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Why Armenia pays high price for 'genocide' campaign

A diaspora-led push to recognize as 'genocide' the 1915-17 mass killing, which is commemorated on April 24, has soured relations with Turkey.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2007



Yerevan, ARMENIA

Gevork Melikyan, aged 94, stares off into the distance with cloudy eyes. His daughter-in-law says he has trouble remembering what happened last week, but he remembers with startling clarity the day when his family fled Turkey – right down to the name of the dog they left behind.

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He was called "Challo," the old man recalls, dentures clacking. "I remember my mother telling me, 'Lock the door and throw the key over the gate.' " When they fled, they left the dog behind to guard the house.

Mr. Melikyan is one of the last remaining survivors of the mass killing and expulsion of ethnic Armenians from Turkey that took place between 1915 and 1917, which is widely recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey disputes that characterization, however, saying there was no organized campaign to kill Armenians and that the deportations took place in the context of war. As the last witnesses reach the twilight of their lives, the question of how to judge what happened in those years remains center stage in the region's complex politics.

The international campaign for universal recognition of the massacres as a genocide has been generally led by the Armenian diaspora, many of whom are descendants of families scattered from 1915-17. While the Armenian government and most Armenians support the campaign, there is also a growing recognition within the country that Armenia pays a heavy price for continued tensions with Turkey.

Currently there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, and Turkey has closed all land borders to Armenia, in part because of the genocide recognition issue. All trade between the two countries must pass through neighboring Georgia, which levies heavy taxes on goods.

"I think our position is that we are open and we are ready for cooperation," says Ashot Tovmasyan, a young gas company employee who was out on an afternoon stroll with his family. "I don't think that most people have hatred for Turks." But, he added, recognizing the genocide is "a matter of historical truth."

A resolution to recognize the events of 1915-17 as genocide was introduced in the US House of Representatives early this year, with supporters pushing for its passage around April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

The Bush administration – like previous administrations – opposes the resolution, saying it will compromise national security by harming relations with Muslim ally Turkey, which has lobbied hard against it. But new House speaker Nancy Pelosi's longtime support of such a resolution, together with the broadest House support such a resolution has seen in 20 years, has led to expectations that the resolution has the first realistic chance of passing in many years.

At Armenia's genocide memorial and museum, which sits on a hill overlooking the country's capital Yerevan, 12 gray granite blocks extend into the air, protecting an eternal flame, in front of which visitors have placed flowers. A long wall records the names of cities in Turkey where Armenians were evicted and killed. In front of it, a large poster depicts the face of Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish journalist assassinated in Istanbul, Turkey, in January.

"This is not only an Armenian issue," says Hayl Demoyan, the museum and monument's young new director. "What do we see now? We seen endless genocides and denials of those genocides."

Mr. Demoyan, whose family left the city of Kars in eastern Turkey, is charged with protecting and researching the event's history.

But he is also anxious that the museum not demonize Turks and is considering an exhibit about Turkish people who saved Armenians. He believes coming to terms with the past will help Turkey embrace a new future and prevent future genocides from occurring. "Turkey is at a crossroads," he says. "One road leads to democratization. The other is destructive and leads to nationalism."

For many survivors and their families, though, animosity and distrust still run deep. Melikyan's son, Karen Melikyan, was raised on tales of the family's lost lands in Turkey, which many Armenians still call "Western Armenia." As a child, he heard endless stories about their beautiful two-story house in Igdir, the Russian gold coins – the family's life savings – traded for meager handfuls of flour when the family arrived in Armenia, and the old dog Challo who miraculously followed them to Yerevan a year later.

Many here hoped that the assassination of Mr. Dink, which led to a massive outpouring of support within Turkey, would help mend relations between the two countries, although most now feel that that opportunity has passed.

"The genocide, the massacres, are rooted so deeply in the Armenian psyche," says Karen. "I don't see that we can live together again. I'm not saying they are good or bad, but they are cruel. That is the way they are, and we have to be smart."

But others suggest that while the past cannot be forgotten, more effort needs to be made to build bridges with Turkey. "Of course the genocide is one of the most tragic chapters of our history and we need to make every effort to prevent this in the future," says Artur Baghdasaryan, an opposition politician and former speaker of parliament. "But we think our future relations with Turkey cannot be defined only by genocide."

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