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ARMENIAN STATE TELEVISION GIVES UNPRECEDENTED COVERAGE TO THE PARIS MEETING OF ARMENIAN AND TURKISH INTELLECTUALS; USES OPPORTUNITY TO ATTACK GERARD J. LIBARIDIAN; ON THE PURSUIT FOR GENOCIDE RECOGNITION AND DIALOGUE REGARDING IT. Armenian News Network / Groong July 5, 2000 By Ara Sanjian BEIRUT, LEBANON The First Channel of Armenian State Television, which also broadcasts via satellite to Europe and the Middle East, offered unprecedented and extensive coverage to the June 17, 2000 meeting between a selected number of Armenian and Turkish intellectuals. The event, held in the hall of the French Senate in Paris, was organized by the Paris-based Research Center on the Armenian Diaspora (CRDA; founder and president: Jean-Claude Kebabdjian) under the patronage of the President of the French Senate, Mr. Christian Poncelet. According to media reports preceding the event, the meeting aimed at placing future Turkish-Armenian relations on a new footing, while refraining as much as possible from hostile recriminations that had hitherto aggravated relations between the two nations. The French Senate has refused twice, in recent months, to consider a bill to formalize French recognition of the Armenian Genocide, an act initiated on May 29, 1998 by a vote in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Poncelet, however, had visited the Armenian Genocide memorial and museum in Yerevan in 1999 and had stated, prior to the June 17 meeting, that 'it is not too late to induce Turkey to make up with its neighbors, especially Armenia, and to come to terms with its own history, as other countries have done.' In the end, Poncelet was not himself present at the meeting, which was reportedly presided over by a member of the French resistance. A message by Poncelet was read, however, to the assembled audience. Two of the three Armenian participants invited to deliver papers during the gathering were from Yerevan: Lavrentii Barseghian, the Director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Tsitsernakaberd, Yerevan; and Hakob Tchakerian, a senior researcher on Turkey in the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. They were accompanied to Paris by freelance journalist Hamo Moskoffian, CRDA's representative in Armenia, and Arthur Grigorian of Armenian State Television. Prior to their departure, Barseghian, Tchakerian and Moskoffian were invited to appear on the state TV's very popular nightly talk-show, Kesgisherayin Chepntats (Midnight Express), hosted by Arthur Bakhtamian. The meeting was the first item on the news bulletin, 'Haylour' for two consecutive evenings, while footage filmed by Grigorian was later shown on the same news bulletin on two separate occasions after his return from Paris. Barseghian, Tchakerian and Moskoffian again appeared on Kesgisherayin Chepntats after their return to share their impressions with and answer to questions from the audience. 'Such meetings have not been held in the last decade,' meaning, since Armenia regained its independence, erroneously claimed Barseghian during the program, ignoring, for example, the Chicago conference with the participation of some top-class Turkish and Armenian historians in March this year. No intellectual from Armenia, as far as this author aware, had been invited to the said gathering, however. What follows is a summary of the report the delegation from Armenia presented to its audience back home, for the full texts of the speeches made in Paris have not, to the best of my knowledge, been made public yet, while the footage shown on Armenian State Television was relatively short and probably very selective. Nor was this author present at the chamber to listen to the speeches himself. The attendant analysis is more about how this new type of Turkish-Armenian dialogue should be treated by Armenian intellectuals and the media rather than a political and/or scientific evaluation of the full content of the speeches made in Paris. It is important to comment on how these tentative attempts to establish some sort direct communication between Armenian and Turkish intellectuals have been reported to the public in Armenia. Such an attempt can help us better perceive what this section of Armenia's intellectual elite understands by saying Turkish-Armenian dialogue. Barseghian reported that he had stated in his paper that the Armenians could never forget the genocide. He considered the modern republican government in Turkey to be the legal continuation of the Ottoman Empire and therefore called on the Turkish government to condemn the policies of the Young Turks during the First World War, recognize the Armenian Genocide and offer compensation to the Armenian victims and their survivors. Tchakerian reportedly analyzed the present state of affairs between Armenia and Turkey. He reminded that the late Turkish President, Turgut Ozal, had ominously cautioned the Armenians more than once - during the 'hot' stages of the Karabagh conflict with Azerbaijan - to 'learn from their experience in Anatolia!' It is in Turkey's interest, argued Tchakerian, to improve its links with Armenia. This would increase economic opportunities for Turkish businessmen in Armenia and