It is either in the context of a genocide resolution in the American Congress or with the French Parliament passing legislation criminalizing genocide denial that we debate our own history.
The result is often a reactive nationalist defense: They are always wrong and we are always right. Since there is tension in the air, no attempt is made at understanding why the whole world has a very different interpretation of what happened to Armenians in 1915 to our own.
In less than three years, by 2015, Turkey will find itself in a similar dilemma. Once again, it will be external dynamics that will drive the domestic debate. Turkey will likely react in an acerbic and nationalist way to Western attempts at commemorating the centennial of the Armenian genocide.
What can be done to avoid such an ordeal? The obvious answer is to start thinking about Armenian-Turkish relations now, before the pressure of a ticking clock kicks in. Otherwise, a sense of urgency and alarm will once again dominate the domestic debate. Any step taken very close to 2015 will also be perceived by Armenia and the international community as a desperate attempt at staving off accusations of genocide.
Instead of panicking shortly before 2015, the Turkish government needs to pursue a multidimensional strategy, starting now. The first dimension of the strategy should be to open the border with Armenia. This will have to be a unilateral gesture of Turkish goodwill, independent of the frozen protocols process.
As is well known, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government decided to link the ratifications of the protocols (aiming at full normalization with Armenia) to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Such a policy has practically blocked the whole process since it became impossible for Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan to convince his own public's opinion (and the millions of Armenians in the diaspora) that Turkey is serious about normalizing relations without preconditions.
The Turkish decision to establish a precondition for normalization with Armenia was shortsighted. Any attempt to pass the protocols will now be opposed by pro-Azerbaijani nationalist circles in Turkey on the grounds that no progress has been made in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. This is why Turkey needs to act without any reference to protocols. The opening of the border with Armenia should be presented to the Turkish public as Turkey's own goodwill initiative and as evidence that Ankara wants to create momentum for normalization with Armenia and for some future breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh.
The second dimension of the Turkish strategy before 2015 should be to talk about 1915 in the context of what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu calls “fair memory.” Davutoğlu wants to contextualize what happened in 1915 in the broader framework of a humanitarian disaster caused by a crumbling Ottoman Empire. In addition to Armenian sufferings, he wants to refer to the Turkish losses in the Balkans and Caucuses, millions of Muslims killed or uprooted from their lands before and during World War I, the losses at Gallipoli and Sarıkamış as “our shared tragedy.” Davutoğlu appears to be ready, as he indicated to a group of Turkish journalists last week, to show empathy for 1915 as long as the context is defined as a broader framework of a “shared tragedy,” where there is also Armenian empathy for Turkish losses.
Although problematic, this is a step in the right direction. Talking about a shared tragedy is better than denying what happened to Armenians in 1915. However, one thing should be clear: Unless there is an official Turkish apology for the tragedy of 1915 (no need to call it genocide), similar to the one Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan articulated for Dersim a few months ago, such a narrative about “fair memory” will fall on deaf ears.
It is simply unrealistic to expect Armenia to show much empathy for Turkish losses. After all, Armenia and Armenians are not responsible for the Turkish agony at Gallipoli, the Balkans and Ottoman losses during World War I. Yet, it is impossible to deny a Turkish sense of responsibility for the tragedy of 1915. What Turkey calls the deportation or relocation of Armenians may very well have been in reaction to a perceived sense of threat of Armenian nationalism. Yes, Armenians have also killed Turks. But “fair memory” requires an honest look at Anatolia today. We cannot come to terms with the total absence of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia today without an apology. Let's start thinking about 1915 and what can be done about 2015 before others start thinking for us.