Archive for May, 2008

NYC: Armenians and Progressive Politics, May 30-31, 2008

As I have mentioned before, I will be on a panel discussing the post-election unrest in Armenia this weekend. I hope I will meet some of you in New York during the symposium. For those of you who cannot attend, below is an abstract of my talk:

When Armenia erupted in violence earlier this year, many were hesitant to believe reports of deaths and destruction. Few expected violence in a tiny republic that has been harshly affected by an ongoing economic blockade and a recent war with neighboring Azerbaijan.


But the assumption that Armenians are united given their collective experience of oppression was challenged on the streets of Yerevan. With cries for “Justice,” many Armenians in their homeland protested corruption and a perceived conspiracy by government officials, most of whom were from the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Armenians in the Diaspora, concerned with their historic homelands image and national security, viewed the movement as one destabilizing Armenia.


While it is correctly argued that many of the protestors hoped to receive personal gain by supporting the opposition, the Levon Ter-Petrosyan team for many others seemed to be a medium to express outrage against unaccountable and unresponsive government. The opposition was the mean and not the end. Conversely, much of the outcry has been expressed in regional hatred, raising the question whether injustice can bring about justice.

More specifically, one wonders whether a government can change without a change in the society. What’s the relationship between institutions and the society? Which one holds the lead in transforming politics and traditions?

Turkey: Some Armenians Demand Property Return

According to Asbarez:

Armenian residents from Batman province in Turkey have begun demanding assets–churches and cemeteries–which have been abandoned since 1915.

The Istanbul-based Sassoun Armenian Relief and Cultural Society, whose members are descendents of Armenians from Batman, Bitlis, Moush and Van has begun a movement to reclaims Armenian churches, cemeteries and other assets.

Established in 2006, the organization’s has begun researching real estate deed registries to pinpoint the said assets, announced the organization’s president Aziz Daghc. “The organization was established in Istanbul, since government officials are more willing to work with non-Muslims,” said Daghc.

These abandoned assets have either been confiscated by the state and are being used for various purposes or have been sold to third parties. The organization is meticulously researching each asset to approach the proper entities for their return to the community.

For example, in the Batman province, efforts are underway to have control signed over to the Armenian community of the Gomg Church, which is being used as a barn, atop the Mareto Mountain and the Ardzvig village church and cemetery.

Daghc has sent an appeal to the proper authorities in Batman province pointing out that the region has no mechanism to defend the Armenian population, which regularly is under attack solely because of their national origin.

The appeal also cites provisions of the Lausanne Treaty, which call for the state to protect churches, cemeteries and other assets belonging to minorities and not purpose them for other uses or sell them to third parties.

Amberin Zaman in A1Plus

Reflecting widespread lack of objectivity and often uninformed journalism in Armenia, A1Plus has a story in which Amberin Zaman, Turkey’s and the region’s reporter for The Economist, is wrongly depicted as an apologist for the Turkish state. Describing a discussion between Zaman, who is of Turkish and Bangladeshi descent, and Turkish politician Cem Toker in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, A1Plus reports:


“Turkey proudly states that 99.9% of its population are Muslims. And where are the Armenians, Jews, Greeks? Why are they gone? Doesn’t it mean that something is definitely wrong? You can see the investments of the Armenian people while walking in Istambul. I am greatly displeased with Turkey’s attitude towards Armenians”, declares Toker.

Amber Zaman, a Turkish journalist, contradicted him in the description of the current situation in Turkey. Zaman, who introduced herself as a free journalist, is the wife of Joseph Penington, the US temporary Chargé d’Affaires in Armenia. Mrs. Zaman stated that Turkey’s steps towards Democracy are quite evident.

“Turkey still has much to do but it has made a great progress towards democracy lately. Ten years ago the Kurds were imprisoned simply for calling themselves Kurds. Whereas, today they are even allowed to have broadcasts in their mother tongue. Besides, the capital punishment has been abolished in my country. You give a tough assessment of the situation, Mr. Toker”, noticed Amber Zaman.