decrease Ankara's political tensions with Armenia's much stronger friend, Russia. Both Barseghian and Tchakerian were satisfied with the paper delivered by Ragip Zarakolu, the Turkish publisher by now famous among Armenian circles. Zarakolu reportedly praised the role the Armenians had played in Ottoman society and was very critical of the policies of the Young Turk regime during the First World War. He called for an official Turkish apology, and a concerted effort to tell about the historical truth (i.e. the huge losses suffered by the Armenians) to Turkish citizens today. He suggested that a symbolic compensation should be offered to Armenian victims. Armenian historical monuments, now abandoned in Turkey, should be preserved and reconstructed, and new monuments should be erected in Turkey in the memory of the massacred Armenians. The reaction of the Yerevan delegation was more cautious toward the papers of Turkish journalist Oral Calislar and Mete Tuncay, the famous historian of left-wing movements in the Ottoman Empire and Republican Turkey. To start with, both had avoided the use of the term 'genocide' in their papers and had preferred to describe the oft-debated events of the First World War as 'deportations.' Calislar, who, like Zarakolu, had previously visited Armenia, nevertheless argued that this crime should be condemned. He added that the Armenians in Turkey had also suffered terribly during the imposition of a Capital Tax (Varlik vergisi) during the Second World War. Calislar did not reportedly fail to point out, however, that people in Turkey had now become more tolerant toward ethnic minorities. Mete Tuncay reportedly put the blame squarely on politicians, both Turk and Armenian. Politicians' decrees should not teach historians what to say about the events in 1915, said the professor. When thinking about Armenians, Tuncay said, he was basically interested about those living as a minority in Turkey or as the latter's neighbors in the Republic of Armenia; Armenians living further abroad concerned him much less. He called on Armenians to accept the reality that none of the Turkish governments in the next few years would be ready to recognize the genocide, for that would entail going against prevailing Turkish public opinion. Both sides, he suggested, should apologize to one another for past misdeeds. He, for example, could expect an apology from the descendants of the Armenian fedayees, who killed his grandfather when the city of Erzerum was occupied by the Russian army in early 1916. Looking to the future, however, Tuncay reportedly said that Armenian and Turkish governments should not encourage the publication of provocative and tendentious historical works on both sides and hence not sacrifice the long-term future of their peoples to their short-term political interests. Arthur Grigorian, in his report to 'Haylour,' was equally concerned about references made to possible territorial exchanges in the passages in Tuncay's speech relating to the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Mountainous Karabagh. The most intense tirade, however, was reserved against the third Armenian participant, Gerard J. Libaridian. Journalist Grigorian presented the senior advisor to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian as 'having an Armenian forename and surname,' 'an American passport.' He rhetorically asked 'who was Libaridian representing during the gathering.' One possible explanation, by Grigorian, was that the organizers 'may have invited him to balance the Turkish democrats.' Libaridian had spoken in French. In the brief footage shown in Armenian translation on Armenian National TV, he reportedly described the prevailing Armenian stand regarding the consequences of the genocide as 'blind and stubborn.' In the past, he reportedly said, all the Armenians had condemned all the Turks for the massacres, as if all the Armenians had been waging a struggle against all the Turks. The memory of the genocide is, according to Libaridian, one of the foundation stones of the modern Armenian Diaspora; it organizes and unites that Diaspora. He went on to state that some Armenians have gone as far as questioning the legality of the Turkish state. Recognizing the genocide is, for some, according to the report on Libaridian's speech, only a first step to recover lost Armenian territory. Barseghian further reported that Libaridian had said that former President Ter-Petrosian and his political party, the Armenian National Movement, did not want to raise the issue of genocide recognition with the Turkish government when they were in power. Again according to Barseghian, Libaridian went on 'to mock' current Armenian President Robert Kocharian's belief that it is possible for Armenia to improve links with Turkey while continuing, at the same time, to raise the issue of genocide recognition in international forums. Barseghian defended Kocharian's stand; he and others repeatedly pointed out with approval that genocide recognition has, in the past two years (i.e. since the election of Kocharian) been high on the Armenian government's foreign policy agenda. The television pointed out that two Turkish activists now living in Germany, Ali Ertem, chairperson of the