ASIA MINOR AND THE CAUCASUS AT THE CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATIONS: ARMENIAN-TURKISH QUESTION IN THE NEW AGE
Mikael Airapetian, Chairman, Conservative Party of Armenia (Erevan, Armenia)
Russians came to the Caucasus in the late 18th century and made it a more turbulent place—it has remained a very unstable region till our days. The Russian Empire exploited the factor of a common religion (Armenians adopted Christianity at the state level in 301) to turn the Armenians (who lost their statehood in 1045 and stopped thinking of themselves as a state) into the main carriers of its interests in the Middle East and set the Muslims against them. This policy continued during World War I and the postwar decade that ended in genocide in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians’ national tragedy. Today, the same policies have led local peoples into an impasse.
Nearly all Armenian political thinkers were caught in the web of Russian imperial intrigues while those who warned about the danger of this course were branded as antipatriotic. This is still practiced.
Western Armenia called Eastern Anatolia by the Turks and Kurdistan by the Kurds was the place where the interests of the two empires—the Russian and the Ottoman—clashed. At all times it was a land of Armenians, a vitally important place for them, and their vital interests there met with the interests of Russia, Turkey, European states and other regional countries. The Armenian question surfaced at the talks with Sultan Abdul Hamid on the Palestinian Autonomy.1 The sultan naturally declined the idea yet was very much attracted by another one: a railway between Berlin and Baghdad because, according to the preliminary project, the adjacent areas had to be peopled with deported Armenians. Turkey could have agreed to this even if indirectly because it needed stability along its eastern borders, while Russia2 could have accepted the plan because it always needed access to warm seas. On top of this it had already had a plan of settling Cossacks on these lands. Europe also needed the railway for economic and geopolitical reasons. The plans were never completely realized yet the idea of deportation of Armenians struck root and was later successfully exploited by the Russian Empire.
In 1908, the Young Turks deposed the sultan; Armenian revolutionaries were also involved in the coup.3 The Young Turks were mainly supported by the non-Turkish elements of the empire while the Turks themselves secretly or even openly protested4 despite all sorts of pan-Turkic nationalist slogans brandished by the Young Turks. It was the mine that could destroy the empire from within with the help of ethnic minorities and the Young Turks’ domestic and foreign policies.
Turkey was a huge empire mainly British-oriented; in World War I it suddenly found itself on the side of doomed Germany. Armenians that for many centuries remained deprived of their statehood were aware of this; this was even much clearer to the Turkish politicians with nearly five centuries of the experience and traditions of statehood behind them as well as to the political establishments of Europe and Russia. This was the “oration” that the Young Turks delivered at the Ottoman Empire’s “graveside” in cold blood. It was at that period that the Armenian revolutionary Dashnaktsutiun Party moved to the second place where its influence in Turkey was concerned after the ruling Unity and Progress Party of the Young Turks and kept it until the 1915 genocide.
In the first war year Turkey was suffering ignominious defeats at all fronts. Its army that consisted mainly of Turks suffered huge losses; the male part of the empire’s ethnic minorities survived (with the exception of two or three thousand Armenian soldiers who had joined the army at the call of the Armenian revolutionaries; having used them in construction units Turks killed off nearly all of them in the very first year of the war). The Young Turks who started genocide proved unable (with rare exceptions) to dispatch regular army units to suppress Armenian resistance.5 The task was entrusted to local gendarmes and plundering Kurds.
By 1916 the Kurds and other nearly wild tribes almost completed what the Young Turks had planned. The number of Armenians who escaped the massacre and reached the Arabian deserts was enough to serve the railway. This excluded all possibility of their coming back after the war and claiming their property. Russian troops that were moving ahead in the Caucasus never met any resistance and stopped just in time and as if by chance to let the Kurds complete the massacre or push the Armenians out.6 Those who had defended Sasun, survived, and escaped across the Russo-Turkish front wrote about this later. The Armenian volunteer units who fought in the Russian army were strictly banned to help their compatriots. Many of those who had pinned their hopes on the Entente and especially on Russia left written testimonies of this.
At that time the number of Armenians fighting in the Russian Army was so great that the commanders had to move many of them to the German front; on the whole, nearly 500 thou Armenian volunteers were fighting in the ranks of the Russian and other armies of the Entente. Even one-third of them would have been able to stabilize the Caucasian front and offer stanch resistance that would have allowed Armenians to prevent genocide at least in Western Armenia (Armenians were massacred across the entire Asian part of the Ottoman Empire).
While the Young Turks destroyed Armenians or deported them so that to move the postwar borders Russia hoped to settle Cossacks on the vacated lands. Ruben Ter-Simonian, Defense Minister of the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920) who was also a prominent Dashnak politician, had the following to say on this score: “Russia needed the massacre of Armenians that damaged Turkey’s and Armenian interests.” I regret to say that these words never attracted much attention from Armenian political thinkers. What is more, starting with the 1950s the Dashnaktsutiun Party demonstratively moved to an opposite position.
