Serge Sarkisian on Armenian-Turkish Relations: 'We Wanted to Break Through Centuries of Hostility'

Rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is still far from sight. In an interview with SPIEGEL, Armenian President Serge Sarkisian explains why the recognition of genocide against his people is so important -- and why he is little surprised by hostilities from Turkish politicians.

Mt. Ararat, Armenia's national symbol, is actually located in Turkey: "A time will come when Mount Ararat is no longer a symbol of the separation between our peoples." Zoom
Thomas Heinloth

Mt. Ararat, Armenia's national symbol, is actually located in Turkey: "A time will come when Mount Ararat is no longer a symbol of the separation between our peoples."

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, in 2008, you attended a football match between your two countries together with your Turkish counterpart. It was a sensation at the time. Do you regret having invited the president of Turkey to your capital?

Sarkisian: No. I am convinced there is no other alternative but for Turks and Armenians to cooperate. We wanted to break through centuries of hostility. It was clear to me from the beginning that it wouldn't be an easy process.

SPIEGEL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told SPIEGEL that on the topic of Armenians killed by Ottoman troops during World War I, "There can be no talk of genocide against the Armenians." Why does your neighbor have such difficulty with its own history?

Sarkisian: Mr. Erdogan has also said that Turks are not capable of committing genocide, and that Turkish history is "as clean and clear as the sun." Turkey resists classifying the massacre as genocide. But no matter how great Turkish resistance may be, this is not a question that is up to Ankara to decide.

SPIEGEL: Now Erdogan is even threatening to expel thousands of Armenians living illegally in Turkey.

Sarkisian: For my people, such unacceptable comments evoke memories of the genocide. Unfortunately, these comments don't surprise me, coming from the mouth of a Turkish politician. We don't need to look very far back in history to find comparable declarations. Similar voices got loud in 1988 in what is today Azerbaijan. Dozens of Armenians died in the resulting pogroms in Azerbaijani cities like Sumgait and Baku.

SPIEGEL: How should the international community act on this question?

Sarkisian: The world must react decisively. America, Europe -- Germany, too -- all the countries that were involved in the process of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement should take an official stance. If every country had already recognized the genocide, Turkey wouldn't make these kinds of statements. What gives reason for hope is that many young people in Turkey as well are protesting against these tirades. There's a new generation growing up there, and the political leadership has to take their opinions into account.

SPIEGEL: Turkey also accuses you of blocking progress -- Ankara says you prevented the formation of a joint historical commission. Why are you against this idea?

Sarkisian: How could such a commission work objectively, when at the same time in Turkey, anyone who uses the term "genocide" is persecuted and punished? Ankara is only trying to delay decisions. Whenever a foreign parliament or government approached Turkey with a request to recognize the genocide, the response would be, "Wait for the results from the commission." Creating such a commission would mean questioning the fact of genocide against our people. We're not prepared to do that. A commission would make sense if Turkey would admit its guilt. Then historians could work together to uncover the causes that led to this tragedy.

SPIEGEL: The genocide took place 95 years ago. Why is its recognition so important for Armenia today?

Sarkisian: It's a question of historical justice and our national security. The best way to prevent the repetition of such an atrocity is to condemn it clearly.

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About Serge Sarkisian
AFP
Serge Sarkisian, 55, has served as president of Armenia since April 2008. The genocide of his people was one of the first to be committed in the 20th century. The crimes were perpetrated on Turkish soil, but Turkey's leaders continue to deny the scope of the acts that took place under the Ottoman Emipire today. In Germany, which was an Ottoman ally during World War I, still hasn't officialy recognized the crimes that took place as genocide.

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