Association of People Opposed to Genocide and sociologist Taner Akcam, who were both present in the chamber, rebuffed in their impromptu speeches what Libaridian had said. No further details were given of what Ertem and Akcam had actually said. Finally, it was pointed out that Libaridian had been the only invited speaker, who refused to sign the joint declaration issued after the gathering. He reportedly objected against making any mention of the Armenian Question in the text. The Turkish participants, on the other hand, were reported to have easily consented to the final text. As Barseghian, Tchakerian and Moskoffian were speaking on Kesgisherayin Chepntats about the negative impression they had received of Libaridian, viewers phoned in to express their dismay at what the senior adviser to former President Ter-Petrosian had done. One caller even expressed doubts that Libaridian was an Armenian, generating clearly audible laughter from at least one of the invited guests. Journalist Grigorian, in his turn, called on the Armenian public to Ponder about the real identity and motives of those who were directing Armenia's foreign policy (i.e. Libaridian and his colleagues) during the tenure of the previous administration. It is unfortunate that Libaridian himself did not get any opportunity to present his own point of view to the Armenian public. This author is not aware if National TV had invited him to express his opinion directly. Not having listened to or read the full speech made by Libaridian in Paris, this author will purposely refrain from any comment - either positive or negative - about any of the specific ideas attributed to Libaridian above or about its direction. Actually, venturing with any definitive personal judgment or opinion based solely on sources apparently intent on undermining Libaridian's credibility will undoubtedly be unprofessional by today's accepted standards for objectivity. It appears, however, from what has been reported by his critics, that the general tone of Libaridian's speech in Paris did not depart much what he had said recently in his latest book, The Challenge of Statehood, as well as during the above-mentioned Chicago conference in March. The Armenian State Television's - especially Haylour's - attitude toward Libaridian - a pillar in the regime that the incumbent President helped bring down in 1998 - was perhaps predictable. There is still an intense debate in Armenia about how state-owned media outlets should report the day-to-day news to the public. Should they be the accepted mouthpiece of the government in office (now that there are also other, independent newspapers, radio and TV stations) or should they still try to remain neutral - as a state budget-financed form of public service - when reporting on disagreements between the government and the parties in opposition? Within this context, it has been repeatedly underlined by observers that Armenian journalists in general (and not only those working for state-owned media outlets) have not still mastered the art of separating fact from opinion. The legacy that the Kocharian administration inherited in this regard from the earlier Communist and Ter-Petrosian administrations was not an encouraging one. Both had turned the state-owned media into a tool to fight their political opponents. Under Kocharian, the state-owned media was making real progress towards taking a more objective position than the Armenian public had ever been accustomed to before. The state TV's coverage of the 1999 parliamentary election campaign, for example, was incomparably better than its extremely biased coverage of the 1996 presidential elections had been. It is alarming, however, to notice a significant retreat in this regard ever since the assassinations of October 27 and the attempt by some followers of the murdered Prime Minister, Vazgen Sargsian, to implicate Kocharian and some of his closest associates with the killings. In recent months, the national TV's (the majority on the board of which consists of the president's supporters) Haylour has categorically sided with Kocharian in its news reporting, criticizing the way the investigation of the terrorists and other suspects of the October 27 case was being handled by the military prosecutor's office. The political parties and the families of the chief victims were at one time extremely unhappy with the coverage of the investigation on state TV. They demanded the dismissal of the pro-Kocharian head of the state television, and the latter ultimately resigned). Kocharian seems to have weathered that political storm. He and his chief political ally of the moment, Defense Minister Serge Sargsian, now seem to be more in direct charge of day-to-day events than at any time since Kocharian's election as President in March 1998. There seems to be no reason to doubt that the President will continue to use his grip on national TV to further entrench his and his followers' grip on power. Parallel to these developments, Haylour has also become extremely critical toward the pillars of the former administration of Levon Ter-Petrosian. Previously the tendency had been more to ignore rather than attack them. The reporting on the rallies organized in recent weeks by