An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole
First published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.
PROF. GERARD J. LIBARIDIAN Retired in 2012, Professor Gerard J. Libaridian held the Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History and was director of the Armenian Studies Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr. Libaridian was a co-founder of the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, as well as the editor of the Armenian Review. His most recent work, Modern Armenia. People. Nation. State was released in 2008. He is currently working on a new volume, Anatomy of Conflict: Nagorno Karabakh and the New World Order.” From 1991 to 1997, he served as adviser, and then senior adviser (foreign and security policies) to the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian. Starting in 1992, Prof. Libaridian was Armenia’s chief negotiator with Turkey for five years. It was during that time frame that Turkey agreed to the transfer of essential wheat to Armenia through its seaport of Trabzon. Turkey discontinued the deliveries later in 1993 but the help to Armenia remains significant at the time, since the country was hit hard by an extremely harsh winter, exacerbated by the effects of the Abkhas-Georgian war.
Did you have a particular approach when you were heavily involved in diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey in the early nineties?
There was the simple truth that I presented. There’s an Armenia and it has neighbors. The neighbors are not gonna move away, neither are we. So, where does security come from? Security comes from having good neighbors. The security is either with good policy, solid policy, or, it’s Russia. If it’s Russia, then you don’t have independence. That’s all there is to it. Now, the question is can you trust Turkey? Well, maybe I don’t know that, but what I say and do matters as to what Turkey says and does, that I know.
I would not have become independent if I didn’t think that we had a chance. But we have to create those chances, we have to create those options. And, and we need to work with Turkey and the Turkish people and the Turkish government. All of them, all of the parties we have to work with them because then, we are agents in our own history. Otherwise we don’t have history. Otherwise we have victim‑hood and those damn Turks will kill us…if that’s what you think, as some do, then forget about independence and then Armenians can become a diaspora, or Armenia can become a small theme park for tourists…You should have seen what was written about me when I first went to Ankara, first official visit to start negotiations on a protocol for normalization relations, October 1992. You should have seen what was written about me in the diaspora…I was the devil incarnate. Some people called me a Turk. Some people said, “Who says he’s Armenian?”
So they hated you for that? Who exactly were they? Those are people whose religion is simple black and white, who feel comfortable as victims and as moralizers against those who victimize them. I have basic strong moral principles but I do not do politics and politically assessments on the basis of morality. Good, bad, right, evil, angel. I don’t do that. I look at what exists and where we want to go, where we could possibly go. First I go after the possible, which doesn’t mean I don’t take chances, but I work very hard to create possibilities and go after them.
For example, Armenia’s foreign policy should be aimed at creating options…Armenia cannot have certainty. Not only because of Turkey, but because of Russia, because of everyone, and because of who we are, how we run what we have to govern. So that uncertainty is the necessary precondition to be able to function. And then at the same time, the ability to see opportunity where there were none, to create opportunities there. And this means really thinking. And some people don’t like thinking. Some people like certainties and they seek sudden things in the moral sphere. We are this, they are that. It’s the simple thinking… and you hate, because you don’t have the perspective, you don’t the software to go somewhere in between. And it becomes a matter of threat, it’s a threat.
Could you speak to the question of “inevitability” in the context of the Armenian genocide…as in was it inevitable, was it going to happen no matter what?
Was it preordained? Were there no other options? Two things: One is what happened and we characterized it. And we saw the enormity of it. We started to think that it was inevitable…And if it’s the victim that we are cherishing, then we must also accept the inevitability because if we were political, or victims of political ploys then, we are not saints. Sainthood comes from saying the Turks were going to do this regardless, it is in the character of the Turk to do this, if it’s in the character of the Turks to do this, then we don’t need historical explanations. Right? History doesn’t matter. It’s in the character!
I mean it is genocide, but how do I interpret it? I interpret it as not just an ethnic or religious thing, but also a political thing. That Armenians, through the Dashnaktsutiune and Hnchakian represented the left wing of the Ottoman political spectrum…So if the Ittihad decided the Armenians are too left‑wing, it wasn’t enough to kill the leaders. You’d have to get rid of the whole grassroots because of their vision of what Turkey should look like after the war as a minimum if they lost, as a maximum if they won…And getting rid of Armenians was a political decision as much as anything else, not just ethnic. All right? Not just ethnic. Most people focus on the ethnic. What I’m saying is that there is something beyond the ethnic.
