Football Diplomacy One Year On: Is it all about the genocide?

August 28, 2009 at 8:11 pm (Diaspora-homeland relations, media) (, , , , , , , )

Back in the fall, I set about the task of discovering how knowledge is disseminated in the form of “the news.”  I wanted to know exactly what is disseminated and what that says about the source, audience, industry, and actual on-the-ground events.  I chose to look at the media coverage of the Armenian-Turkish football match of September 6th, 2008.  I’d attended the match itself and could not avoid the build-up of excitement in the media and on the streets as the match approached.  Seemed like a good twenty-pager to me, so I went for it.

Armenia vs Turkey, September 6th, 2008

Armenia vs Turkey, September 6th, 2008

There were multiple, compacted levels of significance to the match – some of which appeared in the press, others that hid just under the surface.  The most obvious levels unpacked by the media pertained to Armenia and Turkey’s recent border stalemate and the older but even grittier issue of the genocide.  While Turkey was amongst the first countries to acknowledge Armenia’s sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s (still ongoing) war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh quickly ended all diplomatic relations between Armenian and Turkey – and closed the border.

But it is not, and probably never was, just about Nagorno Karabakh.  No, the history between Armenia and Turkey predates either country.  Starting in 1915, the majority of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population was killed, starved, or otherwise forced to leave.  The genocide created a large diaspora that landed throughout the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and Australia.  Put simply: Armenia maintains that the genocide was a genocide and Turkey rubs the back of it’s neck explains how chaotic the end of World War I was for the Ottomans.  The genocide, and Turkey’s denial of it, is a wound for both sides, that’s been open and festering for 90+ years.

Almost all of the articles about the match that I analyzed checked off the NK war/border stalemate issue and the ever-contentious genocide issue, but few went for the real meat.  Here was a relatively new president, Serzh Sargsyan, advocating for diplomacy with Turkey without reservations.  Sargsyan’s stance did not mirror policies of not his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, but rather, resembled the policies of his competitor in the election, Levon Ter-Petrossian.  TP served as Armenia’s first president from 1991 until 1998, when he was forced to step down – due partially to his position on opening diplomacy with Turkey.  While Sargsyan won against TP in 2008, it was a close election, and opposition supporters contended the results with disastrous results.

Armenia Election Protest - credit AP Photo/Photolure, Mkhitar Khachatryan

Armenia Election Protest - credit AP Photo/Photolure, Mkhitar Khachatryan

On March 2nd, Armenian police arrested hundreds of protesters and even opened fire, killing ten.  Sargsyan’s throw-back to diplomacy with Turkey without reservations was either a nod to the TP faction, the result of a new economic and geo-political reality, or some combination of the two.

Unfortuanately for my paper, the media’s coverage of the football match kept it simple: match, NK, border, genocide, diplomacy (maybe?) the end.  Too simple.  I wanted something to sink my teeth into.  I wanted to reveal the biases of the international media, or their political correctness, or how either their bias or the PC manipulated the story.  I had no luck at all.  I knew it wasn’t fair to critique the news on their failure to report on all the nuances of Armenian politics.  But even a comparison between Armenian and Turkish presses was lack-luster – both countries’ media were doing their job, being objective, giving a play-by-play as the match approached.

So it was with some surprise that I read Tom Esslemont‘s BBC article on the aftermath of the football diplomacy.  (We are one year on now, and it is going kind of slow.)  In the human interest piece, Esslemont presents Gharnik Kharibyan, a man from Margara, Armenia who is in favor of opening the border:

The lush border village of Margara is about as far south as you can go in landlocked Armenia. But residents are now hopeful that an open border could change everything. Gharnik Kharibyan is in favour of it.

“The prospect of a border opening is not only a personal issue. It will help everyone. We want to become friends with the Turkish people – they are our neighbours,” he says.

From the end of [Kharibyan’s] garden you can see across to the Biblical Mount Ararat, whose snow-capped peaks rise above lush vines and tomato plantations in Turkish Anatolia.

Mr Kharibyan points across to Ararat, and turns to me with an air of nostalgia.