the Union of Right Wing Forces (a coalition of small parties close to Ter-Petrosian) has consistently been very negative. Haylour is also very supportive of the conclusions reached by the ad-hoc parliamentary committee to investigate mismanagement and corruption in the energy sector during the Ter-Petrosian administration, which accused successive governments of the early 1990s of embezzling around 200 million US Dollars only in that sector when the country was almost totally without electricity. It has downplayed (while reporting) the objections raised by former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian and others regarding the plausibility of the findings of The said commission. Supporters of Ter-Petrosian have been labeled as 'revanchists' by Haylour staff on numerous occasions. It can be argued (quite convincingly in this author's opinion) that many in Armenia do still resent the seven years of the Ter-Petrosian administration for the sharp economic decline, corruption, and the unprecedented levels of difference between the newly rich and the impoverished in the country. It is extremely doubtful if the desires of some of the former associates of Ter-Petrosian to return to power as soon as possible has any tangible support among the Armenian public at large, at least for the moment. The professionalism of the state-owned media of a country knocking at the doors of the Council of Europe dictates, however, that these negative opinions be aired through interviews with politicians and members of the public, and not with the reporters taking upon themselves the role of the critic. Based on Haylour's record in recent months, the attitude taken by Grigorian toward Libaridian could have been seen as just another link in the chain of criticism leveled against Ter-Petrosian and his supporters. What was surprising in this case was the apparent taking of sides by Kesgisherayin Chepntats, whose very popular anchor Arthur Bakhtamian had consistently avoided till then all kinds of political hot potatoes in his program (launched in August 1999) and had refused categorically to answer to viewers' questions, which contained political undertones. A few other, unnamed Armenians also came under attack during Bakhtamian's program, this time by Moskoffian, for their stand during the gathering, but this issue passed off comparatively lightly and again the audience never learned what they had said or done. Moskoffian added that the French language program of Tehran Radio had conducted a 45-minute interview with him on a mobile phone on the day of the conference. He was told that Iran liked to see the issue of the Armenian genocide discussed in international forums, and not only the Jewish Holocaust. Moreover, Moskoffian said that attempts were under way to organize a similar meeting in the future, this time under the auspices of the German Bundestag. The Armenian television viewers were told by Tchakerian that Turkish newspapers, like Hurriyet, Yeni Gundem and Cumhuriyet, as well as a few private TV stations, had covered the gathering. Hurriyet, said Tchakerian, had published its report the very next day, but had only printed extracts from the speeches made by Kebabdjian and Libaridian; Tchakerian's and Barseghian's more forceful speeches were - 'conveniently' ignored, according to the former. Finally, the Armenian State Television showed footage from the unrelated Armenian demonstration of June 18 in Paris, organized by the 'April 24' committee, on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the European Parliament. The French demonstrators of Armenian ethnicity again demanded from their Senate to ratify the lower house's recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The television also showed extracts from Lavrentii Barseghian's address to the demonstrators. This was a resume of how the Armenian State TV made the issue of Turkish-Armenian dialogue an issue of public discussion. Increasing Encounters between Turkish and Armenian intellectuals from various walks of life have become a positive feature of the recent decade. It is extremely encouraging that more and more people are gradually getting involved in this yet largely unregulated process. The invitation extended to two scholars from Armenia was a very correct and useful decision taken by the CRDA, and it provided the opportunity for the State TV (and probably other media outlets in Armenia) to broach this very important subject. Previous contacts of this kind (and attendant Armenian media coverage) had largely been confined to the Diaspora. Such a delicate issue in the Armenian psyche cannot be the preserve of one segment of the nation alone. Yet, as the circle of those involved in the discussions is increasing, differing attitudes about how to evaluate the past or the present and what to demand from the 'other side' are coming more and more openly to the fore. This author wishes to look at the criticism leveled at Libaridian by the two other Armenian participants through this prism, thus widening its implications from the relatively narrow confines of points-scoring between different political factions - which might have been one of the prime motives of Haylour. It seems inevitable that Turkish and