Science - November 2, 2006

‘It is an issue between Armenians and Turks’

Was Turkey’s deportation of Armenians during the First World War genocide or not? The question remains unanswered. While Turkey will never accept this definition, some European countries are forcing their Turkish citizens to stop the denial. Master’s student Burcu Ekmekci is from Turkey, but prefers not to answer the question of whether it is genocide or not. ‘I simply don’t know. In my opinion, it is a sad tragedy.’

Burcu came to the Netherlands to do a Master’s in Environmental Sciences, and is working on her thesis about biogas production. She’s been living in Wageningen for more than a year now, and enjoys how ‘organised’ things are here. ‘Even bus timetables are available on internet,’ she says with a note of surprise.

On the subject of genocide she prefers to remain neutral. ‘Both Armenians and Turks lost many people during the war, and the Ottoman Empire was in the final stages of collapse. Many ethnic groups, including Armenians, wanted independence and started insurgencies. The Turks decided to secure their territory by deporting most Armenians to Syria. Maybe this deportation wasn’t the best decision, but whether it was genocide, I’m not sure.’

Last September, the issue caused a stir in Dutch politics when two leading political parties took candidates of Turkish origin off their election list because they denied that the genocide had taken place. Since then the French government has even passed a law making it a crime to deny the mass killings were genocide. ‘By passing this law France is damaging freedom of thought,’ says Burcu. What’s more, Burcu is annoyed by other countries becoming involved in the issue. ‘Whether it is genocide or not is an issue to be resolved between Turks and Armenians. They will always be neighbours and should talk with each other to solve this matter. Now other countries are interfering purely out of their own interests, for example to stop Turkey joining the European Union. But let France first apologise to Algeria for the killings they carried out there instead of trying to solve our problems.’

The UN convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide was only passed in 1948, Burcu emphasises, and during the following decades, nobody referred to the Armenian killings as being genocide. ‘It was only in 1960 that the USSR started to use the term when it got into a conflict with Turkey.’ The US and France followed soon after, countries with considerable Armenian populations. ‘Why now and not before?’ Burcu wonders. Because there is something to be gained, she thinks. ‘Acceptance is one step, but after that there will be demands for financial compensation or land. I think that what happened during that period was a tragedy for both sides. Both Turkey and Armenia should accept this, but there should be no profit or political games involved.’

At present Turkey is negotiating on EU membership. Many countries do not want Turkey to join because Islam is the main religion. ‘But we actually have seven ethnic groups, including citizens with Orthodox Armenian origins, all living in the same street in peace. There are also many shades of religious belief. My mother doesn’t wear a headscarf. My grandmother does, but only to protect herself from the sun while working on the land. And we are a democracy, unlike many Muslim countries. Women in Turkey even got the vote before women in England did. We are a liberal country with a strong industry. Many EU countries have less.’

For these reasons Burcu hopes that Turkey does not join the EU. ‘It’s not that I am against Europe itself, but I don’t see the advantages. Many European countries are less organised and developed than Turkey. This makes implementing EU regulations difficult. The more industrialised countries such as the Netherlands or Germany have to wait for countries like Poland and Romania, where implementation takes a lot of time.’

Yet Burcu is enjoying the negotiation period. It gives the Turkish government a better idea of what’s important worldwide, she says. ‘Environmental policies used to be very low on the list, but now Turkey is giving them higher priority since the EU stressed their importance.’

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