Cablegate: "Alternative Armenian Conference" Goes Forward

Published: Tue 27 Sep 2005 04:47 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
B. ANKARA 4951
C. ANKARA 3032
1. (U) Summary: The "Alternative Armenian
Conference" (on Armenians in the late Ottoman
Empire) unfolded without incident on September 24 and 25
at a campus of its third organizer, Bilgi University,
less than 48 hours after an Istanbul court had attempted
to block it. Foreign Minister Gul, who, along with PM
Erdogan, had earlier condemned the court's intervention,
saluted the initiative and expressed hope it would contribute
to improving relations with Armenia. It was a victory of
courage and persistence for conference organizers and
presenters; the government,s reaction is without precedent.
Widely covered in the press, the conference attracted only
scattered protests, although some participants were
splattered with tomatoes and eggs. Still to be seen is the
reaction of the Turkish legal system, which in the past has
sought to prosecute those who dared to question Turkish
orthodoxy on the events of 1915. End Summary.
2. (SBU) With GOT encouragement and support, three
Istanbul universities faced down a court order and
nationalist protesters to hold their twice-postponed
"Alternative Armenian" conference at an "alternative"
location. Following Justice Minister Cicek's suggestion,
conference organizers quickly moved the event to Bilgi
University, the third co-organizer, unnamed in the court
injunction (ref A) and opened there on September 23. The
original three-day program was condensed into two. More than
300 participants stayed for close to 12 hours on both
Saturday and Sunday to hear panel after panel of historians,
sociologists and journalists -- more than 40 in total --
challenge the traditional Turkish narrative about the mass
killings and forced deportation of ethnic Armenians in
3. (U) Presenters covered topics ranging from academic
issues (inadequate archival information, biased
interpretations, and politicization of the issue), to
historical facts (the relationship between societies in the
Ottoman Empire, tales of escape, witness reports) and present
day implications, including the "historical-psychological
suffocation of Turkish public opinion on the Armenian
problem." While the "G Word" -- a term the presenters,
themselves used in English -- was uttered on more than one
occasion, participants were at pains to explain that the
conference's aim was not to decide whether or not genocide
had been committed, but to freely air academic views on a
heretofore taboo subject.
A Milestone
4. (U) There was an air of nervous excitement and a sense
that history was being made inside the conference grounds
Saturday morning, as registrars carefully checked for
invitations and identity documents. Even academics who had
earlier expressed skepticism, saying the event had "lost its
academic value," acknowledged that the mere fact they were
holding it marked an important mi\estone. Several
participants praised Bilgi University for stepping in at the
last minute.
5. (SBU) Conference organizing committee member Edhem Eldem
was modest in his characterization of the event, saying that
it was perhaps "a little naive" to think the conference would
change things at a national level. For his part,
controversial Turkish scholar Halil Berktay saw the event as
immensely important and told poloff that the conference was
no longer about history, but about democracy and the role of
civil society in Turkey. Hrant Dink, publisher of Turkey's
only Armenian-language newspaper, Agos, thought another major
benefit of the conference could be to soften the Armenian
diaspora's hard attitudes.
View on GOT Reaction: Thumbs Up
6. (U) Several conference participants expressed to us
satisfaction with the government response to Thursday's
cancellation notice (ref A). In addition to the Prime
Minister and Foreign Minister's comments condemning the
conference's postponement, even Turkey's Higher Education
Board (YOK), often a source of controversy itself, received
points from this academic community for its statement
criticizing the court's intervention. Participants also
expressed appreciation for the tone of the messag&*from
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, delivered at the opening of
the conference by Bogazici University Rector Ayse Soysal.