A1Plus only describes part of the conversation (and consistently misspells the journalist’s first name). Zaman, who is a good friend as I have mentioned before, has sent me and other pen pals the following e-mail. In Amberin Zaman’s words:

This article misrepresents the discussion that took place at the conference on Turkish-Armenian relations held in Yerevan last week.. It makes it sound as if I were defending the treatment of Armenians in Turkey.

Not in the least, I was merely responding to Cem Ozer’s portrayal of Turkey as a banana republic where elections are a total sham and there has been zero progress towards democracy.

Amazingly, he was in the same breath able to defend the closure case [by nationalist groups] against the [ruling Islamic party] AK on the grounds that it was a  way of restoring democracy!!!

This gentleman is the chairman of a party that stood up for Dogu Perincek, the ultra nationalist politician who made a point of publicly denying the genocide in Switzerland so that he could be prosecuted and draw attention to the Turkish “cause.”

Moreover, I  reminded the Turkish participants who chided Armenia for not embracing Turkey’s proposal for a historic commission that the proposal presupposed the  outcome of the research that would be undertaken that “there was no genocide”.

I also expressed my revulsion at [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan’s comments before the National Press Club in Washington that “we even gave the deportees pocket money.”

Finally, I noted that if the Turks thought that in establishing formal ties with Armenia, the diaspora would somehow disappear they were quite wrong,  that the past would not simply disappear and that it was wrong to view the diaspora as some monolithic bloc, that there was a plurality of views  within it.

I deplored the Turkish official efforts to portray the diaspora as  some “malevolent wedge” between Turkey and Armenia and reminded the Turkish participants that some 60 percent of Armenian citizens came from Anatolia too.

While I am not a believer in conspiracies, I suspect one reason behind A1Plus’ inaccurate and selective depiction of the conversion to be sexism. Firstly, Amberin Zaman is a young beautiful woman, and the stereotype in Armenia states that women (especially young and beautiful) are not as intelligent and capable as (especially older) men. Secondly, being the wife of the acting U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, she is expected to be obedient and, thus, behave and say things the way that her own husband is supposed to do (as any United States State Department employee who wants to keep their job under the Bush administration, her husband cannot afford to publicly talk about the Armenian Genocide).

A1Plus’ particular report also resonates with blind anti-Turkish sentiment in Armenia which sees any criticism of the Turkish state as “good.” While Turkey’s current Islamic establishment is not in any way pro-Armenian, nationalist “secular” forces who want to overthrow the current party in charge are far more radically anti-Armenian. Being “secular” in Turkey doesn’t mean believing in freedom of religion (and also in freedom not to be religious); “secular” in Turkey more than often means being fascist ultra-nationalist for whom believing in the greatness of “Turkishness” is more important than believing in any idea including God and spirituality.

A1Plus should write another, more objective and more informed story about the discussion. Amberin Zaman, with her articles in The Economist, has been telling stories of ignored parts of the Armenian Genocide. She is a courageous woman with an objective outlook and needs recognition for her efforts to bring Turkish and Armenian people together through writing.

Armenia: More Nasty Politics

Reflecting the prejudiced spirit of the post-election unrest in Armenia, nazarian has published a list of “unArmenians” that includes artists, academicians, bureaucrats, oligarchs and even some opposition leaders who are arguably supportive of the current establishment. 

Armenia: Nasty Politics

When, on March 1, 2008, a high school friend from Yerevan woke me up with text messages urging me to update Blogian, I asked him why he was involved in the opposition movement. His answer was that Robert Kocharyan (the president at the time who was going to be replaced by Serzh Sargsyan) was a Turk! My friend’s reference was to Kocharyan’s and Sargsyan’s origin in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Turkic Azerbaijan that sustained its independence through a bloody war in the 1990s. Ironically, my friend’s father also hails from Karabakh.

Days after ten people died on the streets, I asked my friend again why he was supporting Levon Ter-Petrosyan (Armenia’s first president and the current leader of the opposition). His answer was that he was fighting for freedom of speech.

