Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan
There has always been some dialogue between Armenians and Turks going back as far as the medieval era, up until the modern and contemporary periods. This dialogue was direct, without sponsorship while often being asymmetrical, namely between the Ottoman State—succeeded by the Republic of Turkey—on the one side and representatives of Armenian institutions (Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople or Armenian political parties) on the other. Rarely in its development, though, has this dialogue brought two sovereign states face to face, with the exception of the period between 1918-1920. Looking back at these past negotiations should shed light on the issues of the present day.
Late 19th Century
Until the Armenian revolutionary movement entered the stage between 1880-1890, the dialogue between Armenians and Turks was limited to negotiations between the Ottoman authorities and the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople—the only Armenian institution recognized by the Sublime Porte within the confines of the Millet system, which granted confessional communities limited rights of self-rule on certain matters. The Patriarchate, which relied on the Armenian clergy, the school network and the charitable organizations scattered throughout the Empire, was solely mandated to advance the interests of this Ottoman Armenian community, estimated at 2 million souls by 1914-1915. A significant change occurred after the Hamidian massacres (in which 250,000 Armenians were killed) and the takeover of the Ottoman Bank by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) on August 14, 1896, at the end of which the Sublime Porte sought to enter into contact with the ARF’s political leadership in exile, in Geneva, Switzerland, from where the Droshak [“Flag”] official party publication was being published. These negotiations remained secret. On the ARF side, they were led by Kristapor Mikaelian, while Artin Pasha Dadian, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was ordered by the Sultan to handle Ottoman diplomatic efforts. However, the Ottoman delegation led by Diran bey Dadian and Dertad bey Dadian had leaked information about this quiet diplomacy to the foreign press by the end of 1897. For its part, the ARF publicly announced the existence of these talks in an editorial in Droshak, dated February 28, 1899. The exchanges lasted from October 1896 to June 1898, ending in complete failure. The two parties announced a mutual break in relations on March 11, 1899. The ARF rejected a pledge by the Sultan to introduce demanded reforms within nine months of an end to violent resistance against Ottoman rule. The ARF argued that the Sultan was promising, under conditions, to essentially reconsider edicts that he had already signed by his own hand in 1878 and again in 1895.
The 1908 Revolution
During the second attempt at Armenian-Turkish negotiations, Ottoman interests were represented by the Young Turks, encompassing two wings: the Jacobins, headed by centralists like Ahmet Riza, and the Girondin decentralists led by Prince Sabahaddin—both notably hostile to the Sultan. The Armenian side was represented by political parties: specifically the ARF and the Social Democrat Hnchakian Party (SDHP). This took the form of a broad opposition coalition to the Padishah’s absolute power in a bid to restore constitutional rule and modernize the Empire. The exchanges began with a proposal by Prince Sabahaddin for an opposition congress scheduled for February 1902 in Paris. The Hnchaks were divided over this proposal, with some among the Reformed (Verakazmyal) wing of the party open to the idea of cooperating with the Girondin wing of the Young Turks, while the party establishment’s position remained firmly opposed. The ARF’s leadership, by contrast, proclaimed itself unanimously in favor of the concept, but a meeting of the party brass in Paris attended by Varantian, Aknuni, Aharonian and Kristapor failed to formulate a coherent negotiating position. Kristapor had voiced his readiness to initiate dialogue with the Turks but refused any cooperation with the Jacobin wing, whose views, as personified in Ahmet Riza, he considered more appalling than those of the Sultan. This dissent was voiced publicly in a highly consequential Droshak editorial dated October 1900 entitled “Union with the Turks”, in which he questions the wisdom of cooperating with an organization which has yet to show itself as a political force to challenge imperial rule. Their commitments remained hard to reconcile with the aggressive nationalism espoused by Ahmet Riza, which was fundamentally incompatible with the principles of liberty.
Thus, the first congress of 1902 ended in a failure to bring the two sides to an agreement, in particular the radicals of Ahmet Riza and the ARF. This rift would eventually lead to a split within the Jacobin wing and the creation of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, or Ittihadists). Five years later, in December 1907, the second congress of opponents to the Sultan was also held in Paris. This time, it did result in an agreement: the famous CUP-ARF accord.
