Diagnosing “Sèvres Syndrome”

Nareg Seferian explores the very different ways in which the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres has been remembered and invoked.

In Turkish public discourse, “Sèvres Syndrome” refers to the looming legacy of the agreement signed in a suburb of Paris in 1920 which envisioned carving up the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Although it gives off an impression of being conspiratorial at first blush, political leaders in Turkey do have a basis in bringing up the notion of foreign powers planning to dismember the country. For over a century, the Eastern Question was on the agenda in the corridors of power in London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Geopolitical rivalries about this and other matters came to a head with the First World War, with mixed outcomes for all the empires involved. The Republic of Turkey – forged out of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 – has far less reason to suspect aspirations regarding its territory today, Kurdish separatists notwithstanding.

A sovereign Armenian state was foreseen by the Treaty of Sèvres, to include vast swathes of modern-day eastern Turkey. By contrast, Lausanne did not even involve any Armenian delegates during its negotiations, given the inroads made by a resurgent Soviet Russia and the consequent collapse of the infant Armenian republic in the Caucasus next door. As a result of the tumultuous first quarter of the 20th century (among other eras), hindsight and the notion of “historical justice” and “the restoration of historical justice” is ingrained in Armenian public discourse, even featuring in the country’s declaration of independence from the USSR. Nothing could be more emblematic of such a sentiment than Sèvres, which, unlike in Turkey, is shorthand for a missed opportunity alongside insufficient support or intervention from any of the Great Powers, the United States, or the West in general.

In 2015, the centennial commemorations of the Armenian Genocide afforded occasions for hindsight along these lines, including activities which could truly claim representativeness for the entire Armenian nation, whether in the Republic of Armenia or in the global Armenian Diaspora. The Pan-Armenian Declaration issued that year can be considered one of the very few documents expressing and reflecting positions around which there is widespread agreement throughout the Armenian nation. It mentions “historical justice” three times, and of course makes a due reference to the Treaty of Sèvres.

Map: Boundary between Turkey and Armenia : as determined by Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States of America. Source, Library of Congress, loc.gov

“US President Woodrow Wilson’s Arbitral Award of 22 November 1920” is the key phrase around which Sèvres turns.

“US President Woodrow Wilson’s Arbitral Award of 22 November 1920” is the key phrase around which Sèvres turns. Although publications on “Wilsonian Armenia”, maps, and posters, had long been a known quantity in the Armenian Diaspora, legalistic language and argumentation about the Treaty of Sèvres became more popular in the mid-2000s with publications and presentations made by Ara Papian, a former ambassador of Armenia to Canada. Discourse at the time saw a shift from lamenting human loss and suffering through nationalistic or religious rhetoric to invoking elements of public international law in pushing forward a policy agenda. A number of legal studies on the Armenian Genocide and avenues for reparations have since been published.

The centennial of the Treaty of Sèvres did not go unnoticed in Armenian public life. To take just two quick examples from the media, the website for Aravot in Yerevan yields over 150 results since 1999 with Sèvres as a search term, while The Armenian Weekly in Boston has over one hundred since 2009. The president of the Republic of Armenia gave an interview to a Syrian outlet in which he lamented the fact that the treaty was never implemented, insisting at the same time that it is “de facto still in force”. The country’s prime minister addressed a conference dedicated to the treaty on its hundredth anniversary, noting that “it continues to be a historical fact” and that an independent Armenian state established by that document meant that, “Historical justice was being restored”.

“[Sèvres] has not been legally replaced by

any other international instrument”

The three major Armenian Diaspora political parties issued a joint statement on the centennial of the treaty, using legalistic language and “the arbitration appeal to US President Woodrow Wilson to determine the Armenia-Turkey border”, insisting on the legality and validity of the treaty without its ratification, and that “it has not been legally replaced by any other international instrument”. Ten political parties in Armenia likewise made a joint declaration on the occasion, characterising the Treaty of Sèvres as “a document of powerful geopolitical importance” which was only partially enforced. The fact that it remained unfulfilled gives Turkey room to manoeuver as a destabilising and belligerent regional actor today.

Indeed, a statement by Armenia’s foreign ministry a few days later condemning Turkish moves in the eastern Mediterranean was met with an indignant response by Turkey’s foreign ministry spokesperson, suggesting that, after a “provocative statement on the Treaty of Sèvres”, Armenia was forming “an insidious alliance” with France and the United Arab Emirates against Turkey.

Shades of Sèvres are summoned in Turkey as attempts are made

to resurrect its substance by Armenia and the Diaspora

Shades of Sèvres are thus summoned in Turkey as attempts are regularly made to resurrect its substance by Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. In truth, the Treaty of Sèvres was never ratified and the Treaty of Lausanne is considered to have superceded it (even if this contention remains facing plenty of counter-arguments and nuanced approaches in Armenian circles), so any legal case made taking Sèvres as a point of departure would have difficulty getting off the ground. At the same time, Sèvres can serve as a pertinent political occasion at home and abroad, within the international community and in Armenian Diaspora advocacy efforts in capitals around the world. There is in all events good reason to bring up claims regarding human rights in Turkey and the status of the Armenian cultural heritage in the country – points which are, in fact, meant to be guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne. That is for another centennial. Or – unfortunately, perhaps more accurate to say at present – for a perennial.

about the author

Nareg Seferian is a doctoral student at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. His writings are available at naregseferian.com.

Main blog image: Cartoon by Sukias Torosyan (2017), courtesy Armenian Mirror-Spectator.

Opinion pieces are published by TLP for the purpose of encouraging informed debate on the legacies of the events surrounding the Lausanne conference. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of TLP, its partners, convenors or members.

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