In the course of almost a century, Armenian institutions’ and individuals’ various stances on Turkey and genocide recognition have hardened into maximalist positions. For Armenian maximalists, anything short of a full and complete apology, full and complete restitution of the stolen and expropriated property, as well as full reparations, is to be dismissed as nothing but smoke screens or deliberate attempts by the Turkish state to mislead Armenians and non-Armenians alike. This maximalism is understandable and unsurprising in the face of consistent Turkish negationism. It also blinds to nuances in the extremely complex world of Turkish politics, reducing it to zero-sum games and black-and-white dualities. It prevents Armenians from seeing the subtleties in Turkey’s political scene that may still nudge the Turkish state towards coming to terms with the Armenians and the genocide, a problem that has been nagging it acutely for the last 50 years, increasingly tarnishing its image and violently contradicting its own historical narrative.
Certainly, at this point it is not clear that this approach will push Turkey to acknowledge the genocide. Denying the Armenian Genocide has become a recurring, growing embarrassment for well-read Turkish officials, including President Abdullah Gül, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Culture Minister Ömer Çelik. So massive is the body of testimonies and evidence on the genocide that the Turkish state is now resorting to petty technicalities and sophisms to deny it, much like embarrassed Catholic priests might today if they were still forced to reject the fact that the earth orbits the sun, or had Pope John Paul II not apologized for the persecution of Galileo 350 years earlier.
For reasons that are outside the scope of this article, Turkey has a number of strong reasons for settling the Genocide claims and reaching an understanding with the Armenians. There is a possibility that this may happen soon or at an unexpected moment, which would catch Armenians off guard; for, who would speak on behalf of Armenians should Turkey express readiness tomorrow–literally tomorrow–to engage in dialogue and negotiations?
Below is a very basic blueprint proposed only for negotiations with Turkey. It does not purport to set up a permanent diaspora-wide representative body or some kind of Pan-Armenian Congress. The Diaspora General Assembly outlined here would be empowered solely with establishing principles and a course of action for representing the diaspora’s interests at the negotiations with Turkey. Over the decades, there have been several proposals in this regard; this draft is an attempt to contribute to this pool of ideas, in the hope that eventually a structure along these lines will soon materialize.
Today, the Armenian Diaspora has a plethora of separate—and, for a long time, especially in the Cold War years, rival—organizations that, after a lifetime of service to the community, and free from the accountability as well as the check and balances that come with democratic organizations, have often developed a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness, as they have helped build from scratch thriving communities after the Armenian nation came very close to extinction. Still, that does not help to create consensus, as every Armenian who has been active in the community knows.
An alternative scenario is one that came close to materializing, with Armenia—presumably under foreign pressure—negotiating directly with Turkey, in the now practically defunct protocols that would have compromised the diaspora’s demands and interests in any negotiation on genocide recognition and reparations. In this scenario, the diaspora—and especially independent diasporan individuals, with no affiliation to any organization—would be excluded. Independent Armenians would also be left out in case of secret negotiations, which is another possibility.
In 1977, at the height of the attacks by Armenian militants against Turkish diplomats as well as ASALA’s terror campaign, there were secret conversations in Switzerland between a Turkish delegation, headed by then-Turkish Foreign Minister İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil, and a delegation of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or the Tashnagtsagan Party. A person directly involved in these negotiations said the Turkish side had approached the ARF propose a dialogue. To its credit, the ARF (according to this person) advocated suggested that the Ramgavars and Hunchakians be a party to conversations that might have critical importance for the Armenian nation. For a number of reasons, nothing came out of this meeting during which, in broad lines, the Turkish side asked the Armenians about their expectations on reparations. The Turkish delegation also warned the Diaspora Armenian political leadership to help stop the attacks on Turkish diplomats and targets, saying that if Turkey wanted, it could wipe out the entire party and community leadership.
Those were other times, with a Soviet Armenia deprived of sovereign rights. In this time and place, there would be no justification for secret negotiations. Every Armenian individual, regardless of affiliation, is entitled to have a vote and a voice in the matter of genocide recognition and reparation negotiations with Turkey. If the Diasporan Armenian representation were limited to the diaspora establishment, it would not be representative. It would further create the risk of traditional parties monopolizing negotiations in a matter of national importance, excluding independent voices within Armenian communities. Hence a democratic model needs to be devised.
Armenians need to speak with one voice when negotiating with Turkey. That does not mean there should not be a diversity of opinions among Armenians. It means, by the time the Armenian delegation sits at the table with Turkey, the diaspora should have reached a consensus on their stance through a democratic process. This article is the draft of a blueprint for such a process that aims to broaden representation as much as possible, giving voice to each individual Armenian in a matter of national importance, which cannot and must not be left only to diaspora institutions and political parties.
1) Diaspora communities and individuals shall constitute a bicameral General Assembly—set up solely for the purpose of writing a Charter and electing a delegation to represent the diaspora in negotiations with Turkey, as part of an Armenian delegation led by the Republic of Armenia—that will be independent of all existing Armenian organizations. The Diaspora General Assembly for Negotiations with Turkey on Genocide Recognition and Reparations will not have the power to address or discuss any other issue that is not strictly related to negotiations with Turkey on genocide recognition and reparations. This means it will not have the power to address foreign policy issues, such as Turkey’s sanctions against Armenia over the Karabagh War, that pertain to the Republic of Armenia’s government, or any other issue that falls outside its narrowly defined purview.