The circumstances leading to these talks were strikingly different from the previous round. Kristapor, who had opposed any agreement with the CUP, had died in 1905, and his successors had dismissed his reservations. The Second Sassoun Uprising had been suppressed in 1904. The Sultan had emerged unscathed from an ARF-sponsored assassination attempt at the Yildiz Mosque on July 21, 1905, which had been condemned by the CUP. Finally, Europe’s socialist leadership, including Jean Jaurès, had lent its support to the CUP and the idea of a congress of opponents constituted around a Turkish-Armenian compromise. This was a condition the Europeans expected the ARF to meet in order to be granted membership in the Second International, which took place at the Congress of Stuttgart in 1907. In exchange for restoring the Constitution, the release of Armenian prisoners and necessary modernization of the Empire, the ARF pledged to suspend Pro Armenia—its Parisian affiliate—as well as lay down arms within the Ottoman Empire, thus ceasing all guerrilla and terrorist operations targeting official representatives of the Empire. The Hnchaks denounced this compromise which was applauded by Ottoman-Armenian conservative and liberal figures, notably including the Patriarch of Constantinople, even though his office would be marginalized by the conditions of the bilateral agreement.
The 1908 Young Turk Revolution effectively removed the Armenian Patriarchate from a representative monopoly. Henceforth, Armenian personalities who surrounded the patriarch had to deal with the revolutionaries of the ARF, allies of the CUP, during the legislative elections in the fall of 1908. The CUP-ARF dialogue held until 1912, when the outbreak of the First Balkan War revived the Armenian Question on the international agenda, as envisaged by Saint Petersburg and the Holy See of Etchmiadzin against the opinion of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Armenian revolutionaries of Turkey. Despite the ARF officially announcing an end to its ties with the CUP, negotiations continued until the summer of 1914, most notably during the 8th ARF World Congress held in Erzurum, by which time World War I broke out in Europe. The rest of the story is well-known.
Armenia’s First Independence
The third attempt at dialogue took place between two former allies, this time as governments of sovereign states: the CUP-led Ottoman Government and the ARF-controlled Government of the Democratic Republic of Armenia, which had just been born out of the rubble of the Russian Civil War. The Ottoman Empire’s official recognition of this fledgling Armenian state—the first such legal entity since the 14th century fall of the Kingdom of Cilician Armenia—caused considerable stir among Armenians. Dissenters, led by famed battlefield commander General Andranik, refused to legitimize this Armenian state, dismissing it as a Turkish-manipulated banana republic for having ceded any claim over Western Armenia.
At the same time, over a four-month period between June and September 1918, an official Armenian Government delegation, led by the ARF-appointed Foreign Minister Alexander Khatisian, was dispatched to Constantinople, where it was wined and dined at the Young Turks’ expense to negotiate the normalization of relations with an Empire which had recently suffered major defeats on the Caucasian and Arab fronts.
Only Levon Shant, originally from Turkey, refused to participate in the negotiations, finding it inconceivable to negotiate with the architects of the Armenian Genocide: Talaat, Jemal, Enver among others.
Was it wrong to go to Constantinople? Were they traitors? Did they even have a choice? The answers to these three questions are “yes”, “no” and “no”, respectively. The national interest obliged the Armenian authorities to go to Constantinople; emotions had no place in politics and, at the time, no one dared to label these Armenian negotiators as “traitors” (with the exception of the Bolsheviks, but that came much later). This obscure episode in Armenia’s diplomatic history—little known even to ARF leaders from the 1950s to the present day—should give pause to those who categorically oppose any dialogue with Turkish officials today.
Loss of Sovereignty
After the First World War, Armenian-Turkish dialogue took on a new dimension. The old imperial regimes, be they Russian or Ottoman, had disappeared; the Bolshevik and Kemalist revolutionaries had taken matters into their own hands in Moscow and Ankara. The Armenians, divided between pro-Bolshevik legitimists and Dashnak separatists, would squabble among themselves to obtain the favor of the Armenian people. Regardless, the Democratic Republic of Armenia and the Ottoman Empire did sign the Treaty of Sèvres on August 10, 1920, but by then they were representatives of two waning regimes. The official document was already obsolete by the time the ink had dried due to the deceitfulness of the Europeans, the absence of the Bolsheviks and the Kemalists at the Peace of Versailles, and the non-ratification of the Treaty of Sèvres by the U.S. Congress, despite the arbitration of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson being favorable to the Armenians.
