Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Turkey Will Never Recognize the Armenian Genocide

It’s time for Yerevan to shift gears and work toward rapprochement with Ankara.

By , a professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and , a professor at Seton Hall University.
People protest outside of the Turkish consulate on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Beverly Hills, California, on April 24.
People protest outside of the Turkish consulate on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Beverly Hills, California, on April 24. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

In April, the White House recognized the Armenian genocide, marking a milestone in Armenian foreign policy. The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists genocide recognition as one of its major policy priorities, and Armenians around the world have long lobbied the international community for this end. Now, the big question facing Armenia and Armenians, including those in the diaspora, is where to go next. Today, more than 30 governments recognize the deportations and massacres perpetrated by Ottoman authorities in 1915 as genocide, and there are discussions about how Armenia—and other societies that have experienced trauma—can and should continue to commemorate the past in an ethical manner.

Some suggest Armenia should push for further genocide recognition in other countries, with the goal of eventually compelling Turkey—which has long been resistant to the move—to follow suit. But although such an approach is understandably attractive, it may be a strategic mistake in the long term. For Yerevan and the diaspora to better advance the interests of the Armenian people, it must refocus its diplomacy from lobbying the wider international community to transforming relations with the Turkish state and, more importantly, Turkish society. Inevitably, this will require some flexibility when it comes to Armenia’s framing of the past. But there are both practical and moral reasons why flexibility in the name of rapprochement with Turkey is the right move.

Practically, improved relations with Turkey are likely to increase the well-being of Armenians. As a landlocked state, an open border and active trade could facilitate economic development and alleviate poverty in a country where average salaries remain below $400 a month and close to 20 percent of the population say they would consider emigrating. Rapprochement with Ankara may also allow Yerevan to address its near-total dependence on Russia, thereby promoting greater regional stability. And Turkey would also benefit, especially through increased trade.

In April, the White House recognized the Armenian genocide, marking a milestone in Armenian foreign policy. The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists genocide recognition as one of its major policy priorities, and Armenians around the world have long lobbied the international community for this end. Now, the big question facing Armenia and Armenians, including those in the diaspora, is where to go next. Today, more than 30 governments recognize the deportations and massacres perpetrated by Ottoman authorities in 1915 as genocide, and there are discussions about how Armenia—and other societies that have experienced trauma—can and should continue to commemorate the past in an ethical manner.

Some suggest Armenia should push for further genocide recognition in other countries, with the goal of eventually compelling Turkey—which has long been resistant to the move—to follow suit. But although such an approach is understandably attractive, it may be a strategic mistake in the long term. For Yerevan and the diaspora to better advance the interests of the Armenian people, it must refocus its diplomacy from lobbying the wider international community to transforming relations with the Turkish state and, more importantly, Turkish society. Inevitably, this will require some flexibility when it comes to Armenia’s framing of the past. But there are both practical and moral reasons why flexibility in the name of rapprochement with Turkey is the right move.

Practically, improved relations with Turkey are likely to increase the well-being of Armenians. As a landlocked state, an open border and active trade could facilitate economic development and alleviate poverty in a country where average salaries remain below $400 a month and close to 20 percent of the population say they would consider emigrating. Rapprochement with Ankara may also allow Yerevan to address its near-total dependence on Russia, thereby promoting greater regional stability. And Turkey would also benefit, especially through increased trade.

Equally important, however, are the moral dimensions of an Armenia-Turkey détente. Morality in this context may sound abstract, but in practice, it can serve as a guide to building relationships that are robust and can be sustained. A focus on achieving justice alone—through unilateral action or external arbitration—may provide a sense of validation to victims, but it can also fuel resentment, sour relationships, and lead to future violence. Armenia and Turkey are a case in point of this cycle in action. It’s time to break it.

To achieve more effective, mutually beneficial relations, both the Armenian and Turkish governments should work to reframe the Armenian genocide—and the wider suffering that accompanied the downfall of the Ottoman Empire—as a shared history. This is an inevitably long, emotionally strenuous process. For Armenia, it means shifting toward a diplomacy that invites Turkish society to engage—whether through exhibitions, travel, or academic and cultural exchange. Indeed, Armenian and Turkish societies have far more in common than what divides them. They may find the same in their histories.


It goes without saying the Turkish government won’t be recognizing the Armenian genocide anytime soon. But a reframed history has a reasonable chance of success of resonating with the Turkish public. The little polling available, conducted by the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, suggests only 9 percent of Turkish citizens believe Turkey “should apologize” for its actions against the Armenians and “should admit that what happened was a genocide.” Yet various other conciliatory steps—such as solely apologizing and other expressions of specific or generalized regret—garner the support of nearly 45 percent of the population. Most importantly, only 21 percent of the respondents said Turkey “should take no steps” on the “Armenian issue.” 25 percent did not respond to the question.

The potential willingness by nearly 55 percent of the Turkish people—and lack of objection by around 80 percent—to explore their troubled past represents a clear opening for it to be reframed inclusively. But how can this be done? One approach may be to focus on individual experiences rather than collective castigations.

The potential willingness by nearly 55 percent of the Turkish people to explore their troubled past represents a clear opening.

Cem Özdemir, a German politician of Turkish descent, who argued for recognition of the Armenian genocide by the German parliament in 2016, has suggested more attention could be given to the many “Turkish Schindlers” who went out of their way to save their Armenian fellow citizens. Dozens of Turks and Kurds in the Ottoman Empire—from district governors to ordinary people—stood in solidarity with Armenians in various ways during the genocide, yet their stories remain largely untold.