The Libaridian family’s roots go back to Knight Libarid, the last commander-in-chief of the King of Cilicia, the medieval Armenian kingdom. They moved from the Cilician capital of Sis to Tarsus where Prof. Libaridian’s father was born in 1907. His mother’s family comes from Urfa, a major Armenian settlement extending back several centuries. He and his five siblings all grew up in Northern Lebanon.
Do you think the way Armenians think about their relationship with Turks or Turkey changes depending on their personal background, profession or education? Of course it changes. It changes whether you’re really involved in the community or not. Whether you have relations with Turkey, it changes with generations, it changes with experience in life…Meeting a Turk or not, and most of them have not. I remember when I first met a Turk. He was a good friend of my father’s. Selami Bey. He had been an Ottoman bureaucrat in Beirut and he stayed in Beirut. And he used to come to our house with his fez. We loved him. He would come and advise my mother and he would advise my father, and he was, you know, the non‑involved but trusted man in the family…so people have these experiences…And I think there has been a process of humanization of the Turk. And that’s because people have actually gone there.
When we talk about Armenian-Turkish relations over the past decade, where or how would you place the role of WATS (Workshop on Armenian Turkish Scholarship)? I was a participant…it was a small group, maybe 13 people…It was very nervous at the beginning. Already, without people knowing what was going to happen, were strong reactions from both the Turkish side and the Armenian side. What are these guys doing? Can you imagine? This is 2000. Most of us were saying we need to develop a framework, a context within which to discuss the issue of the genocide in a way that will encompass the best of the minds…And we all agreed that it was necessary to have intellectual integrity and respect. Whether you use the term genocide or not, it’s not the main issue. The issue is: Do I trust you that when you don’t call it genocide, you do it for good historical, scientific, intellectual reasons? And then we can talk about it…And those who might have, in other forums, used the insulting terms would not do it because we had set a pattern. I mean, you go into a club and you live by the rules of the club and that had a beneficial impact. It encouraged young scholars, both Armenian but certainly Turkish scholars, the young generation, to find a place where they could talk about this.
How important do you think the intra-group relations are when it comes to discussing Armenian-Turkish relations? The variety of opinions within the respective communities? In a way it’s healthy, but I’m not sure that we have discovered or really focused on the tools that make it constructive. We’re finding it the hard way, because neither Turks nor Armenians have a forum where they can think these things through. Where the different positions could be crystallized, characterized, and say, “OK, these are now the differences, and let’s talk about it, and we should talk about it, and we should come together to talk about it.” There are so many differences, both within the Turkish spectrum, and the Armenian spectrum.
How would you describe the Armenian spectrum? I mean, you can have an Armenian family come from Beirut…where everything’s Armenian, and Armenianness is concrete, and daily, and then another family may come and in ten years have no relevance to anything Armenian, and no relationship for different reasons…Now, one other observation that is as deep as this issue of the genocide and the corollary relations with Turks and Turkey is that, for most Armenians, this is a sideshow.
How so? I’m not talking about Armenia, but here in the Diaspora it’s a sideshow. Very few people are employed by anything Armenian. Doesn’t relate to their family security. It has nothing to do with your taxes, nothing to do with the way you get married or get divorced…The big decisions in life are not related to this…so what has happened is that some organizations and outfits have tried to capture this issue. The question, the issue of the recognition of the genocide has become a principle of community organization and the principle of legitimation of power…This doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen and that we’re creating it as some Turkish colleagues want to interpret, that we needed one and created it. The fact that Israelis and Jews used the Holocaust doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen…So a lot of what is happening in this community is the visceral, reflexive response which is being strengthened every time the Turkish state makes a damn mistake. And then organizations and media exaggerates this is what Turkey is. And people don’t have either the opportunity or the reason to start changing their views. Change does occur and has occurred, but it’s so goddamn slow until it seeps down into the deep consciousness where you say how do I look at this?
What’s your expectation for 2015 and why? Nothing. I don’t have expectations…What most Armenians expect will not happen. That is Turkey will not recognize what happened as genocide…I’m more worried than hopeful. It doesn’t matter to me what Obama says, and what Hollande says. What I’m worried about, is the let down for most Armenians after April 24 passes. Some conferences will continue, some books will continue coming out, probably will be a video, film and whatever. All of that will happen, but the fundamental issue will not be resolved.
- Related article by Gerard Libaridian:
The “Garbage Bin” Approach to History and Its Discontents, in English or Armenian
- Conversations on Turkish-Armenian Relations: Fatma Müge Göçek
- Conversations on Turkish-Armenian Relations: Taner Akçam