The Armenian Land Question: Misunderstood Terrain

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The Armenian Weekly
Watertown, MA
August 2004

The Armenian Land Question: Misunderstood Terrain
By David Boyajian

Geography, someone once said, is destiny. If so, the present geography of Armenia poses major challenges for its future.

Small and landlocked, Armenia is outflanked by Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east. To the north, unreliable Georgia controls Armenia’s routes to the Black Sea and Russia. To the south, thankfully, lies friendly Iran. Unfortunately, the Iranian provinces just to Armenia’s south contain millions of Azeris who might someday blockade Armenia by forming an autonomous pan-Turkic corridor from Turkey to Azerbaijan.

To endure and prosper, Armenia must somehow break out of its geographical straightjacket by reclaiming the lands of historical Western Armenia, which, as we know, lie mostly within what is now called eastern Turkey.

That territory was the primary site of the 1915-1923 Genocide, and much of it was to be incorporated into the Armenian Republic in 1920 by the Treaty of Sevres, which Turkey signed but later renounced. Perhaps four times the size of the current Republic of Armenia, the treaty territory constitutes about 15 percent of present-day Turkey. Significantly, it included a coastline on the Black Sea.

WHY LAND?

Today that coastline would provide Armenia with a direct sea route to Europe and Russia. Georgia would lose the potential to deny Armenia access to much of the outside world, and Armenia would be less vulnerable to a Turkish land blockade. Armenia’s economy and national security would be strengthened.

Eventually Armenia might develop an ocean-going navy, including submarines that could endow the country with a stealthy, survivable defense capability.

Present-day Armenia with its limited, rocky soil has trouble feeding itself. Regaining its well-irrigated, traditional breadbasket in Western Armenia would clearly be beneficial.

Recouping territory is also simple justice, restoring what Turks took from Armenians in the carnage of 1915 and by centuries of massacre, deportation, confiscation, onerous taxation, abduction, rape, and forced Islamization.

Says political scientist Khatchik Der Ghougassian, Turkey in 1915 “intended to redefine the geopolitical situation by eliminating Armenians from Asia Minor. Thus, a response to the Genocide must deprive Turkey of the geopolitical map it made possible by committing genocide.”

Additionally, Turkey has come to believe that it can get away with killing huge numbers of Armenians and seizing their land. It bodes ill for Armenia’s future if Turkey is not made to unlearn that lesson.

But there are misconceptions about how and when Armenia can regain territory.

REGAINING TERRITORY

Contrary to what some may think, no serious Armenian analyst has ever suggested that Armenia can march over the Turkish border next week and retake what rightfully belongs to it. Armenian land can be resettled only in the long term, perhaps decades from now.

The most plausible scenario is war, unfortunately, though not necessarily between Armenia and Turkey.

Instability breeds war, and there are few regions more unstable than eastern Turkey where, for instance, on and off warfare between Kurds and the central government has taken place for centuries. Though the most recent war ended in 1999, some Kurdish groups (Pkk/Hadek/Kongra-Gel) just announced a resumption of that conflict.

Future military cooperation between Armenians and Kurds, perhaps with Russian assistance, and a subsequent division of the spoils—even if less than Armenians would like—is a possibility.

Also possible is a conflict between Turkey and Russia, who have fought at least eight wars in the last three centuries. Some of the battlegrounds were in eastern Turkey. During World War I, for instance, the Russian Army advanced deep into the Western Armenian heartland. Only the Russian Revolution brought about a withdrawal. A similar scenario, with Armenia itself possibly retaking some territory, cannot be ruled out.

Neither should one underestimate the ability of Armenians themselves to retake land. Against all odds, Armenians not only won the battle for Karabagh in 1993, but also captured a buffer zone of about 2,000 square miles within what is now Azerbaijan, where comparatively few Armenians lived at the time.

Currently, the West and Turkey’s only route into Azerbaijan and the Caspian region that avoids their Russian and Iranian adversaries is through unstable Georgia. Were Georgia to become further destabilized, Armenia would, in theory, possess considerable leverage as the only remaining route. Might some land concessions then be offered Armenia in return for its cooperation?

RESETTLEMENT ISSUE

Another misconception is that Armenians could never repopulate Western Armenia since surviving among its several million Turks and Kurds would be unrealistic. Again, no serious analyst has ever suggested, nor would Armenians consider, repopulating territory while it remained under Turkish control. Armenia or a friendly power would need to administer the territory for it to be safe for resettlement.

What about the Turks, Kurds, and others, many of part Armenian descent, who now occupy homes, property, farms, and towns in eastern Turkey that 90 years ago were Armenian? Admittedly, the question has no simple answer.

There are, however, many precedents for large-scale population movements. For example:

Azerbaijan’s attack on Karabagh more than a decade ago led hundreds of thousands of Azeris in Armenia and Armenians in Azerbaijan to flee in opposite directions. This was a tragedy, yet a peace accord may someday allow many of these people to return to their homes or be compensated.

After their war ended in 1922, Greece and Turkey “exchanged” 1.5 million people—most Greeks in Turkey were sent to Greece, while lesser numbers of Turks in Greece returned to Turkey.

Kurds are currently repopulating districts in northern Iraq from which the former regime had removed them, though not always in ways that are fair to the present Arab residents.

The Council of Europe is demanding that as many as 100,000 Meshket Turks, whom Stalin deported from Georgia to Central Asia, be settled near Armenians in Georgia’s Javakhk region. Turks deserve to be resettled, but not Armenians?

No one underestimates the difficulties. Even in 1920, the Sevres Treaty in hand, the destitute survivors of the Genocide and the impoverished Armenian Republic would have encountered difficulty in returning to and administering their land. Indeed, Turkey confiscated Armenian property and nearly eradicated Armenians in 1915 precisely to make it hard for the survivors and other Armenians to ever return.

To totally dismiss the goal of Armenian resettlement is, therefore, to reward Turkey for having created the problem in the first place. Ultimately, the criminal, not the victim, bears responsibility for setting things right.

Armenians do not, of course, wish hardship on others. Still, Armenia deserves a measure of justice and security. If Turkey wants to talk about that, Armenians have always been willing to sit down at the table.

THE FUTURE

Admittedly, just holding onto Armenia and Karabagh now is difficult, especially in view of the menacing Turkish-Georgian-Azeri axis backed by the US. Frankly, it is even conceivable that Turkey, in its ongoing drive into the Caucasus and Central Asia, will someday overrun a piece of Armenia before the latter gets even one inch of its territory back.

Armenia’s present state of affairs does not, however, preclude us from considering how best to address the land issue in the future.

Some Armenians have, unfortunately, convinced themselves that even mentioning the land issue is too provocative. As if the Genocide and subsequent land theft were not themselves the ultimate provocations.

Remember, too, that Turkey—a relative newcomer to the region, incidentally, and nowhere near as old as the Armenian nation—is itself beset by political and economic problems and nearly surrounded by less than friendly nations including Greece, Cyprus, Iran, Russia, and others.

Just as few foresaw the independence of Armenia and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, no one can predict whether or how the land issue will be resolved.

Ottoman Turkey has, however, been shrinking steadily for hundreds of years. Moreover, as it occupies Armenian territory and rules over Kurds, Turkey can still be regarded as an empire. Be they Roman, Byzantine, British, or Soviet, empires inevitably contract and fall.