It was with the help of the Kurds that the Young Turks planted in Armenian hearts hatred of Turks and burdened their own nation with an ignominious label of the state guilty of genocide.
No wonder that after World War I it was the Armenians and Turkey that found themselves in the worst situation. There were no Armenians in Western Armenia while Turkey was left with a small patch of land around Ankara—its continued existence depended on the great powers. The demographic “explosion” among the Kurds was another natural consequence: today they have completely settled the former West Armenian lands.7
It was after the war that the entire monstrosity of this plan became clear: a Kurdish (short-lived) state was set up in the north of contemporary Iraq while the Middle Eastern territories detached from Turkey had to change their borders
One can say that both Armenia and Turkey fell victim to others8—this has been repeated among Armenians in various variants yet some hidden force turned the victims into enemies. There are sober-minded people in Turkey who are aware of this yet the psychological barriers are too high to wholeheartedly accept the fact and start looking for a way out. Two obvious solutions are insulting for both nations—either to swallow the poison and continue living in mutual mistrust or consign the past to oblivion. I am convinced that there is a third way out.
Today, nearly 90 years after the tragedy Armenian economy is being seriously undermined by the blockade organized by Turkey and Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan. Ankara also suffers—all its attempts to join European and world economic unions are rebuffed with reminders about the crimes perpetrated by the Young Turks. What is more, the world community is growing accustomed to an image of barbarian Turks though many know that being tied down at the fronts they played much lesser role in the genocide than the Kurds, Chette and other ethnic minorities drawn, against their will, into the wave of massacre, violence, and plunder.9
On the other hand, Ankara does not profit from the blockade of Erevan in the same way as Armenia gains nothing from Turkey’s tainted reputation and the barriers that slow down its economic development. Today, a third country, Azerbaijan has emerged on the scene. Turkey’s biased defense of it makes the barriers still higher10 and creates another problem for the young Armenian Republic that seeks understanding with its South Caucasian neighbors. The Turks cannot conquer their mistrust of the Armenians while Armenians cannot trust the Turks. Many other nations are exploiting this complex rooted in the past while the sides turn out to be the losers.
The policies pursued by the Russian Empire left behind numerous “delay action mines” (the Karabakh issue being one of them) that exploded over the heads of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia when these republics re-discovered their sovereignty. It is thanks to these confrontations that Russia is still preserving its destructive presence in the Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan have paid for it with six years of Karabakh war, a nearly total economic collapse, at least 30 percent of migrants, huge numbers of refugees and considerable lagging behind the world democratic processes. In Georgia Russia’s presence called to life an armed confrontation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia that is several years old now, and an inevitable economic collapse. Because of all this the three nations had to postpone building up their common Caucasian home that alone can give them security and promote their development. Today, Armenia is doomed to supporting Russia’s military presence in the region though it manages at the same time to guide itself by Western values to a greater extent than before. Georgia and Azerbaijan had to pay with parts of their territories to get rid of Russia’s military presence—though today, they fell victim to Russia’s even greater geocultural influence more dangerous to the Caucasian nations.
Time has come for the Turks and Armenians to realize that today the word “border” had acquired a new meaning—the new era will resolve the problems of Cyprus, Karabakh and other similar problems in a new way—and that the old solutions were prompted by the logic of different world order. The old solutions both just and unjust, correct or wrong, worked within a different system of values. The borders of future will have no barbed wire, troops and other garbage. The problem of Cyprus and Nagorny Karabakh is urgent for Turkey, Armenia, and Greece but it does not belong to the new century. The new century will have to equate the speeds and those who fail to grasp this will be destroyed by these great speeds. Speed has no similar problems therefore an understanding of this starts with a global approach, with the selection of priorities and formulating the problem. In the old world the problem is complicated by the fact that the logic of new politics has not yet been fully comprehended though everybody are talking about integration and globalization. Those who fail to understand these processes fear new civilization and expect that globalization as a black hole of sorts will destroy their ethnic originality. Meanwhile, new civilization has nothing to do with ethnic originality and, therefore, will not destroy it. One can even say that this originality should receive a new interpretation to become one of the key features of new civilization. It will never become its gunnery target. Objectively, Armenians and Turks are gripped by this vague fear. While the developed European countries will overcome it in the relatively short span of time Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and other nations that failed to completely realize the “nation-state” model in the old civilization should display determination and courage to reassess the idea of a “citizen.”
