Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by Christopher J Walker

  (1) I am the author of two books on the modern history of Armenia, one of which, entitled Armenia: the Survival of a Nation, has been used as a textbook in the American universities where the subject is studied. I have also written many articles and reviews. My serious involvement with the subject began in 1971, when I won a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to write a modern history of Armenia.

  (2) I have studied many aspects of the relations both between Armenia and Great Britain, and between Armenia and its immediate neighbours in Transcaucasia. (Relation between Armenia and Central Asia have on the whole been unproblematic.) Within Transcaucasia there has always been a rich and potent mixture of ethnicities, traditions, languages and religious affiliations, and the region's most successful times have been when this diversity has been recognized. It is important to note, in view of current preoccupations with fundamentalist religion, that religious traditions count as much but no more than literary and other cultural traditions in Transcaucasia. There is no tradition of religious extremism. The Samuel Huntingdon thesis of the "Clash of Civilizations" is demonstrably mistaken as far as Transcaucasia is concerned. Christianity has never faced Islam here. Other elements have created hate and bloodshed, as well as amity and harmony and cultural stimulation. Religion has not been one of them, except in a very minor capacity.

  (3) As regards the Anglo-Armenian past, the memory of individual British people (notably Byron and Gladstone, and a number of charitable workers) is held in high regard; and the spirit of British fair play and parliamentary democracy is admired; but in the main the Anglo-Armenian past is a largely disillusioning time, since most often the British empire supported powers hostile to Armenia. In the last century Disraeli and Queen Victoria upheld the Ottoman empire when it persecuted and misgoverned Armenians. Britain held off from any involvement in the 1908 Ottoman Constitution, for fear of the introduction of constitutions in Egypt or India, where British power rested on armed force; this act of unconcern thereby facilitated the growth of the German-Turkish alliance at the time of the First World War. Although Britain documented the Armenian genocide (up to the middle of 1916) in a Government Blue Book (Miscellaneous No. 31 (1916)), thereafter the substance within that publication was ignored and no official reference was made to it. During the British Military Occupation of Transcaucasia of 1918-19 initial fairness dissolved into partiality for Azeri landed and mineral interests in direct opposition to the interests of Armenian villagers. The treaty of Lausanne (1923) ignored the political rights of western Armenians; it gave no place for any restitution to them after the losses resulting from the Ottoman empire's war crimes of 1915-16. Even the provisions in that treaty relating to the protection of minorities in Istanbul (ie Armenians, Greeks and Jews) have been frequently ignored.

  (4) Armenians have existed in Armenia since ancient times: their presence is notably recorded by Xenophon (c. 400 BC) and a host of later historians. They were the first nation to convert to Christianity (301), and have had there own culture and alphabet since 404. Their historic lands lay in ancient times across the Roman-Persian imperial frontier. More recently their people lived on both sides of the Ottoman-Russian border, an international frontier which in our century mutated into the Turkish-Soviet border. Since 1991 this frontier has become that between Turkey and Armenia.

  (5)  A survey of Armenia's history would reinforce the view that cultural and economic factors played major parts in determining the good and bad times for Armenians in the region, and not simply religion per se. Some of the most fruitful and progressive times for Armenians were experienced under Islamic rulers such as Shah Abbas of Persia (1586-1627). The points at issue were the competency of the administration and culture of the empire. It is these factors which made the eastern Armenian experience under first Persia and then Russia far better than the experience of the western Armenians unde Ottoman Turkey.

  (6)  Britain showed a spirit of generosity to Armenia during the first world war, when a team of charitable workers was dispatched to Yerevan in 1916 via Stockholm and Moscow to assist with the extensive human tragedy created by the refugees from the genocide against the Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. This spirit was seen more recently in Britain's gift of a school to Gumayri (formerly Leninakan) following the 1988 earthquake.

  (7)  In the context of Anglo-Armenian relations, reference should also be made to the 400,000 Armenians who fought with the Allies in the Soviet armies in the second world war, and the 50 Soviet Armenian generals.

  (8)  Today the declared bases for Armenian internal and foreign policy are furthering democracy and respect for human rights. Good relations are sought with both the EU and the USA. The matters of immediate concern to Armenia are the ending of the blockades imposed by both Turkey and Azerbaijan on Armenia—ostensibly in view of Armenia's conduct during the Karabagh war, but those with longer memories will recall the tactics of reducing communities to submission. Two of the most keenly contested issues in Armenia are recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915, and support for the majority Armenian people of Nagorno Karabagh and for resolution of the situation there.

  (9)  Britain's documentation of the Armenian genocide (Miscellaneous No. 31 (1916)) was made up of a collection of accurate and impartial documents, gathered from sources completely untainted by war propaganda, detailing the Ottoman governmental assault on the Armenian people throughout Ottoman Anatolia, including communities located far from the war zones, which took place in 1915 and 1916. British government ministers and members of both Houses of Parliament spoke in acknowledgement of the totality of the measures against Armenians, which constituted genocide even though the word had not yet been invented. The originals of these documents can be seen (in files FO 96/205-212) in the Public Record Office, where can also be found accounts of the Armenian genocide described by participants, who later defected to Russian forces and who were then turned over to the British foreign office.