Armenia signed the Treaty of Alexandropol with the Turks just as power in Yerevan passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks. The Soviets signed the treaties of Moscow (March 1921) and Kars (October 1921) with the Turkish Republicans, thus burying the Armenian Question in the Caucasus. Henceforth, the alliance between the Kemalists and the Bolsheviks would cover the Armenian Cause in a thick veil, similar to what the duo of Nicolas II and Abdul Hamid II had achieved 30 years prior, during the massacres of 1894-1896. This Russian-Turkish collaboration to the detriment of Armenia would arise again a century later in the form of Erdogan and Putin. In the name of friendship between peoples, an old communist slogan, Kemalists and Bolsheviks buried Sèvres, which was deemed “too pro-Western” for the former and “too bourgeois” for the latter. The Russo-Turkish alliance was based, as we can see, on anti-Western rhetoric.
Bilateral dialogue continued into the 1920s abroad around the Prometheus Alliance, which brought together all the peoples who had lived under the Russian yoke in a new structure. But it did not fit into our grid of Turkish-Armenian relations strictly speaking, because it covered negotiations between Armenians (ARF) and Azerbaijanis (Musavat), but also Georgians and Muslim North Caucasians. The exchanges did not lead to anything concrete, especially since the two Dashnak delegates, Rouben Ter Minassian and Simon Vratsian, two members of the ARF Bureau who despised each other, practiced an empty chair policy. This didn’t prevent Shahan Natali, one of the fathers of Operation Nemesis against high-ranking officials who perpetrated the 1915 Armenian Genocide and also a member of the ARF Bureau, from distancing himself from his comrades. They excommunicated him from the party. Shahan Natali settled accounts with the party leadership, attacking Rouben Ter Minassian’s tyranny more than Simon Vratsian’s diplomatic sense.
The era between the interwar period and the fall of the USSR sees two final aspects to the dialogue between Armenians and Turks. The first is virtually unknown: under the auspices of Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, a meeting took place on January 25, 1974, in Vienna, between German Chancellor Willy Brandt, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, First Secretary of the French Socialist Party François Mitterrand, and ARF Secretary-General Hrayr Maroukhian. It therefore precedes the 1974 presidential election in France and the Cyprus Crisis, which occurred the same year. The leaders of the three European socialist parties tried to put pressure on Ecevit to establish dialogue with the Armenians with a view to recognition of the genocide, but the Turkish Prime Minister dismissed any whisper of concession by declaring that “There is no Armenian Cause. What was taken by arms can only be taken back by arms.” The discussion became tense and Maroukhian warned his Turkish interlocutor against the consequences of stonewalling by Ankara. A few weeks later, Ecevit repeated these remarks word for word during a conference at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London. As a result, the two capitals, Vienna and Paris, would be the first sites of the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG) strikes against Turkish targets in 1975. Coincidence, or a message?
The second meeting took place in Geneva on the matter of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by a UN subcommission. In November 1979, Turkish Foreign Minister Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil met with representatives of the three diasporan Armenian political parties (ARF, SDHP and ADL) in Geneva. His government demanded “the immediate and unconditional cessation of terrorism.” The three parties refused to serve as intermediaries between Ankara and terrorist groups, denied any responsibility for armed actions and denounced Turkey’s arrogance. It was written off as a failure, even though the negotiators agreed to participate in subsequent encounters—the prospects of which were immediately canceled by the military coup in Ankara.
Thus, continued Turkish-Armenian dialogue failed to yield any positive results ahead of the restoration of the independence of the Armenian state. It either ended in the worst of tragedies (genocide) or in outright failure. More often than not, the Turks attempted to maintain the greatest confidentiality around these exchanges, multiplying preconditions and systematically seeking to renegotiate the compromises they had accepted.
 August 26, 1896 according to the Julian Calendar