Here is a concise explanation of the above. When the Turks came to settle in Western Asia it was their Ottoman Empire that replaced Armenia at the crossroads of civilizations. When the Turks abandoned their nomadic way of life and peopled the territories settled by Armenians the two ethnoses became rivals: both claimed the role of a link between civilizations. Being obviously inferior in everything, especially in culture, the Turks had one decisive advantage—the state. Until the 1915 genocide the Turks and Armenians competed for this role; after World War I when Western Armenia lost Armenians and Kemal Atatürk opted for a secular state—a western model that has survived till our days—Turkey and Turks (and Kurds together with them) assumed the role of a link between civilizations that for nearly two thousand years had belonged to Armenia and Armenians. Today, Europe rejects Turkey as an Asian state (or accepts it as its part with reservations) while Asia rejects Ankara as part of Europe (or accepts it as its part with reservations). Moreover, the Muslim world rejects Turkey because of its secular nature.
Armenia and the Armenians were doomed to choose their civilization once more in the 2nd-4th centuries A.D. when they adopted Christianity at the state level in 301: the kindred Indo-Iranians regarded them as traitors while Christian Greeks and Romans as Asian Indo-Iranians. Official Turkey has seemingly opted for the Western values (Armenia did this in 301). Today Ankara is facing similar tasks—history seems to repeat itself after a gap of over 1,500 years. So far Turkey is in a favorable position because when making the choice in 1918-1923 it had no mighty neighbors that Armenians had had—Persia and Byzantium. On the other hand, Turkey found itself in a more sensitive situation because over 1,500 years ago when Armenians had chosen Western values the region was nearly monoethnic. Turkey made its choice when Turks in the vast outlaying regions were outnumbered by Kurds who had ethnic interests of their own. It seems that Kemal Atatürk took this into consideration when in the 1920s he settled the former Armenian territories with Muslims from the Balkans to outbalance the Kurds. Time has shown that this was in vain: as carriers of the European Islamic traditions the Balkan Muslims failed to create a demographic explosion. For certain objective reasons when dealing with the Kurds Ankara cannot copy the Young Turks who resolved the Armenian question through massacre. Turkey has no choice but to integrate into all European structures and Europe in general (it has already joined NATO and the Council of Europe). However all its attempts to do so revive the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the present Kurdish question. The country is caught in a vicious circle and has to repeat the fate of the Armenians by serving as a link between civilizations.
Let’s have another glimpse of the past that offers the key to the present. After World War I Armenia became an enclave state because of its geographic location and new geopolitical realities while Turkey with its polyethnic population, having seized a territory at the crossroads of civilizations and being a sea power with a small part of Europe at its disposal had to face the entire range of problems typical of the region. One cannot exclude a possibility that while trying to cope with them the Turks will repeat the Armenians’ tragic fate. Today, Turkey’s huge foreign debt hints at a similar financial and economic dependence Armenia experienced in its time when Persia and Rome limited its economic and foreign policy independence. Today, globalization is altering the concepts of an enclave state or a state in outlaying areas, makes them relative and even conventional yet not of secondary importance. Today we have to study similar tasks to reasonably correct the urgent geopolitical interests of both Turkey and Armenia.
Many peoples (but not Turks and Armenians) have realized that though their languages belong to different linguistic groups they are fairly close ethnically as well as culturally.11 These peoples living at the crossroads of civilizations share the present and future yet not a single Armenian and not a single Turk asked himself: Why have the belligerent and not numerous Turkic tribes that came to the region in the Middle Ages and mixed with the about 10m-strong local people (mainly Armenians and partly Greeks) developed into a nation with no outward similarity with the linguistically close groups (Turkmens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, etc.) yet with strong typological closeness to Armenians? There is another question: Why do common people in Armenia (to say nothing of the Armenians of the Middle East) are easily excited by Turkish music and never misses a change to accuse the Turks of stealing Armenian tunes while Armenian musicians when performing in European states with numerous Turkish and Kurdish diasporas are hailed by them as their ethnic singers? How did it happen that according to Turkish and Armenian sources it was Armenians who had founded in Istanbul a Turkish theater and other seats of culture that the Turks today count as their own? Why do contemporary Kurdish maps call Kurdistan the area known as Western Armenia among the Armenians and Eastern Anatolia among the Turks? Which problems will the local nations have to cope with especially after the Saddam Hussein problem is resolved? Where will the boundary between Armenia and Europe run when Turkey joins the European Union and how will the South Caucasian and Turkish sub-regions respond to Russia’s continued influence in Armenia?
