ZOiS Spotlight 16/2019

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide after the Velvet Revolution

by Tsypylma Darieva 24/04/2019
Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Los Angeles. Hayk Shalunts/Alamy

On 24 April, the Republic of Armenia will observe its annual Genocide Remembrance Day. The date recalls the imprisonment in 1915 of Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul during World War I and the subsequent expulsion and mass murder of Armenians on the territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Since the 1990s, Armenia’s trauma and struggle for political recognition of the genocide from neighbouring Turkey have been at the forefront of Armenian identity politics. What was once a half-taboo culture of private grief has now, at the start of the twenty-first century, become the central symbol of a national identity narrative. Both in and outside Armenia, remembrance of the traumatic past takes on many forms in the public memory, from demands by diaspora communities for global recognition of the genocide to the international instrumentalising of its commemoration. The extent to which the struggle for worldwide acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide has shaped the country’s identity of victimhood is confirmed by the fact that compared with the Baltic republics or Georgia, coming to terms with the Stalinist past has so far gained little attention in post-Soviet Armenia.

Identity politics focused on the past?

This culture of remembrance focused on a distant past touches all generations and forms an essential part of Armenia’s cross-border identity. Since the early 2000s, the central event of the remembrance day in Yerevan—the traditional mourning procession from Republic Square to the Armenian Genocide Memorial on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd—has been accompanied by a spectacular torchlight procession led by young Armenians. The march ends at the hill of the memorial, where the dramatic backdrop of the holy Mount Ararat is particularly impressive. Mount Ararat is 50 kilometres away from the capital, Yerevan, but on the other side of the closed Armenian-Turkish border.

This year, too, the acts of commemoration are remarkable and follow fixed structures, although the societal context in Armenia has changed. As early as April 2018, the public mood in Yerevan was different from in previous years before the commemoration. A year after the Velvet Revolution, Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, declared the last Saturday in April a new national holiday: Citizens’ Day.

The new holiday serves various purposes, not least to reinforce a new political orientation that aims to better adapt Armenia’s national present and future to the multipolar age. Politically and socially, Armenia is pursuing a complementary strategy that allows the country to build stable bridges and relationships with the West despite its economic and security dependence on Russia. The country’s membership of the Eurasian Customs Union did not prevent it from signing a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the European Union in November 2017. Russia’s notable silence on the issue may indicate that Moscow will tolerate Armenia’s path towards Europe and that such developments may even be advantageous. Armenia sees no great contradiction in its strategy, which provides the small and geopolitically isolated nation with room for manoeuvre for future negotiations.

The internationalisation of the commemoration

It is striking that remembrance of the Armenian victims remains a topical issue for the international community. More than twenty states, including Germany, now refer to the mass murder as genocide. Turkey disputes the extent of the tragedy, the number of victims (1.5 million), and the fact that it was a state-orchestrated expulsion. On 7 February 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to include the commemoration of the victims of the Armenian Genocide among France’s series of national remembrance days. According to media reports, Macron’s announcement was honouring an electoral campaign promise to France’s Armenian minority. The Turkish government reacted as expected: by severely criticising France and accusing Macron of populism.

In the international politics of memory, the large Armenian diaspora plays a key role. Armenians abroad are actively engaged in developing ideas, arguments, and concepts of commemoration, for example at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan or for the hundredth anniversary in 2015. In particular, the largest US-Armenian diaspora organisation, the Armenian American Assembly, set out in the 1990s to make the memory of the expulsion and genocide a part of the international consciousness, and to institutionalise it across the globe. Many activities, events, artistic projects, and concerts in the US, Canada, and France have contributed to popularising the commemoration. This year, the US state of Massachusetts is marking the anniversary with the installation of five digital commemorating billboards that display the slogan ‘Never Forget’, to remind the international community of all genocides.

There is a long history of public commemorations related to the Armenian expulsion. In April 1965, during the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev Thaw, thousands of citizens gathered in Yerevan’s Lenin Square (now Republic Square). Under the slogan ‘Our lands, our lands!’, the protesters demanded not only that the central authorities in Moscow recognise the massacre but also that territories lost to Turkey be returned to Armenia, as Stalin had promised. The demonstration against the authorities was the first public expression of protest against the political repudiation of the Armenian tragedy. The peaceful demonstration was swiftly followed by a political ruling on the issue, and the genocide memorial was erected in Yerevan shortly afterwards, in 1967.

Social and political dealings with the memories of the Armenian loss are focused primarily on the past. The question is to what extent the Armenian diaspora, with its claim to the co-shaping of the ‘ancestral homeland’, can produce identity concepts for the young nation-state that are anchored in the present and future. Indeed, the Armenian diaspora played a small role in the mass protests of Armenia’s peaceful revolution in 2018; members of diasporic communities observed the events from a distance. It becomes clear then how closely linked the diasporic identity is to the notion of victimhood, and how much the modern Armenian nation is yearning for a new one that looks to the future.

Tsypylma Darieva is social anthropologist and a senior researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), where she co-develops the research area 'Migration and Transnationalism'.