Armenia’s Leaders Need to Uphold the Historical Truth in the Face of Intimidation

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By Marc A. Mamigonian and Bedross Der Matossian

As scholars focused on the Armenian Genocide — its causes, implementation, repercussions, and its denial — and with Armenian Studies more generally, we feel compelled to express our concerns about aspects of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s April 24, 2024, message on the occasion of the 109th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

We want to make it clear here that we do not represent any political groups nor take sides in the current contentious political climate in Armenia. We are writing as individuals with an interest in upholding the historical record and not on behalf of any institutions; the views presented here are our own.

We will refer to and quote from the official English translation of this message posted online on the prime ministerial website: https://www.primeminister.am/en/statements-and-messages/item/2024/04/24/Nikol-Pashinyan-April-24/.

Readers can compare the 2024 message with those of 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. While we duly recognize that the message begins by stating the Prime Minister’s intention to “commemorate the memory of 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide,” the aspects that are most concerning to us are the absence of any identification of the perpetrator of the Armenian Genocide; language that echoes long-standing denialist rhetoric implying that the victims of the Genocide were responsible for their deaths; and the implication that a collective post-genocidal “mental trauma” prevents Armenia or Armenians from perceiving reality.

It is important to note that Mr. Pashinyan’s message does not exist in a vacuum. It needs to be read within a larger context that includes the ethnic cleansing of all Armenians from Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023 (called genocidal by various analysts), following the 2020 44-Day War launched by Azerbaijan with the entire military and logistical support of Turkey, and the 2022-2023 illegal blockade of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh imposed by Azerbaijan with, again, the support of Turkey.

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In short, at no time in recent history has the Armenian government been in a position of greater powerlessness vis-à-vis Turkey and Azerbaijan, “one nation, two states” who aggressively deploy denial of the Armenian Genocide and of other historical facts about Armenia and the region as part of their political arsenal. When Turkey and Azerbaijan are seeking to dictate Armenia’s future, it is no less important to them to dictate the past as well. The Armenian Prime Minister and other government leaders cannot acquiesce to Turkey and Azerbaijan’s false historical narratives, which are aimed at the elimination of Armenia as such.

Mr. Pashinyan’s 2024 commemoration message seems to mark a sea-change in terms of language and rhetoric and the advent of a disturbing self-censorship mode when it comes to naming the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.

In 2019, Mr. Pashinyan mentioned that “[o]ne of the peculiarities of the Armenian Genocide is that the people subjected to the genocide were not only physically destroyed, but also deprived of the right to live in their homeland … the land on which Armenian culture and Armenian identity were formed and developed over thousands of years.

In 2020, Mr. Pashinyan identified “Ottoman Turkey’s long-standing policy of Armenophobia [that] culminated in 1915 during the Young Turk government,” when “[d]ue to the Genocide that had been perpetrated at a state level for many years, Western Armenia was completely emptied of Armenians,” who were “deprived of the right to live in their historical homeland.”

In 2021, Mr. Pashinyan stated that “the first genocide of the 20th century was perpetrated by the Young Turk government in the Ottoman Empire. What happened in those days was described by the great powers as a crime against mankind and human civilization.”

In 2022, Mr. Pashinyan declared that “107 years ago, the Armenian people faced a ruthless tragedy, the genocide. The goal of Ottoman Turkey was to exterminate our ancestors.”

In 2023, Mr. Pashinyan “commemorate[d] the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.”

In contrast, in 2024, there is no reference to a perpetrator. Instead, he states that “we commemorate the memory of 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, the Meds Yeghern, who were put to the sword in the Ottoman Empire since 1915 for being Armenians.”

In all statements from 2019-2023, he explicitly referred to the Armenian Genocide (Հայոց ցեղասպանության) or Meds Yeghern (Մեծ եղեռն) as a “crime.” This is, of course, entirely appropriate since genocide is a crime and the Armenian term Meds Yeghern means “Great Crime.”

In contrast, in 2024, the word “crime” seems to have been replaced with the word “tragedy.” A crime requires a perpetrator; a tragedy does not. Rhetorically, then, responsibility for the Armenian Genocide is shifted. But shifted to where?

It is worth remembering that today, even Turkey acknowledges the deaths of large numbers of Armenians during World War I. However, it refuses to assign responsibility to the Ottoman authorities who planned the genocide and implemented it. Instead, the Turkish government and others who disseminate its denialist counterfactuals blame Armenians themselves for “rebelling” or “plotting with foreign powers” even as they pay lip service to the “tragic” consequences. These are key elements of the denial of the Armenian Genocide.

Mr. Pashinyan echoes this rhetoric, asserting that “[t]his large-scale tragedy took place during the years of the World War I, and the Armenian people, who had no statehood, had lost their statehood centuries ago, and essentially had forgotten the tradition of statehood, became victims of geopolitical intrigues and false promises, lacking first of all a political mind capable of making the world and its rules understandable.”

While it is true that Armenians had lacked a state of their own since the 14th century, this is hardly the same as stating that all Armenians everywhere “had forgotten the tradition of statehood” or that they lacked “a political mind capable of making the world and its rules understandable.”

Moreover, responsibility for Armenian deaths does not lie with “geopolitical intrigues and false promises.” The responsibility lies with the Ottoman government. Armenians were not victimized because they were ignorant; they were victimized because they lacked power relative to an Ottoman state that planned their elimination.

Finally, while no one denies that the Armenian Genocide was an event that traumatized its survivors and, in widely varying ways, many of the descendants of those survivors, it is infantilizing and insulting to state that, as a result of the “mental trauma” of the genocide, “we cannot correctly distinguish the realities and factors, historical processes and projected horizons.” Furthermore, if Armenians as a whole cannot distinguish political realities, is Mr. Pashinyan himself somehow exempt from this dubious condition?

If it is the belief at the highest levels of the government in Yerevan that the real threats posed by Turkey and Azerbaijan to Armenia’s existence can be diminished by incrementally incorporating aspects of denialist rhetoric (whether consciously, unconsciously, on under the pressure of third parties) into even an April 24 commemoration message, we assert that this is both incompatible with the historical record as well as short-sighted politically. We urge Mr. Pashinyan and all of Armenia’s leadership to be strong in upholding the fundamental historical facts of the Armenian Genocide and to resist any efforts to employ language that suggests the guilt of the victims rather than the responsibility of the perpetrators.

(Marc A. Mamigonian is the Director of Academic Affairs of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), based in Belmont, MA. He is the co-author of Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses (Oxford University Press, 2022; with John N. Turner and Sam Slote), editor of the volume The Armenians of New England (2004), and co-editor with Mary Jane Rein and Thomas Kuehne of Documenting the Armenian Genocide: Essays in Honor of Taner Akçam (2024). Bedross Der Matossian is a professor of Modern Middle East history and the Hymen Rosenberg Professor in Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of seven books. His latest edited volume on Denial of Genocides in the Twentieth Century was published by the University of Nebraska Press (UNP) in 2023.)

 

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