  (10)  What do British documents on the Armenian genocide show? Throughout these documents, and the many German diplomatic documents that came to light after the war, it became clear that the assault on the Armenian people within the power of the Ottoman empire was far more serious than a few "regrettable massacres". In a speech in the House of Lords on 6 October 1915 Lord Bryce declared that the killings had been "absolutely premeditated and systematic". They had constituted a single-minded assault, well-organised (by the party in power, known as the Committee of Union and Progress) and meticulously executed. Even semi-denationalised, non-Armenian-speaking Armenians were taken off and murdered by detachments of soldiers in the Ottoman countryside.

  (11)  Just as the intent of the killings was genocidal in its ferocity, so too the explanation that the condition in Ottoman Armenia constituted a state of "civil war" is unacceptable. Imperial Turkey was fighting Imperial Russia in 1915. There was no Armenian army until the independence of Armenia in 1918, nor even an Armenian militia. There were Armenian volunteer regiments which were part of the Russian army, just as Turkey had recruited Islamic forces in Russian Transcaucasia. The term "civil war" indicates an approximate equality of forces. This was not the case for Armenians in 1915, where the Turks controlled the army, the police and all the apparatus of state, and the Armenians none of these things.

  (12)  The matter was an acknowledged fact until the early 1920s. Then with the desire to accommodate the new Turkey, and the feeling that Armenia had slipped irrevocably into the Soviet sphere, reference to the Armenian genocide vanished. It went off the record. The Armenian genocide became "The Disremembered Genocide"—one that had been known, and which was then pushed aside. The word "genocide" was not invented until 1943; but the elements which made up the Armenian experience of 1915-16 exactly correlate to the distinctive items connoted by the word "genocide".

  (13)  As regards Nagorno Karabagh several points have to be borne in mind. The first is that for many years this territory has held an Armenian majority. Until just under 200 years ago parts of it were governed locally by Armenian semi-princely families known as "meliks". In the aftermath of the First World War, when it was accounted one of the three "disputed territories" between Armenia and Azerbaijan (the others being Nakhichevan, today part of Azerbaijan, and Zangezur, today part of Armenia), the Armenian population constituted 80 per cent. During the British Military Occupation the inhabitants petitioned the administrators to assign the territory to Armenia, on grounds of democratic majority; but the British officers refused to do so, appointing as governor a local Azeri landowner who was a close associate of the Committee of Union and Progress which had recently been in alliance with Germany and had organised the mass-killings of Armenians throughout Anatolia. British policy on Nagorno Karabagh was echoed two years later by Soviet policy, when despite an initial local ruling that the territory should be awarded to Armenia, it was over-ridden by Stalin, who as Commissar of Nationalities awarded it to Azerbaijan. Thus the partiality of British imperial officers for landed interests was mirrored in Stalin's antidemocratic award of two years later.

  (14)  In the post-Khrushchev "thaw" there were a number of appeals for the retrocession of the territory of Nagorno Karabagh to Armenia. The Soviet authorities ignored all of them.

  (15)  The generosity of Britain in donating the Lord Byron school has already been mentioned. (Armenians take education very seriously.) Another situation in which British things have been held in high regard is the presence in Yerevan of a branch of the Midland Bank. This British "first", introducing Armenians to European banking, cash dispensers etc, was very well regarded.

  (16)  In the more general field of international relations, a real benefit that Britain could provide would be to support the spirit of democracy and human rights in the region, to encourage transparency in political dealings, and to abstain from all arms sales to the region.

  (17)  The issue of the 1915 genocide is still a burning topic, since so many families were afflicted by this massive loss of life; Armenians realise that, since it has become a live issue in Turkey's foreign policy, and not merely a topic for historians, and since Turkey's policies are so closely attended to in the west, it will be hard for them to make the truth known about their people's experience. But they still hope that at least the contents of the British Blue Book of 1916 will be acknowledged.

  (18)  Armenians have for many years had good relations with Russia (although things were bad in the years 1903-12). This is because relations with Turkey (whether imperial or republic) were bad, and often intolerable. Good relations with Moscow persist today. But at the same time Armenia is keen to open diplomatic relations with Turkey. They want to open a dialogue. But they have come up against a negative attitude from Turkey, which appears driven by ethnic partiality for Azerbaijan, over and above any support of democracy, or more general ethnic harmony, in Transcaucasia. British support for a widening of the democratic (as opposed to the purely ethnic) dimension in Turkey's foreign policy would be much appreciated.

  (19)  Finally, Armenians regard their culture with great respect. The fostering of cultural relations is always appreciated. As well as the great Armenian arts of architecture and manuscript illumination, music and the theatre are much in demand. Shakespeare is treated almost as though he were an Armenian dramatist. In Soviet times the Shakespeare Institute was of very great importance. Support and exchange of cultural contacts with Armenia today would be most beneficial.

March 1999

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