7. (U) In his greeting, Gul pledged Turkey would continue
work in modernizing its archives, and said that a deeper
examination of history would contribute to improved relations
between governments and peoples. He pointed to Turkey and
Armenia's 1000 years of shared history, during which the two
societies contributed to each other's culture, prosperity and
security. He claimed that
tolerance toward Armenians in Turkish society "constitutes a
major advantage for the future of relations between the two
peoples." He lamented that many historical studies about
that "tragic period" were subjective and politicized, and
stressed that society must learn what happened and draw
lessons from the facts. He added that he hoped the
"alternative" conference would constitute a contribution to
awareness-raising. (Complete text of Gul remarks e-mailed to
More on Content
8. (U) After opening remarks by the rectors of Bogazici,
Sabanci and Bilgi universities, the first panel comprised
presenters whom one observer called "the most hated by the
nationalists" (Murat Belge, Halil Berktay and Selim
Deringil). Composed but tense, they kicked off the event,
and had visually relaxed by the Q and A session. Throughout
the day, while not shying away from provocative language
about historical facts, presenters focused on the importance
of breaking taboos and confronting denial. Fikret Adanir, a
Turkish historian who has for years challenged Turkish
orthodoxy on the events of 1915, instead of striking a
controversial tone, noted that the most important thing was
for the government to brin'about conditions to allow
everyone to examine all available information for themselves
and make up their Nn minds. This remark brought the
greatest applause of the day on Saturday. Day two,s
presentations took oa "therapy s!ssion" character at times,
with one presenter 4ting that t(Y Qmenian and TMQish
people needed two clinics: one for trauma and one
for paranoia.
9. (U) Throughout the weekend there were lamentations about
diversity lost forever and "defense mechanisms" used by Turks
when discussing thE$topic. TheQighlight of Sunday, however,
was an emotional presentation by Hrant Dink, who moved many
in he audience to tears. Dink, who already has two cases
opened against him in Istanbul courts for "insulting the
state," used the expression "I am a person from Turkey,"
rather than a Turk, to descriwe himself anDexplained whyuArmenians feel
attached to the land here - they want, he
said, to be buried where they camQ from. Many drew parallels
between the "Armenian problem" and the currently Kurdish
pr-Qlem, with warnings about the danger of the mass
mobilization of hate.
10. (U) Most questions posed to the panelists were respectful
an in the spirit of an academic onference. Examples
include, "Why did many Armenians run to Syria, still part of
the Ottoman Empire, if the empire were so evil?" and "Did
researchers have any exact number of fully emptied villageQC
around Ankara that had been referenced?" And from a
U.S.-based Turkish scholar, "Why didn,t the conference
organizers invite independent,academic voice+`from the
Armenian diaspora?"
Lonely disenters, outnumbered protesters
11. (SBU) A few participants did attempt to interrupt
speakers and provoke a reaction. One such interjector
apparently came from the ranks of the nationalist Turkish
Forum group, which includes several retired generals. In
another instance, one Marmara University professor engaged in
a loud exchange with several participants. The incident
ended quickly, and the professor reportedly decided to leave
the conference, but not before cameras had captured a heated
discussion between him and presenter Halil Berktay. (Note:
Some academics at the conference told us they wished Berktay
would not be so provocative; it made them uncomfortable. End
12. (U) Promised protests were limited, causing
anti-conference commentators on a Kanal B television program
Sunday night to appear perplexed as to why so few in a city
of 15 million had come out to express their outrage. On
Saturday morning, some 250-300 Workers Party members
demonstrated, chanting slogans against, among other things,
philanthropist George Soros, who contributes to Bilgi
University. (Bilgi organizers reportedly took out 300
sandwiches to offer the protesters, which they refused.) In
the afternoon, a demonstration by members of the Nationalist
People's Party (MHP) was quickly dispersed and, by the time
participants exited in the afternoon, just a small group of
protesters lingered. Despite their relatively small numbers,
however, protesters did inflict some damage, as they showered
attendees, including former Deputy Prime Minister Erdal
Inonu, with eggs and rotten tomatoes. Inonu nevertheless
made a dignified exit on foot, refusing to accept police
offers of a taxi and instead facing down the demonstrators.
13 (SBU) Comment: It is a tribute to the courage and
persistence of this conference,s organizers and presenters
that it finally got off the ground. The government deserves
plaudits for its defense of the conference,s right to
proceed this time around.
14. (SBU) Comment, continued: This conference represents a
milestone for academic freedom in Turkey. It remains to be
seen if it represents a milestone in freedom of expression as
well, as it is not out of the question that a prosecutor
could open a case against one or more participants for their
remarks to the conference. (The conference was filmed in its
entirety by several news agencies, so there will be no
question about what was actually said.) But, this conference
is only the most recent example showing that social change is
afoot and more open public debate on the rise. End comment.
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