ISTANBUL - Multilateral efforts to improve relations between Armenia and Turkey is the wrong way to resolve the Armenian issue, says respected historian Ara Sarafian, arguing that the solution lies in the huge and influential diaspora.
Sarafian, the head of the London-based Gomidas Institute, said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s offer to Armenia to establish a commission of historians to resolve the Armenian issue was positive, but Armenia was the wrong address.
Armenians argue that the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 constituted genocide while Turkey says many Turks also died in the wartime circumstances and denies there was a state-enforced policy to kill Armenians.
Sarafian was invited to Turkey by the Boğaziçi, Bilkent and Sabancı Universities and the Hrant Dink Foundation to attend a history conference in the Mediterranean province of Adana.
Sarafian said there were two problems that would arise out of any effort to improve relations with Armenians through closer ties with Armenia. "Freedom of expression for historians in Armenia is limited and the genocide issue has become a political tool," he said.
He said Turkey should continue with its plan to form a commission of historians who would discuss the matter, but suggested Turkish historians to meet with moderate Armenian historians in the diaspora rather than Armenia. "The solution should start from the diaspora," he said.
"The members of the diaspora who still have Anatolia in their hearts should not be ignored," he said, adding that the diaspora was not part of Armenia but part of Anatolia. He also said Turkey needed to fund the commission of independent historians. "I believe Turkey is not how it used to be. It has a modern perception and wants solutions to the problems," said Sarafian.
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s suggestion to form a commission also involves the opening of the state archives of both Armenia and Turkey. Sarafian said the archives in Armenia were inadequate. "The real documents on the genocide are in the Zoryan archives in Boston and the Armenian Patriarchy archives in Jerusalem," he said.
He said the most important question was whether Armenians wanted to overcome this chronic problem. He asked, "Will we be able to free ourselves from this instinct of revenge and share our grief?" Armenians should stop seeing themselves as the victims, said the historian.
"We cannot compare the Armenian genocide with the Holocaust. Those who were banished from their land suffered a lot but survived," he said.
He also said Turkish society could not be blamed for what happened in the past. "No one can deny the genocide but the entire Turkish nation cannot be held responsible. Moreover, many Turks rescued Armenians from death," he said.
The lobbies had turned the issue into a political tool, said Sarafian. "They want to control everything and fear historians opening a brand new page," he said. He said a language of peace should be created between Turks and Armenians.
He still had to be careful when he undertook research in Turkey and added, "I, as a historian, try not to display a wrong stance and create tension. I know I need to be objective. Additionally, Turkey is being constructive and it would be wrong to miss this chance."
He said the restoration of the Armenian Akdamar Church in the recent past could have created an environment of dialogue but had become a missed chance. "Armenians did not want to take that chance because it did not suit their interests," he said.
The Armenian response, both from the diaspora and Armenia, to Turkish calls to work together was complete silence, he said. "The diaspora boycotted any cooperation with Turkey because it only wants to blame and lay accusations against Turkey. Unfortunately, radical groups within the diaspora have turned a sensitive issue, like genocide, into a political tool.
He said it was important for future generations to free themselves from the victim psychology, concluding his remarks by saying, "We need to ensure our children live in peace. The revenge instinct will do no one any good."