningful future public commemorations. One possible scenario could be a shared narrative in which the Turkish and Armenian sides maintain conflicting accounts, but in which both interpretations are well-known to both parties at the same time, enough to form a basis for a working, civil relationship moving forward.
Ultimately, a shared public memory of the Turkish and Armenian peoples about the other must be comprehensive and nuanced. This is a tall order due to the complex nature of the case and because narratives tend to be rather simple, black-and-white affairs. Whereas there have indeed been noticeable shifts in both the Turkish and Armenian narratives over the past decade and more – such that the phrase “Armenian Genocide” has become less taboo in Turkey and the Armenian emphasis on victimhood has been replaced by stronger calls for justice within a discourse of righteous indignation – regional political dynamics are currently not conducive to promoting a trend of a comprehensive and nuanced public memory, which would in any case take some generations to accomplish.
* The above is an edited version of the executive summary of a study entitled, “The Clash of Turkish and Armenian Narratives: The Imperative for a Comprehensive and Nuanced Public Memory” carried out at Istanbul Policy Center (IPC), Sabancı University, from November 2016 to February 2017. The full report is available at the following link: http://ipc.sabanciuniv.edu/publication/turk-ve-ermeni-hikayelerinin-catismasi-kapsamli-ve-incelikli-toplumsal-hafiza-icin-mecburiyetler/?lang=en. The publication was made possible thanks to the support of the Turkey-Armenia Fellowship Scheme established by the Hrant Dink Foundation within the framework of the programme Support to the Armenia-Turkey Normalisation Process – Stage II financed by the European Union.