Spiritual Rebirth

A Century of Revival

Vigen Sargsyan, the President of Armenia’s chief of staff and the main coordinator of the Armenian Genocide centenary events in Armenia, discusses the commemorations

Q:When you were planning how to mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, what were the most important considerations? 

A: The preparations began in 2011 when the president of the republic formed the State Committee. And this entity was unique since it brought together not only the government officials and representatives of the civil society in Armenia, but also diaspora organizations. It was very important that this committee represented all Armenian societies internationally. These included the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Catholics and Armenian Protestants, the three traditional political parties, and of course all of the major Armenian organizations, including AGBU. At the very first meeting, the committee decided we would welcome and encourage the creation of committees around the world, without any limitations on whether they should be country-by-country or region-by-region. Very soon about five dozen committees were formed and we created a working group that communicated with all of these committees about what their and our plans were, and to decide on the ideology of the centennial. It really helped shape a common, recognizable image of the centennial.

Q: How did you decide on the forget-me-not symbol?

A: The State Committee asked me to announce a competition for a symbol and a slogan for the centennial. What we knew was that we wanted a symbol that demonstrated a revival of the nation, not necessarily the grief or destruction we were commemorating, but something centered on life. Very quickly it became clear that we wanted a flower to become such a symbol. The idea specifically for the forget-me-not came from people at Sharm Holding, an Armenian television company. As we explored further, we realized that in many languages the name of this flower has the same meaning and it relates to memory. We then incorporated into the center of the flower the top-down view of the genocide memorial in Yerevan and decided on colors. And this turned out to be a symbol that people have really endorsed. The slogan of the centenary came later. Again, we thought the slogan had to represent memory, but also be looking to the future. This is how we came up with “I remember and demand.”

Q: Thousands of visitors arrived in Yerevan for the centenary commemorations. How did you cope with the influx and manage the extra resources needed to ensure those events were broadcast worldwide without a hitch?

A: Many diaspora Armenian organizations decided to hold their annual or biannual events in Yerevan. There were also many non-Armenians traveling, such as the extended family of Robert Morgenthau, the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time of the genocide, or President Woodrow Wilson’s great-grandson or other people connected by history to the survival of the Armenians and relief work. And there were also people who had no prior connection to Armenian issues. Some of them came for the System of the Down concert, traveling from places like Iran or Georgia or Russia. Some came, because they wanted to be present at the canonization ceremony at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. So it was a huge movement. As far as the official delegations on April 24, there were 63 delegations at commemorative events, representing their countries or international organizations, from heads of state, and senior officials to parliamentary delegations and ambassadors. 

Because the Armenian Genocide is so important—emotionally, historically and politically—for every Armenian around the world, expectations were extremely high. And if you could make a mistake in, say, organizing a concert for the Year of Armenia in France, this time around everyone’s eyes were on Etchmiadzin on April 23 and on Dzidzernagapert on April 24 could not afford mistakes. 

We had a very media-friendly accommodation system, having created four media centers around the country, including Etchmiadzin, Dzidzernagapert and Yerevan, so that journalists could have access to broadcast signals paid by us. And it worked with a lot of leading television channels—with access to a billion people around the world—having live broadcasts on April 24. We are very proud that all of these events were accomplished really well.

Of course none of this would have been possible without the individual and organizational benefactors who undertook the funding of all the major events. This year we did not spend a cent of Armenia’s state budget on organizational issues. All of them were fully funded from private sources. Most of the major events were taken on by one single sponsor. For example, the costs associated with the canonization at the Mother See, which was a major event, were underwritten by AGBU. That event required a lot of technical resources to establish multiple television connections with churches around the world, to simultaneously reach people in New York, Moscow, Tbilisi, Tehran and other places, even on Akhtamar [in Lake Van in Turkey].  

Q: The Turkish government decided to schedule Gallipoli celebrations for April 24 and undertook public efforts to prevent some of the delegations from going to Armenia. What was your reaction?

