Tough Forum: Genocide conference held in Istanbul despite protest

Amid protests from Turkish nationalists, a lawsuit by the Union of Lawyers of Turkey, and even objections by Turkey’s Minister of Justice, a conference that addressed the Armenian Genocide was held last week in Istanbul.

During two days, historians and others debated and discussed the fiery issue (which two days ago became a focal point of attention by the Parliament of the European Union. See Admission before Admission).

The conference “Ottoman Armenians in the Period of the Collapse of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy” was originally planned for last May, but activists and politicians were successful in having it stopped.

“Turkey’s aspiration to become a member of the European Union requires considerable democratic processes,” said one of the forum organizers, Turkish historian Murad Begle. “But in Turkey, like in any society, there are forces who are afraid to lose their strength and power. A front opposing Turkey’s integration into Europe is being formed this way.”

Turkish historians Halil Berktay, Selim Belingir, Begle and others who spoke at the forum rather freely debated the subject of the Armenian genocide.

“The younger generation in Turkey knows nothing about the events in the early 20th century and the reason is the educational system,” said Begle. “The Armenian Question is one of the darkest pages of our history, and naturally no one wants to admit it. People who want to revisit and discuss the problem have gathered in this university.”

Outside the University of Bilgi, though, several hundred demonstrators led by representatives of the ultra-rightist Party of Nationalist Revival Kemal Kerinciz expressed their protest over holding the forum. No specialists from Armenia participated.

“Originally, Armenian specialists were also to participate,” says Professor of the Yerevan University, historian Babken Harutyunyan. “However, it was postponed through the efforts of Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek and public organizations supporting him. I don’t know whether this forum would be held at all but for the reaction of the European Commission (who voiced disapproval over May decision to postpone).”

“That Turkey, indeed, has traveled a long and serious path from the Turkish republic it was in the middle of last century up to the state it is today is beyond doubt,” said diplomat and specialist in Oriental studies David Hovhannisyan. “With great effort Turkey is overcoming the incredible internal resistance connected with the change of special traditions and with great difficultly gives up even the most insignificant elements of its sovereignty. But it still happens: several years ago nobody could even think of a possibility of holding such a conference in Istanbul.”

Other Armenian experts hold a different opinion, as they assert that there is nothing revolutionary in the holding of the Istanbul conference.

“Still in the late 1990s representatives of the U.S. Department of State stated that the question of the Armenian Genocide is a subject of research not for politicians but historians,” political analyst Armen Hakobyan said. “In April of this year, a scientific forum took place in Yerevan in which Turkish, Israeli and American experts participated. But scientific groups of other countries – France, Russia, etc., where there are traditions of research of the Armenian Genocide were not attending the conference. Obviously, the events held in Istanbul are part of the same chain. Certainly, it was necessary for the Turkish side to give a more complex form to this conference to show to the world through what rigid public scrutiny they have to pass. Actually, Ankara only benefits from such conferences during which no political tasks are put forward.”