Armenian intellectuals interested in this issue should also seriously discuss it with people from 'their own side.' Some measure of infighting seems to be inevitable in any dialogue between two nations with a troublesome history that has produced seemingly unbridgeable mutual suspicions. In Israel, for example, opposing groups of historians and educators have become extremely divided about how to treat their country's past and are very acrimonious toward one another as negotiations with Palestinians continue. It is necessary, however, that such differences - not only across the 'national' fence, but more importantly within each camp - be expressed in a polite and respectful manner. The dressing of the assassinated Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin in the uniform of a Nazi officer or in the headgear associated with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in composite photos prepared and raised in demonstrations by his radical political opponents did not help strengthen national unity to say the least. The way Libaridian was treated - irrespective of what he actually said and how people may interpret it - again does not serve this purpose, although this author remains convinced that the reasons behind the stand taken by Barseghian and Tchakerian on Kesgisherayin Chepntats emanated from their fundamental differences with Libaridian in outlook and not from personal antipathies. As the circle of the dialogue is expanding, it is high time for Armenian intellectuals to openly admit that there is a lot to talk about (even in 'purely' Armenian circles) in addition to defining a workable strategy to attain the decades-old desire for the current government of Turkey to accept some sort of responsibility for the genocide, apologize for the severe losses suffered by the Armenian deportees in 1915 and stop its campaign to prevent open discussion of these events and their repercussions. This author is not a specialist in the history of the Armenian Genocide. However, as an instructor in twentieth century Armenian history to Lebanese college students of mostly Armenian extraction, he has to cover arguably the most seminal event in modern Armenian history and has gradually come to realize that the general Armenian understanding (in his case, among the university attending youth) of what exactly happened and why during the events under discussion is extremely simplistic and stereotypified. So is the image of the Turk. There is yet a lot to study, to uncover and to pass on to the younger generations, and any constructive dialogue with 'the other side' may gradually help achieve that. This dialogue is new. It is therefore to some extent dangerous and certainly very unpredictable. Chances have to be taken, however, for, as any scientist will tell you, without a risk there is no hope of any progress. 'Internal' dialogues within each camp can help minimize such risks, overcome theoretical and ideological differences, make sure that the ranks of the supporters of dialogue remain strong and united as much as possible. The descendants of the Armenian Genocide and their ethnic kin now live in various parts of the world, under different social, economic and educational systems. Their modern understanding of the events of 1915 is partly shaped by the different intellectual milieu in which they live and work. Armenian scholars of the Genocide are the product of these differing environments and their views and priorities are partly shaped by the latter. Writers on the Genocide in America, for example, did not face the same obstacles as those writing about the same topic under Soviet rule, and vice versa. It is imperative that these nuances be admitted and respected by the scholars themselves prior to engaging in tirades and accusations of people not sharing their views as being 'worse than the Turks.' Those who wish to break new ground - in either camp - should not feel obliged to look behind their shoulders - toward the traditionalists in 'their own side' - every time they make a statement or publish an article. Dialogues cannot succeed in an atmosphere of inquisition and psychological terror. The Armenian State TV, this author believes, would have done greater service to its audience had it spent greater effort to videotape interviews with the various participants in the Paris meeting, put some of the troubling questions to them directly and broadcast their answers. The viewers would have gained much more - especially at this early stage in the dialogue - had they had the opportunity to listen directly to all shades of opinion - both Turkish and Armenian. A live (or at least recorded) debate between people with differing points of view would have been more informative. Turkish social scientists who care to bury the hatchet with the Armenians are facing similar difficulties with their more traditionalist compatriots, not to mention the state authorities. Moreover, they are openly admitting it in their interviews with the Armenian media. They do not seem to be afraid to be labeled as being 'worse than the Armenians.' ----------------------------------------------------------------- Ara Sanjian is an Assistant Professor in History at Haigazian University, Beirut.