The Museum of Genocide in Yerevan
The 98th anniversary of the genocide that the Armenians are going to celebrate with cultural initiatives and religious ceremony worldwide is loaded with expectations. Nearly 100 years after the extermination of a million and a half victims, Armenians are still waiting for the recognition of the massacre from the Turkish government, but they do not give up dialogue with the many people in Turkey who show awareness about their cause.
This, together with the tense relations with the Azeri neighbours about the long-lasting issue of Nagorno-Karabakh and the future of Armenia was one of the topics of our conversation with Agopik Manoukian, Honorary President of the Union of Italy's Armenians (Unione Armeni d'Italia).
Next April, 24 is the 98th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. What is the meaning of this recurrence in your opinion?
I do not think time can alter the meaning of a fact which has so deeply marked the history of this people. The genocide, which is commemorated on April, 24, was a process of elimination and expulsion of the Armenian people from Anatolia. It took place within nearly 30 years, starting from the massacres ordered by Abdul Hamid and then sharpened with the rise on power of the Young Turks and then continued until Atatürk set up the new Turkish Republic.
Approaching the 100th anniversary, do you think time is ripe for the recognition of the massacre by the Turkish government?
Clearly these anniversaries - the 50th, 100th anniversary and so on - are loaded with many emotional meanings, but of course it is not dates which change things, Actually, concerning the recognition of the genocide, we can assess a positive situation at the world level. Mostly in the past 20 years many countries and international organizations have recognized it. Politically, not all countries have dared mark it officially but the genocide is there, documented and clear in the people's minds. The problem of recognition concerns the Turkish government and society. Turkey started a kind of a process of internal review, a debate which has sometimes some setbacks or closures, but also some openings. It is a very long process and I wonder if it can be accelerated as we come near the 100th anniversary, which will be very important for the Armenians and may lead them to make more pressure against negationism. This anniversary nonetheless does not ensure anything in itself; instead, positions could be persistence or returns and the Turkish government might raise their defences.
In Turkey there have been plenty of solidarity expressions and some people have strongly advocated the Armenian cause. We got the impression of a detachment between the Turkish government and society...
Yes, but we shouldn't think of society in general terms: in society there are many different people. It is true that there is a distance between the government's stance and the social attitudes, but it is also true that also within society there are more conservative movements as well as closures. Of course, we have seen remarkable mobilitations, also crowds taking part in pro-Armenian demonstrations, who express their solidarity, like when Hrant Dink died. All this represents an evolution in the relations between Turks and Armenians but the cleavage between society and government is not so clearcut, as the government also expresses a part of society. To sum up, these distinctions run the risk of sounding a bit too Manichean...
A section ot the genocide museum in Yerevan will soon be dedicated to the Turkish and Kurdish Righteous who tried to rescue the Armenians from persecution. What do you think?
I think this is the signal of a less brief and simplified analysis of reality, Of course the example set by the Righteous does not belong to a single people. The choice to remember the Turkish and Kurdish Righteous souds to me as an important initiative, above all from the Armenians' point of view. We should keep a broad and complex vision of reality. The good elements, such as the bad ones, are never only on one side.
What is happening between Armenians and Azeris?
The situation is really hard to set against a background. The Azeri people is dominated by an oligarchy which exerts a kind of a dictatorial power, gathering all resources in a country where the social structure is tightly hyerarchical. It is historically true that the Caucasian peoples have not always been in peace with each other. But they have also experienced civil coexistence models which have worked fine. In the first years of last century, though, divisions have sharpened. The rise of Bolshevism has not prevented fratricidal conflicts and in territorial divisions the main powers failed to take the history of the different populations into account. When this "container" fell short, the cleavages which have been kept for years in the Soviet "fridge" have explodes, also because these lands are rich at strategical resources. The conflict was further sparked by the Azeris' Panturkish attitude. To sum up, the geopolitical analysis is very complex. Historically there has always been a kind of tension between Armenians and Azeris, but Azerbaijan at the end of the Twentieth century still had between 400 and 500,000 armenians within their borders. Folowing history is nothing but a deferred aspect of the major catastrophe started with the genocide.
What do you thinj are the proper means to keep the remembrance of genocide and the history of the Armeanian people alive?
Sheer remembrance does not change things. I could quote Gramsci, who said that history is a very good teacher, without pupils. Unless we work out the causes of genocide more deeply, and we realize we are all involved in giving rise to complex and ambivalence historical events, unless we accept that there are grey areas within society and ourselves, unless we face the past to work it out, and if we keep on being prisoners of claims, I do not see much progress. Also concerning the acculturation and socialization of the new generations I think there is much to do, but I also think we must find and build different ways to approach these facts and the problems they raise. We must keep in mind that history lessons must help look ahead. Entrenching on defensive positions about the Armenian genocide and just denouncing the persecution and violence is probably not effective in my opinion. It is a stance that runs the risk of becoming regressive and nostalgic. Today I think Armenians should invest on the evolution of current Armenia, to develop this society.
Armenians, also those in the diaspora, keep a sound cultural identity. What is the main feature of Armenian culture?
The Armenian people is greatly idealistic and this has been often crucial in their integration. So far as the Armenians remain within their Mid-Eastern cultural and language fences they hace certainly tended to keep their tradition in a spontaneous, not intellectual way. In the Western world, they have had to face very different situations. In Italy they have found deep affinity with the local culture, which explains much higher integration rates than in other Western societies such as the US, where there is another modality of integration of minorities. Genocide has been an important factor of collective identification, which makes Armenians struggle to keep their identity, serves as a call and a reference point and sometimes also creates an unnecessary sense of guilt. The attachment to their own history is maybe a bit loosened int the people who haven't experienced such strong traumas. The memory of genocide, like for the Jews, is crucial to keep a strongly identity link between Armenians.