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The Burden of Memory | The Nation

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The Burden of Memory

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In Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State, Gerard Libaridian describes how relations between Armenia and Turkey have shifted in the years since 1991, when Armenia became an independent state. In a refreshingly balanced analysis, Libaridian examines Armenia and Turkey as states with clear needs and interests, and argues that pressure from the Armenian diaspora has long complicated the efforts of the two neighbors to establish ties. Libaridian, currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, was a foreign policy adviser to the president of Armenia from 1991 to 1997; his direct involvement in negotiations gives him the credibility to present views that will be unappealing to many diaspora Armenians.

About the Author

Meline Toumani
Meline Toumani is a writer living in Brooklyn. She contributes frequently to the New York Times.

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After Armenia gained independence, the leading party, the Armenian National Movement (ANM), under then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian, decided that genocide recognition could not be a condition for Armenia's relationship with Turkey. "Obviously this policy was not due to a lack of knowledge of history within the ANM," Libaridian writes, noting that Ter-Petrossian himself was a historian; his views did not reflect "the absence of an appreciation of the significance of the genocide" but a difference in "how to imagine the future."

Thus began what Libaridian calls "the battle for the soul of the new republic." Ter-Petrossian was vilified by critics in the diaspora for his refusal to give priority to genocide recognition, and for banning the ARF party, a militant political group with strong diaspora ties. (My own memories of the Ter-Petrossian years include stories of Armenian-American children chanting "Death to LTP!" at ARF gatherings in suburban New England--LTP being the preferred moniker of disrespect for the president among diaspora malcontents.)

Libaridian offers an especially perceptive analysis of Turkish diplomats during Ter-Petrossian's years in office. Challenging the widely held anti-Turkish sentiments of his diaspora peers, Libaridian reminds readers that the Turkish administration was made up of people whose close colleagues had been assassinated by Armenian terrorists--mostly diaspora Armenians, some descended from genocide survivors--between 1975 and 1983. More than thirty Turkish diplomats and bystanders were killed in bombings and assassinations. "It left a deep impression on the Turkish state and defined its view of Armenians, especially in the mind of the foreign policy establishment." Libaridian notes this not as an apologist but as a strategist.

He also explains that until the Soviet Union came apart, Turkish officials never thought of Armenia as a state. They thought only of Armenians, a cultural group that, in their estimation, consisted of a handful of crazed terrorists and an aggressive diaspora that relentlessly condemned Turkey. "It took them a while to start thinking of Armenia as an independent country," says Libaridian. "This was a serious problem."

This leap of imagination was not Turkey's challenge alone; the diaspora, too, had to get used to the idea of an Armenian state. Until 1991, the diaspora could be a cultural and political surrogate for a republic restricted by Soviet policies. And while the diaspora had no need of friendly relations with Turkey, Armenia, facing the requirements of statehood, desperately needed the economic and security benefits guaranteed by diplomatic ties with a neighbor. Armenia's leaders as well as its regular citizens had the biggest challenge of all: making the psychological transition from being Moscow's smallest child to setting up a house of their own.

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