Mount Ararat from Armenia  Photo credit ©Ashy Macbean

Mount Ararat from Armenia - credit ©Ashy Macbean

“You see the mountain?” he asks. “A lot of our history is rooted there on the other side of the border, and it will be good to be able to go there again.”

The chapter of history Mr Kharibyan refers to is the time when hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed during their mass deportation from Anatolia, in World War I. Armenia wants the atrocities to be internationally recognised as genocide.  Turkey does not see them as systematic killings.

In his analysis of Kharibyan’s mention of ‘history,’ Esslemont jumps straight to the genocide. Strange – Armenians are a people with history – make that History.  Ask any Armenian: Tigran the Great spread the Armenian kingdom from sea to sea in the first century BC.  Armenia was the first state to declare Christianity its state religion in 301.  Oh – and don’t forget about the unique alphabet created like a gift from god in 405.  What Kharibyan is refering to is the history of Armenians before the genocide, when they peacefully occupied Eastern Anatolia along with Kurds and Turks.  For better or for worse, Armenians interacted with peoples and cultures throughout the Middle East for centuries.  Only relatively recently have Armenians been restricted to their present day borders.  It is possible that Kharibyan’s ancestors emigrated from the Ottoman Empire to the Russian-controlled Caucasus in the early 1900s, and that’s the reason for his nostalgia.  Or perhaps he is simply curious to see the Armenian churches and landmarks that are within miles of his town.  Of course, there is also the symbolic value of Mt. Ararat to all Armenians.  Certainly, though, his comment was not intended as a segue into Esslemont’s discussion of the genocide and how it plays into Armenian-Turkish relations today.  Where did his assumption about Kharibyan’s comment come from?
I think I know the answer.

It wasn’t until long after I finished my paper that I got clued into the phenomenon of diasporan power.  The bulk of the Armenian diaspora is 90 years removed from the homeland.

world wide diaspora - credit: Aivazovsky at the English language Wikipedia

Worldwide Diaspora - credit Aivazovsky at the English language Wikipedia (click for larger view)

They do not speak Armenian, have Armenian first names, or know much of anything about Armenian history.  They have a nominal (or better) affiliation with the Armenian church and have been aptly tapped by various Armenian charities and lobbing groups, many based in the US.  The one thing that unifies the diaspora is the thing that caused their dispersion in the first place: the genocide.  It is the basis of their identity as Armenians in dispersion.  If you bump into an Armenian in Detroit or Manchester or Sidney, chances are they won’t be able to tell you how to get to the bus station in Armenian, but they will bite your head off if you suggest the “genocide” is kind of an overstatement.  Today’s diasporans are well-educated, well-off, and feverishly passionate about worldwide recognition of the grimmest period in thier ancestors’ history.

So I think Esslemont equates ‘history’ to ‘genocide’ because of the Armenian diaspora and their unrelenting, public fight for genocide recognition.  Ok, Esslemont is to blame for putting words in Kharibyan’s mouth – but the diaspora is to blame for putting genocide! genocide! genocide! into Esslemont’s head.  While the genocide is a sticky hurdle to rapprochement, it is far from being the only one.  It is, however, the most well know in the west – because of the diaspora.

Esslemont’s remarks illustrate diasporan power, a power firmly rooted in shared trauma and manifest in the oddest places, like in the minds of reporters.  This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the diaspora and the republic are confused with one another.  As we approach the one year anniversary of Armenia and Turkey’s football diplomacy, it is tempting for politicians, reporters, and civilians alike to write off the lack of progress on the genocide.  However, perhaps the centrality of the genocide to this debate is a self-fulfilling barrier to real progress.

Governments aside, FIFA forges ahead.  Armenia and Turkey will meet again for another World Cup qualifying match in Istanbul this October 14.


1 Comment

  1. Sibel Edmonds and the Armenian-American fan-fest ‘09 « Pomegranate Express said,

    […] on genocide recognition.  I am sure this is not the conscious objective of editors and, as I have previously discussed, the diaspora by-in-large bases its identity on the genocide and generally wants it recognized by […]

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