A: We found this extremely tasteless. Even if the battle of Gallipoli had happened on that very date, they should have thought twice before celebrating or commemorating it on the same day, knowing full well the significance of April 24 to Armenia. And by launching this kind of competition, Turkey put itself in a very uncomfortable position and many heads of states and officials of many governments thought it was a major mistake and a major blow to concepts of humanity, political correctness and ethics. Some countries took a decision not to dispatch senior-level delegations to Turkey as a result. For some countries, Gallipoli has a significant historic meaning and they participated for that reason, but even for them, I think, the right thing to do was to go on April 25—the actual date of the start of the battle of Gallipoli—instead. 

But I think the overall international reaction and media coverage was proof that we were correct in assessing the Turkish government’s decision as a mistake. This was also another lost opportunity for Turkey’s leaders to look back at their country’s history.

Q: Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davu-toglu publicly referred to the Armenian experience as a “crime against humanity.” Do you see that reference as significant and how would assess is your overall developments vis-à-vis Armenian issues in the run up to the centenary?

A: I look at that statement and others, including by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as a more sophisticated form of denial. Things have to be called by their name. And any attempt to justify the genocide as a matter of military necessity or point to the deaths of Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire is either a case of misunderstanding of the nature of genocide or an attempt to put up a façade of a positive change in rhetoric. In reality the Turkish government is not changing and its denial of the genocide poses a threat to international security. 

I would point to the April 23 statement by German President Joachim Gauck, who spoke of Germany’s co-responsibility for the Armenian Genocide. The courage of the German government to look honestly into its past is further proof that the crime of genocide has no expiration date until it is fully condemned and recognized. If you add to that Turkey’s policy towards Armenia—the economic blockade since the early 1990s and military support for Azerbaijan—this raises security concerns for Armenia. All this makes the Armenian Genocide a contemporary political matter. 

At the same time, we see positive developments inside Turkish society and people raising their own awareness and finding courage to speak about this issue, including on April 24 in Turkey. Regrettably, these groups are an absolute minority and they cannot change the situation until the government of Turkey realizes that genocide denial associates them with the guilt for the crime of genocide.

Q: To what extent do you feel the centenary was a watershed moment for Armenia and an opportunity for a new future direction?

A: One thing is clear: Armenia is learning to walk again after not having statehood for centuries. And at the basis of this are the revival and the achievements of our nation in the last hundred years. We tend to be very self-critical as a nation and we often look for things that we have not done right. But looking back we can find so many things that we have done right and we do have some fantastic achievements. 

Three years after the genocide we were able to stop the Turkish army at Sardarabad, restore Armenian statehood and preserve the territory that is today the Republic of Armenia. Twenty-five years after the genocide we were able to contribute, at the highest per capita level, to the Soviet victory in World War II, and it was a very heroic page in Armenian history. 

We often admire what the state of Israel has achieved in terms of repatriation and building up of the state in a very difficult neighborhood. But we have to recognize that our grandparents and parents did a very similar thing a century ago, after walking through the hell of Deir Zor, many came to Armenia, of which they knew nothing about. In many ways repatriates helped create a multi-cultural society in Armenia and produced accomplished figures of which any nation would be proud.

Finally the restoration of independence, the Karabakh war… it has been a heroic century. And as part of our remembrance of the genocide, we also had to remember this very solid basis for revival of our nation. 

Armenians in the diaspora created a network of organizations that helped preserve Armenian identity around the world. 

Armenia is the place where Armenian identity will be protected and it gives me encouragement that today, whenever there is a problem in an Armenian community, such as now in Syria, people look to Armenia to act. Even if we cannot do everything now, what we can do now was unthinkable ten or twenty years ago. We need to mobilize all of our resources, first of all intellectual resources, and make Armenia a place that everyone feels comfortable living in, working or visiting. 

Originally published in the 2015-09-01​ issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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