Focusing on individual actions would reduce hateful narratives of the “other,” which have arguably stymied reconciliation efforts between Armenians and Turks. Genocide recognition sometimes mingles with anti-Turkish sentiment, which does little to shift attitudes in Turkey itself. As Armenian-American historian Ronald Suny wrote, “essentializing the other as irremediably evil leads to the endless repetition of the debilitating conflicts and deceptions of the last century.”

To help others out of their self-referential loops, one needs to comprehend why they are trapped in them. It is insufficiently understood—not only in Armenia but among policy elites around the world—why many Turks remain wary of Western powers, some of which have been at the forefront of genocide recognition. Turkish distrust is in part a result of the Treaty of Sèvres, the vindictive 1920 settlement that dismembered and humiliated the Ottoman Empire and sought to eliminate much of its sovereignty. In international recognition of the Armenian genocide, many in Turkey see their own losses unacknowledged and suspect ulterior motives for weakening Turkish statehood.

There are indications that Turkish society would be receptive to the opportunity to process the past as a shared experience. One survey among students and teachers conducted by Turkey’s Education and Science Workers’ Union, for example, found that more than 85 percent of respondents agreed the statement “the common culture, built by various communities including Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Kurds who are living in Anatolia together for centuries, is our greatest fortune” was fully or partially true. This suggests the framing of the past as a shared “ours” may be beneficial to reconciliation efforts.


There is, of course, no guarantee of success for Armenian engagement efforts with Turkey. There are formidable obstacles to such a rapprochement; a politics of confrontation can be in the interest of established elites. Yet taking the initiative may be valuable for its own sake as an assertion of Armenians’ moral autonomy and as a gesture that puts the petty triumphalism of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev after the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war in its disgraceful place.

Much can be learned from how other countries with troubled histories found their way to peace through a process of acknowledgement and reconciliation. Like Armenia’s relationship to Turkey, many Irish can also draw on a long list of legitimate grievances against their biggest neighbor, lamenting British policies that provoked catastrophic loss and displacement. But some of these grievances had to be reframed to make the 1998 Good Friday Agreement possible, which ended the Northern Ireland conflict and became possible only when both sides focused on what would make them thrive.

Moreover, sustainable peace cannot be built through diplomatic engagement alone and requires wider societal engagement and support. The Colombian public’s rejection of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) demonstrates that peace cannot be achieved if the public is not prepared for it and does not have a say in its shape. The peace agreement’s justice provisions, which include partial amnesty and a limited tribunal process for atrocities committed by FARC members, have been rejected by a large part of Colombian society. This suggests more public consultation and preparation remain essential to achieving sustainable peace.

Closer to home, the potential for Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership to progress toward a lasting settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh is restricted by strong sentiments on both sides. A previous attempt by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promote normalization between Armenia and Turkey, based on the 2009 Zurich Protocols, foundered in part because it did not enjoy sufficient popular support in both countries.

A particular challenge will be convincing many Armenians, especially in the diaspora, of the merits of reframing history in the name of rapprochement. After all, generational trauma resulting from genocides runs real and deep and must be acknowledged. Yet in discussing the emotion-laden past, many Armenians also crave a change of tone. The friend-foe matrix some Armenians regard Turks with contributes to a debilitating viciousness in parts of Armenian political discourse. Armenians who were skeptical of the idea that genocide recognition would translate into improving their day-to-day lives have been subjected to nasty abuse bordering on death threats. More moderate voices will need to speak up to reclaim a public space that often has been dominated by a strident fringe.

Demands to “face one’s history” cannot run just in one direction.

There are some encouraging signs of progress. Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts meet regularly on YouTube, Facebook, and Clubhouse. Some have published joint op-eds, arguing for more U.S. involvement in the South Caucasus. A prominent Armenian opposition politician in Turkey regularly commemorates the day hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians in Khojaly, Azerbaijan, were massacred during the Karabakh war in 1992. For some years, even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the pain Armenians have suffered.

The United States plays a pivotal role in this necessary process of rapprochement. The case of Northern Ireland illustrates how the United States can help broker a peace in a seemingly intractable context with cross-cutting diaspora issues if it is able to mobilize sufficient attention and patience. As George Mitchell, the chair of the peace talks in Northern Ireland, summarized, “what is necessary in all of these conflict societies is to create a sense of hope, a vision, a possibility of the future.” A positive vision for Armenia-Turkey relations is needed too, unlikely as this may seem now.

Today, Washington could fund research into Turkish and Armenian sentiment on the Armenian genocide to explore the contours of belief in more depth to transcend the ongoing standoff. The United States could also help facilitate a collective process of remembrance that provides an opportunity for thoughtful exploration of individual experiences and actions on all sides, perhaps drawing on how Ireland continues to negotiate its own difficult past through what it calls “ethical remembrance.”

If Western commentators want to set an example for how Turkey might reckon with its darkest chapters, they could themselves acknowledge the historic mistakes in the Treaty of Sèvres. In addition to the signatory Allied Powers, the United States bears considerable responsibility for this ill-conceived treaty due do its withdrawal from the post-World War I peace process. Demands to “face one’s history” cannot run just in one direction.

Essential to peace is often a redescription that various sides can live with. Indeed, to attentive readers, there may have been a coded message in the White House statement acknowledging the Armenian genocide. U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks urged the world to “turn our eyes to the future—toward the world that we wish to build for our children.” Traditionally, Turkey has celebrated April 23, the day immediately preceding Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, as National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. It is at least possible that some in Turkey will read Biden’s words as a suggestion the United States is now keen to usher in a new stage in relations between Armenia and Turkey. A reframed narrative would be a good place to start.

Hans Gutbrod is an associate professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics and has worked in the Caucasus region since 1999. Twitter: @HansGutbrod

David Wood is a professor of practice at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He has more than 15 years of experience of peace promotion in the Caucasus and the Middle East and North Africa, including founding the organization Peaceful Change Initiative.

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