Time will probably come when common features rather than distinctions will move to the center of attention. If Turks and Armenians fail to do this today of their own free will globalization will force them to do this tomorrow in a very civilized way. It is impossible to stay long in the stifling economic and social nearly medieval atmosphere while the civilized world is enjoying freedom. The Armenians who refuse to respond to the call of the day (because they are two proud of their cultural superiority) will soon find themselves at the roadside; their absence from the civilized world will reduce to naught their culture and will deprive them of the honorable duty to develop it. The Turks who are so proud of their strong army will live to see how the source of their pride will topple down—the source of pride created not by their fairly weak economy or a handful of ethnic factors but by sober accounting for world realities the foundation of which was laid down by Kemal Atatürk. Several thousand years ago it was said: Nature abhors a vacuum. If Armenians and Turks refuse to take the place that belongs to them others will come to fill the vacuum no matter how old is the splendid Armenian culture and how many tens of millions of Turks are living in the world. Neither culture nor numerical strength can ensure a place in the sun in the world that is turning global. The destinies of Turkey and Armenia are intertwined while their mutual dislike endanger the future of both nations and their neighbors. No matter how ardently the Turks try to convince themselves that their national destiny is associated with the future of the Azeris or any other Turkic-speaking nation, no matter how faithfully Armenians believe that their future is linked to Russia12 (this has already produced tragic results) or to any other state these two nations are tied together by the contemporary logic of a single world. Marginal groups of the adepts of pan-Turkism or the Greater Armenia “stretching from sea to sea” will never disappear.
I am convinced that very soon the most advanced countries of the globalized world will give both nations the last possibility of getting rid of mutual mistrust. This last chance will take a form of an absence of investments in their economies and wide-scale economic programs if both countries do not receive equal amounts of money. It is the Western way of forcing the two nations to put an end to their tacit confrontation otherwise they would have ceded their place to other, more viable and pliable ethnic groups.
Regrettably, neither the Turkish nor the Armenian side has made the first step in the right direction. The Turks, for example, who have taken a very rigid position on the Cyprus and Karabakh issues are trying to haggle over the Iraqi issue. The Armenians have also tightened their position and threatened to increase Russia’s military and economic presence in the region. Meanwhile, on the day when the regime of Saddam Hussein falls the United States will no longer need its military bases in Turkey; the Kurdish question in Iraq will be resolved: the local Kurds have close ethnic ties with the Iranian and Turkish Kurds. What arguments will be left to the head of the Turkish part of Cyprus or the present Islamist leaders of Turkey who claim that they will be prepared to establish diplomatic and economic relations with Armenia if it drops its claims to Nagorny Karabakh populated with Armenians and stops insisting on Turkey’s admission of the 1915 genocide? Time will come when Russia becomes unable to blast gas pipelines and blame the blasts on Chechen fighters or to use other instruments of putting pressure on Georgia, and when it loses all instruments of its presence in the Caucasus. How will the present rulers of Armenia justify themselves: they have given Russia 40 percent of the energy complex, a key to the country’s national security, and many other important objects? Time will come when the West tired of Turkish and Armenian intransigence has to use its former methods shelved because of the Bolshevist revolution that take account of new demographic rather than geopolitical realities. What options will be left to those who are still playing at “firmness” when they are confronted with a threat of recarving the local maps: will they go at war against the international community?
Time is short and decisions should be sought in other spheres: the intellectuals and politicians of both nations are not wise enough to start moving toward each other. No matter how psychologically hard these steps are they should be made otherwise Armenia and Turkey will be once more left outside civilization. This means that in the globalization age both nations will at best remain nations of secondary importance still living in the Middle Ages no matter how ardently they are trying to convince themselves and the world around them that they are part of world civilization.
1 See: Leo, Iz proshlogo, Erevan, 1925.
2 See: S.M. Soloviev, Chteniia i rasskazy po istorii Rossii, Moscow, 1989, pp. 695-738.
3 See: Genotsid armian, soglasno dokumentam sudebnogo razbiratel’stva mladoturok, 1988; Dzh. Kirakosian, Mladoturki pered sudom istorii, Book A, Erevan, 1982; L. Chormisian, Partii, Beirut, 1965; M. Varandian, Istoria Dashnakstva, Erevan, 1992; B. Ogandzhanian, Dashnakstvo bez maski, Erevan, 1980.
4 See: S. Lurie, Metamorfozy traditsionnogo soznania, St. Petersburg, 1994, pp. 99-124.
5 See: Ruben, Vospominania armianskogo revoliutsionera, Tehran, 1982.
7 At that time there was hardly more than half a million Kurds—today there are over 40 millions of them across the world, half of them live in Turkey and comprise some 30 to 40 percent of its entire population.
8 See works by Ruben and Leo.
9 See: S. Pogosian, Ocherki istorii Zapadnoi Armenii, Erevan, 1990; Misak Metsarents i Daniel Varuzhan v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, Erevan, 1986.
10 See: L. Ter-Petrossian, Voina ili mir, Erevan, 2001.
11 See: F. Nansen, Armenia i Blizhnii Vostok, Erevan, 1993.
12 See: R. Darbinian, Russkaia ugroza, Erevan, 1991; S. Vratsian, Respublika Armenia, Erevan, 1993.