While there is a sense of working for justice among people on either aisle of Armenia’s post-election conflict (pro-government people arguing for stability and opposition people arguing for more democracy), there has been an awful hatred in both sides. That hatred, unfortunately, doesn’t only show the division but implies prejudices in Armenia’s society – hating Turks, anti-Semitism, sexism and other kind of biases.

This morning, for instance, I received a fake photo (posted above) of Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan with a kippah with the Star of David on his hand. Ironically, I didn’t receive the photo from a teenager but from a self-perceived intellectual from Iran’s Armenian community (and a reader of this blog). While Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s wife is Jewish, attacks against the opposition have often used anti-Semitic remarks.

More ironically, a self-declared anarchist website, which loudly supports the opposition, also has fake photos depicting Armenia’s government not as Turks, despite the popular sentiment among opposition radicals, but as Nazis.


And Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s official blog posts an image by Ara Aslanyan that depicts Armenia’s current president Serzh Sargsyan’s chest as a vagina (suggesting that the president is a “pussy”). This is after the opposition’s strategy to use women in their protests.


Until Armenia’s society condemns this kind of racism and sexism, their work for justice is not going to prevail.

Human Rights Watch on Assault in Armenia

Via HRW:

(New York, May 22, 2008) – As part of their investigation into yesterday’s assault of a leading human rights defender, the Armenian authorities should investigate the extent to which the victim’s human rights work was a motive for the attack, Human Rights Watch said today. Mikael Danielian, the Chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Association, was wounded by an air gun on May 21, 2008 in Yerevan, the country’s capital. Danielian was not seriously wounded.

“The circumstances of the attack on Mikael Danielian suggest that his prominence as a human rights defender was a motive,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given this, the Armenian authorities must consider it as part of a thorough and objective investigation into the attack.”  
Danielian told Human Rights Watch that at approximately 3 p.m. on May 21, in the afternoon he was riding in a taxi in downtown Yerevan with two of his colleagues. When the taxi stopped at a traffic light, a car pulled up behind the taxi and started to vigorously honk. A young man, Tigran Urikhanian, the former leader of the Armenian Progressive Party, got out of the honking car and approached the taxi. When Urikhanian recognized Danielian, he began swearing at him and allegedly punched him through the open car window. Danielian then got out of the taxi and he and Urikhanian engaged in a serious argument. Danielian then claims that, without warning, Urikhanian shot him with an air gun that fires highly compressed air and is sometimes carried for self defense in Armenia and other countries. Danielian sustained light wounds on his chest and neck, and was treated for a sharp increase in his blood pressure by an ambulance arriving on the scene.  
Artur Sakunts, another human rights defender who arrived a few minutes after the altercation began, told Human Rights Watch that he witnessed Urikhanian verbally assault Danielian, calling him a spy and a “shame to Armenia,” because of his human rights work. Sakunts also witnessed Urikhanian and another man slap Danielian in the face again.  
Following the incident, Danielian was immediately taken to the central police station, where he gave a statement. The investigator in the case ordered a medical forensic examination of Danielian, which was carried out on May 22.  
Armenia faced a serious political and human rights crisis after the presidential elections of February 19, 2008. Armenian police used excessive force and violence to disperse peaceful demonstrators on Freedom Square in Yerevan in the early hours of March 1, while a violent clash between protesters and security forces later that evening left at least 10 people dead, including two security officials.  

South Caucasus: Cheese as Regional Reconciliation?

The Economist has an interesting article on an effort to push for a four-way, Armenian-Azeri-Georgian-Turkish dialogue, in the South Caucasus.

ON AN icy February morning a clutch of Turks and Armenians huddled in a hotel in Kars, with Turkish intelligence officials looking on. On May 14th their secret, a giant round of cheese, was unveiled in Gyumri, over the sealed border in Armenia. Under the label of “Caucasian cheese”, the yellow slab symbolises reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, and across the Caucasus.

