Richard Hovannisian: “A joint historians’ commission is a dangerous trap”
He would refuse to take part in an Armenian-Turkey commission
Published: Saturday May 02, 2009
Yerevan - Historian Richard Hovannisian of the University of California, Los Angeles, met with Tatul Hakobyan of the Armenian Reporter on April 24 in Yerevan at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), a think tank established by Armenia's first foreign minister, Raffi Hovannisian.
Tatul Hakobyan: Professor, in the early morning hours of April 23, Armenia and Turkey, through Swiss mediation, issued an optimistic joint statement announcing that they had charted a roadmap toward normalized relations, and even though we don't know the content of the roadmap, it has caused serious criticism, especially in the diaspora. The reality is that it was signed on the eve of April 24. How would you assess this?
Richard Hovannisian: It would have been good if the Armenian side had found a way to wait until Sunday, April 26. Issuing the joint statement on April 22, can clearly be tied with U.S. President Barack Obama's address on April 24. It occurs to me that the sides, especially the Armenian side, were under extreme pressure to give their consent to that document, the road map. I don't know how the Armenian side was forced or gave itself the right to sign, knowing full well that that would have a negative impact on President Obama's statement.
Now, I can no longer hope that President Obama will clearly use the word genocide. [This interview took place on April 24, but before the president's statement was released.] President Obama could possibly get close to the Genocide word, but it will be just as important for him to say how many victims there were, that the Armenians and Turks must find a dialogue, at the same time praise the Armenian people, American-Armenians. A few days before April 24, Turkey's prime minister once again stated that Armenian-Turkish relations could not be successful as long as the Karabakh issue has not been resolved. I must admit, that Erdogan's statements did not affect me adversely. I believe that this can be a good incentive so that President Obama will no longer have an excuse not to use the Genocide word.
We don't know the inside story; we don't know what role and influence the United States and Russia had on the signing of the April 22 document. I can only assume that there was pressure both on Armenia and Turkey - if you don't come to an agreement, then we are going to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Otherwise I cannot understand why Foreign Minister Nalbandian and President Sargsian agreed to sign such a document on the evening of April 22.
TH: Can we say that Armenia knew that the date of issue was indeed April 22, on the eve of April 24, and they went ahead and agreed to the document?
RH: Certainly. He wasn't naïve, he knew. The question now is the following - what will Armenia get in return? We don't know. If you are really going to concede, then you better get something in return. I do not know what Armenia will receive. We know that Turkish diplomacy has always been flexible and shrewd; today they might come to an agreement but then find an excuse by saying that the Armenians are not willing to adopt a policy where they agree to concessions, we are not guilty, the Armenians are guilty. The Turks are so flexible, that while their prime minister will sign an agreement, their parliament will not ratify it, and in this way prolong the issue.
TH: When the April 22 document was issued, many analysts expressed the opinion that Armenian-Turkish dialogue had entered a stalemate. What do you think?
RH: Israel and Palestine, in the past, have signed such documents. But where are they now? Today, their relations are in much worse shape than before. Signing any kind of document doesn't mean that you have reached a certain level or that the borders will be opened tomorrow. Perhaps the opening of the borders will bring more benefits to Turkey than Armenia. Of course, open borders will also be beneficial for Armenia, because we need access to the sea, toward the Western world; we will then have an alternative to the Georgian routes. Open borders is also good for Turkey, because its eastern regions will develop. It is also good for the Turks because they will have access to expand to the east; this pull will become easier. The Turks have always had their eye on the east. In 1991, Turkey's politically and economically motivated expansion into Central Asia, believing that they could be the "godfather" in those countries, wasn't so easy. Realizing that Turkey pulled out.
TH: In June 2008, President Serge Sargsian announced in Moscow that if Turkey opens the border with Turkey, then the Armenian side would not be opposed to the creation of a historians' commission, which Turkey's prime minister had proposed to President Kocharian in 2005. Is this proposal acceptable to you?
RH: It is acceptable only under certain conditions. First of all, the Genocide must be accepted as a fact, then we can study as to why the Genocide happened, what were the factors, etc. The Turks are relying upon the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, where it states that genocides must be premeditated. The Turks will stress that, yes, there were Armenian victims - 200 thousand, 300 thousand, but you cannot prove that this was premeditated.
Second of all, in their archives and at that time it was already planned, to send telegrams from the villayets, where supposedly Armenian revolts and desertion from the Ottoman army were recorded. Turkish historians can come with these arguments and try, at least in part, to place the blame on the Armenians. The Turkish side will never accept that what happened was genocide. The creation of such a commission is very dangerous.
TH: If they asked you to be on that commission, would you refuse?