As in most democracies, the bicameral structure is necessary to make up for the imbalances that would create an excessive bias for the larger communities—including the U.S., France, Lebanon, Argentina, and others—to the detriment of smaller ones, such as Chile, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The peculiar case of the Armenian community of Istanbul needs to be addressed separately.
Armenian individuals and all Armenian organizations, including the churches—Apostolic, as well as Catholic and Evangelical—that functioned in the Ottoman Empire until at least 1915, and that still exist today, will be represented in the upper house of such a General Assembly.
The bicameral Congress model suits the needs of such pan-Armenian body perfectly. Each Diasporan Armenian community would be entitled to proportional representation according to its number of registered constituents in the lower house, or House of Representatives. A formula needs to be agreed on; for example, one representative per 1,000 constituents. Communities with fewer than 1,000 constituents (such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Ethiopia, for example) may automatically be entitled to at least two representatives. An upper house, or Senate, with two representatives each per community, plus two representatives from each Armenian organization that functioned in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, would make up for the heavier influence the larger communities would have in the lower house. The House and the Senate would roughly have the same faculties they do in representative democracies.
2) Every Diasporan Armenian would be authorized to vote and to run as a representative in the General Assembly. Age requirements, as well as all other voting requirements, should be universal for all diaspora communities solely for the purpose of the Diaspora General Assembly. Citizens of the Republic of Armenia, including those who live outside of Armenia, will not be entitled to participate in any capacity in the Diaspora General Assembly, as they shall be represented by the Republic of Armenia in negotiations with Turkey over genocide recognition and reparations.
Organizing the vote will require a joint effort by the community organizations, setting up all the necessary regulations and controls to ensure a fair vote.
3) The requirements to prove Armenian descent may be based on those required by the Armenian state to grant dual Armenian citizenship to persons born outside of Armenia. Given the difficulties that may arise for proofing Armenian descent in the diaspora four generations after the genocide, proof of Armenian descent (with at least one great-grandparent of Armenian origin) should include at least one of the following:
a) a baptismal certificate from the Armenian Church or from an Armenian church of any denomination, stating the Armenian identity;
b) a baptismal certificate of one of the parents from the Armenian Church stating the Armenian identity;
c) a birth certificate from a country that states the Armenian nationality and/or identity;
d) a birth certificate from a country that states that one of the parents’ nationality and/or identity is Armenian;
e) proof of attendance and/or graduation from an Armenian school;
f) proof of participation or membership in any Armenian church of any denomination or any Armenian organization;
g) any other proof or testimony that demonstrates descent beyond reasonable doubt.
4) The Armenian delegation in negotiations with Turkey will be led by the Republic of Armenia, as the sole inheritor of the Armenian states that preceded it. The diaspora representation would be subordinated to the Republic of Armenia delegation. While the diaspora’s claims are equally important and deserve to be heard, Armenia has a critical stake in any negotiations with Turkey as a next-door neighbor, with vital interests at play, including defense. This is especially true when this next-door neighbor has common interests with another enemy-neighbor flanking Armenia on the east, Azerbaijan, with which the country is still in a state of war, despite a relatively fragile cease-fire.
No diasporan demand can or must compromise Armenia’s vital interests. The homeland’s interests override everything. Armenia will have the final say in any negotiations with Turkey. The interests and the security of the Republic of Armenia, as the surviving entity of the Armenian homeland, come first and foremost, and are of paramount importance.
5) The Republic of Armenia will have the last word on matters pertaining to territorial claims on the lands of Western Armenia and Cilicia; all decisions pertaining to treaties between Turkey and Armenia; as well as all other treaties that concern or affect relations between both states. All of the issues regarding sovereign territorial claims will be strictly outside the purview of the Diaspora General Assembly.
6) In close coordination with the Armenian state, the Diaspora General Assembly will draft a Charter establishing the principles of negotiations with Turkey and the matters to negotiate with Turkey, including but not limited to:
a) recognition of the genocide by Turkey (and matters pertaining to wording and announcement, what is admissible and what is not);
b) reparations for each Armenian individual killed, displaced, or missing during the 1915 massacres and deportations from the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire as well as Istanbul and other locations in the Ottoman Empire (and how to account for them, and devise a formula to calculate reparations for the loss of life);
c) restitution of lost properties and compensation (and what to do in those rare instances where Turkish courts have returned properties to deed holders and already settled insurance claims).
7) Setting up a physical space for such a General Assembly will be costly. Armenian organizations are in no position to embark on such a costly endeavor. Thanks to available technology, it is more than feasible to make this a virtual General Assembly, with sessions carried out via video-conference.
8) This Assembly shall remain in session until negotiations begin with Turkey, when it would elect a deputation to represent the diaspora in the delegation of the Republic of Armenia. The Assembly shall enter into a recess at the start of negotiations with Turkey and for as long as the negotiations continue.
9) The Assembly shall be renewed every four years in worldwide general elections.
10) The Assembly shall dissolve itself when and if a final settlement is reached with Turkey on genocide recognition and reparations.
As noted above, this proposal is just the draft of a blueprint. It is an individual initiative and it is presented here with the hope that it may set up the basis for a more thorough and comprehensive Armenian Diaspora-wide representative body that will help to negotiate a matter of vital importance to the Armenian nation.
Avedis Hadjian is a writer and editor born in Aleppo, Syria, and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from an early age. He is the author of the forthcoming book A Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. He has worked as an editor and correspondent in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, China, and South America, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Bloomberg News, and other newspapers and news sites. He was educated in Buenos Aires and in Cambridge, England, and lives in New York.