The idea of a regional “peace” cheese (Georgia and Azerbaijan are involved too) met suspicion when mooted a year ago, says Alin Ozinian of the Turkish Armenian Business Development Council. “We didn’t know how the authorities would react,” said Zeki Aydin, a Turkish cheese producer, who made the ten-hour trip from Kars to Gyumri via Georgia. “We want our borders to be reopened, good neighbourly ties, so we took a chance,” said Ilhan Koculu, a fellow cheesemaker.

Vefa Ferejova, an Azeri campaigning to bury the hatchet with Armenia, was also there, saying “We are told to hate Armenians: I will not.” Armenia and Azerbaijan are at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh, a patch of land that Armenia wrested from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. This prompted Turkey to seal its border (but not air links) with Armenia in 1993. American-brokered peace talks have failed, and Azerbaijan now threatens to resort to force.

Yet there are hopeful signs that Turkey and Armenia may make up. Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, was among the first to congratulate Serzh Sarkisian, who became Armenia’s president in a tainted election in February. Unofficial talks to establish diplomatic ties could resume at any time. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the air. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party is under threat of closure by the constitutional court for allegedly wanting to bring in sharia law. AK‘s overtures to Armenia may be aimed at garnering some Western support.

Mr Sarkisian’s government is heading for trouble when gas prices double this winter. An end to Turkey’s blockade could temper popular unrest. But hawks in Turkey and Armenia can still count on Azerbaijan. Allegations that Armenia is sheltering Kurdish rebels have stirred anger in Turkey. Where did they come from? “The Azeri press,” snorts Mr Aydin. Even the best cheese cannot change everybody’s attitudes overnight.

EU: When Genocide Becomes “Past Events”

A commentary in Guardian discusses European Union’s recent refusal to refer to the Armenian genocide as such.

This week the European parliament will seek to introduce a new euphemism for genocide into the lexicon of international relations. Diplomats who follow MEPs’ advice will no longer have to run the risk of offending countries with a dishonourable history by uttering the ‘g’ word. They can, instead, refer to the most egregious crimes against humanity as “past events”.

That is the phrase our fearless elected representatives use in a report they are about to formally endorse on Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. Although it advocates a “frank and open discussion” between Turkey and Armenia about “past events”, the report is anything but frank and open about what those events could be.

In the absence of more explicit guidance, I can only assume the “events” in question were the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915. There is ample evidence to suggest that this was the 20th century’s first holocaust and that it partly inspired the efforts to exterminate Europe’s Jews that Hitler initiated two decades later. No less a personage than Winston Churchill described the “massacring of uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians, men, women and children together, whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust”. Political bodies across the world have passed resolutions recognising that a genocide occurred, including the European parliament itself back in 1987 (a fact conveniently omitted from the new report).


And is it too much to ask from our elected representatives that they call a spade a spade and a genocide a genocide?

Azerbaijan: The Genocide Game

Given Azerbaijan’s linguistic exercise on the word genocide in their anti-Armenian rhetoric, it is interesting to come across to some Azeris who do not deny the Armenian Genocide.

In a private communication with a YouTube member from Baku, who originally contacted me asking why Armenians like Azeri music, I discussed nationalism suggesting that fascism hurts – and doesn’t help – Azerbaijan.  Interestingly, the user invited me to meet with him (not even bothering to tell me his name after I introduced myself) but changed the subject when I asked why. As further communication revealed my pen pal’s ultra-nationalism, although he (unlike official Azerbaijan) didn’t deny the destruction of Djulfa, I told him that nationalists are not true patriots to any country.

After the YouTube member (whom I will keep anonymous out of respect of privacy) said he was not xenophobic but feared that “in the next 20 years my country will cease to exsist” because of Armenian territorial claims, I compared his analysis to Russian skinheads who kill Azeris and Armenians in Moscow in the name of patriotism.

In his next e-mail, he became inconsistent and said that if “Armenian Dashnaks” try to attack AzerbaijanTurkey will be on [Armenia] like there is no tomorrow, and iam sure you know that the Turks are very infamous 🙂 .”

