By Vasilis Papoutsis*
We spoke to California Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian for the upcoming commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
The tragic event that has long been a sad and sorrowful spot in the hearts of the Armenian people began in April 24 1915. This was the day before the Allied forces arrived in Gallipoli following an arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals by the Ottoman empire forces in an attempt to deprive the Armenian population of its leadership.
This was only the first step of the Ottoman Empire’s decision to exterminate the Armenian population whom they had declared an internal enemy of the state. The Ottomans had signed a treaty of cooperation with Germany in World War One and the Armenians were considered allies of enemy Russia, a Christian nation. A systematic campaign to eliminate the Armenians began with deportations in the Syrian desert in what is known as death marches where the prisoners were subjected to starvation, dehydration and torture. That was followed by executions, rapes and robberies. Close to one and a half million Armenians perished as a result of this. Armenians were not the only minority to suffer from the extermination campaign of the Ottomans. Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish populations met the same fate. Several hundred thousand Christian Greeks were executed and deported, cultural monuments were destroyed and the ones who survived the Great Fire of Smyrna, that completely destroyed the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city, left under a population exchange agreement.
Assemblymember A. Nazarian is one of the founders of the The Armenian Legislative Caucus that is leading the effort to commemorate the Centennial Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24 in the Little Armenia area of Los Angeles. As part of the commemoration the caucus has introduced an Assembly Joint Resolution designating this year as California’s Year of Commemoration of the Centennial Anniversary. The resolution is asking the Congress and the President of the United States to recognize the Armenian Genocide. There was high anticipation to see if President Obama would finally recognize the genocide as he did when he was a Senator and a presidential candidate, but had not done so since he took office.
However, White House officials who met with representatives of the Armenian community yesterday indicated that the President will not use the word genocide to describe the atrocities. He will use the Armenian term ”Meds Yeghern” which means Great Catastrophe and not the word genocide which is the definition of a systematic campaign of mass murders and ethnic cleansing. The timing to fulfill his campaign promise could not had been more ideal as the end of his term in office coincides with the Centennial Anniversary.
Mr. Nazarian feels that it is very important for the recognition to happen not only because it will validate the efforts of the Armenian people but it will also serve as a lesson and a reminder of the catastrophic effects and the pain that a genocide brings. He feels very empathetic for all the victims of the countless genocides that sadly take place all over the world and especially for the Jewish Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide and the Genocide of the Greeks in Asia Minor which of course took place almost at the same time period with the Armenian Genocide. Pope Francis last week said that the extermination of the Armenians was the “first genocide of the 20th century,” and urged the international community to recognize it as such. Turkish President Erdogan’s reaction to the Pope’s announcement was, it will go “in one ear and out from the other.”
When we asked assemblymember Nazarian for his reaction to Erdogan’s comment he said he was not surprised but he also offered that not all Turkish people should be associated with a statement like that. He spoke of the progressive Turks who want to be inclusive and are seeking a dialogue. He spoke of Hrant Dink a Turkish Armenian journalist and editor who advocated reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. He was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in 2007 that sparked a wave of protests by Turkish citizens of all ideologies. At his funeral 200,000 protesters chanted “We are all Hrant Dint.” The 2007-2008 academic year of the College of Europe was named in his honor.
We can also refer to Taner Akcam a Turkish German historian and sociologist and one of the first Turkish academics who called for an open dialogue about the Armenian genocide between the Turkish and the Armenian people as the only way to reconcile and hopefully achieve a new cultural identity that will include both of them. The hope is that these progressive voices will alter the current state of denial that the Turkish government has embraced. And the policy of denial is about to get tested even more.
The German Parliament just passed a resolution that approves the word genocide. Considering that Germany is Turkey’s biggest trade partner in Europe and millions of Turkish immigrants live there, this recognition is especially hard to accept. The European Parliament on a resolution voted yesterday argues Turkey to use the commemoration of the centennial anniversary as an important opportunity to come to terms with its past, recognize the genocide and move to a “genuine reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples.”
When I asked Mr. Nazarian for his opinion as to why Turkey continues the denial of the genocide all while getting isolated from the international public opinion, he said that besides politics the major reason must be legal.
“Turkey is afraid if they recognize the genocide it will open the door for legal claims by the victims survivors, reparations for property loss and international condemnation. But the recognition will also give Turkey new credibility and perhaps a renewed commitment to a more democratic future. That should also improve the living conditions of the Armenian minority that remain in Turkey along with other minorities such as the Kurds who have suffered greatly as well.”
The commemoration on Friday is sponsored by the United Armenian Council and is expected to be attended by thousands of enthusiastic participants and a number of elected city leaders. It will start at 10am near the intersection of Sunset and Western and will proceed with a 6 mile march to the Turkish consulate. The American Hellenic Council and the Greek Heritage society both have voted resolutions in support of the commemoration.
*Vasilis Papoutsis is a journalist based in Los Angeles, CA.