This is at least the second time when in private communication an Armenian-hater (who’d conventionally deny the Armenian Genocide) is indirectly recognizing the Genocide. That “recognition” is usually in the form of threats reminding what has happened before.

This indirect “recognition” by ultra-nationalists shows that not every denier of the Armenian Genocide truly believes that it never happened.

Azerbaijan: Linguistic Exercise of Genocide

Ara Sanjian has an interesting summary analysis of Azerbaijan’s growing denial of the Armenian Genocide and the misuse of the word “genocide” in many aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

While the continuing struggle between Armenian and Turkish officials and activists for or against the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 shows no sign of abating, and while its dynamics are becoming largely predictable, a new actor is increasingly attracting attention for its willingness to join this “game.” It is Azerbaijan, which has—since 1988—been engaged in at times lethal conflict with Armenians over Mountainous Karabagh.

In modern times, Armenians have often found it difficult to decide whether they should view the Turks (of Turkey) and the Azerbaijanis as two separate ethnic groups—and thus apply two mutually independent policies towards them—or whether they should approach them as only two of the many branches of a single, pan-Turkic entity, pursuing a common, long-term political objective, which would—if successful—end up with the annihilation of Armenians in their historical homeland.

Indeed, almost at the same time that the Armenian Question in the Ottoman Empire was attracting worldwide attention, extensive clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis first occurred in Transcaucasia in 1905. Clashes—accompanied, on this occasion, with attempts at ethnic cleansing—resumed with heightened intensity after the collapse of tsarism in 1917. They were suppressed only in 1921, by the Russian-dominated communist regime, which reasserted control over Transaucasia, forced Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to join the Soviet Union, and imposed itself as the judge in the territorial disputes that had plagued these nations. The communists eventually endorsed Zangezur as part of Armenia, while allocating Nakhichevan and Mountainous Karabagh to Azerbaijan. This arrangement satisfied neither side. A low-intensity Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle persisted during the next decades within the limits permitted by the Soviet system. Repeated Armenian attempts to detach Mountainous Karabagh from Azerbaijan were its most visible manifestation.


Hence, it is still difficult to know what Soviet Azerbaijani historians thought about the Armenian Genocide of 1915: Were they more sympathetic to arguments produced by Soviet Armenian historians or those who had the blessing of the authorities in Ankara? The polemic between Soviet Armenian and Soviet Azerbaijani historians centered from the mid-1960’s on the legacy of Caucasian Albania. A theory developed in Soviet Azerbaijan assumed that the once Christian Caucasian Albanians were the ancestors of the modern-day Muslim Azerbaijanis. Thereafter, all Christian monuments in Soviet Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan (including all medieval Armenian churches, monasteries and cross-stones, which constituted the vast majority of these monuments) were declared to be Caucasian Albanian and, hence, Azerbaijani. Medieval Armenians were openly accused of forcibly assimilating the Caucasian Albanians and laying claim to their architectural monuments and works of literature. This was probably the closest that Soviet Azerbaijanis came—in print—to formally accusing the Armenians of committing genocide against their (Caucasian Albanian) ancestors.

Since 1988, however, as the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Mountainous Karabagh has gotten bloodier and increasingly intractable, the Azerbaijani positions on both negating the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and accusing Armenians of having themselves committed a genocide against the Azerbaijanis have become more pronounced and now receive full backing from all state institutions, including the country’s last two presidents, Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijani officials, politicians, and wide sections of civil society, including the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, Sheikh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazada, as well as numerous associations in the Azerbaijani diaspora, now fully identify themselves with Turkey’s official position that the Armenian Genocide is simply a lie, intentionally fabricated in pursuit of sinister political goals. Even representatives of the Georgian, Jewish, and Udi ethnic communities in Azerbaijan have joined the effort. Unlike in Turkey, there is not yet a visible minority in Azerbaijan that openly disagrees with their government’s stand on this issue. This probably explains the absence of the Azerbaijani judiciary in the campaign to deny the 1915 genocide. If there are officials or intellectuals who remain unconvinced with this theory propagated by their government, it seems that they still prefer to keep a very low profile.


Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation against the Armenian Genocide recognition campaign is also evident among the Turkish and Azerbaijani expatriate communities in Europe and the United States. Indeed, some of the demonstrations mentioned above as the activities of the Azerbaijani diaspora were organized in conjunction with local Turkish organizations. Within Turkey, among the Igdir, Kars, and Erzerum residents, who consider themselves victims of an Armenian-perpetrated genocide, and who filed a lawsuit against the novelist Orhan Pamuk in June 2006, were also ethnic Azerbaijanis; their ancestors had moved from territories now part of Armenia.

Azerbaijanis, like Turks, are very interested in having the Jews as allies in their struggle against the Armenian Genocide recognition campaign. Like Turks, Azerbaijanis do not question the Holocaust. However, they liken the Armenians to its perpetrators—the Nazis—and not its victims—the Jews—as is the case among Holocaust and genocide scholars. The Azerbaijanis argue that Jews should join their efforts to foil Armenian attempts at genocide recognition because there was also a genocide perpetrated by Armenians against Jews in Azerbaijan, at the time of the genocide against Azerbaijanis in the early 20th century. They repeatedly state that several thousand Jews died then because of Armenian cruelty. The support of Jewish residents of Ujun (Germany) to public events organized by the local Azerbaijanis was attributed to their being provided with documents that listed 87 Jews murdered by Armenians in Guba (Azerbaijan) in 1918.(7)

Yevda Abramov, currently the only Jewish member of the Azerbaijani parliament, is prominent in pushing for such joint Azerbaijani-Jewish efforts. He consistently seeks to show to his ethnic Azerbaijani compatriots that Israel and Jews worldwide share their viewpoint regarding the Armenian Genocide claims. In August 2007, he commented that “one or two Jews can recognize [the] Armenian genocide. That will be the result of Armenian lobby’s impact. However, that does not mean that Jews residing in the United States and the organizations functioning there also recognize the genocide.” He explained that because expenditures for election to the U.S. Congress are high, some Jewish candidates receive contributions from the Armenian lobby and, in return, have to meet the interests of this lobby. According to Abramov, “except [for the] Holocaust, Jews do not recognize any [other] event as genocide.”(8)

Azerbaijani arguments that Armenians perpetrated a genocide against Azerbaijanis and Jews in the early 20th century have received little attention outside Azerbaijani circles. However, when the issue was touched upon in a contribution to the Jerusalem Post by Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli adviser to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 4, 2007, his article was also quickly distributed by the Azeri Press Agency. Ben-David called on Israel and Jewish-Americans to be careful regarding Armenian claims against Turkey. He listed a number of instances when—he believed—Armenians had massacred hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims and thousands of Jews. “Recently, Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan requested assistance in building a monument to 3,000 Azeri Jews killed by Armenians in 1918 in a pogrom about which little is known,” he wrote.(9)


However, mutual accusations of the destruction of monuments are just the tip of the iceberg in a larger interpretation of demographic processes in Transcaucasia in the last 200 years as one, continual process of ethnic cleansing. Within this context, the term “genocide” is often used as shorthand to indicate slow, but continuing ethnic cleansing, punctuated with moments of heightened violence also serving the same purpose. Indeed, where the contemporary Azerbaijani attitude toward Armenia departs from Turkey’s is now the official standpoint in Baku that the Armenians have pursued a policy of genocide against the Azerbaijanis during the past two centuries.

While the Turkish state and dominant Turkish elites vehemently object to the use of the term “genocide” to describe the Armenian deportations of 1915, and while some Turkish historians, politicians, and a few municipal authorities have accused the Armenians themselves of having committed genocide against the Ottoman Muslims/Turks—in their replies to what they say are Armenian “allegations”—this line of accusation has never been officially adopted, to date at least, by the highest authorities. It has not become a part of state-sponsored lobbying in foreign countries.


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