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Australia must acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, banker Michael Carapiet insists

A banker with a stellar career and haunting family background insists Australia must acknowledge the Armenian genocide even if it risks Turkish retaliation over Gallipoli. 

By Geoff Winestock
Financial Review

Michael Carapiet had a stellar career in finance. He ran Macquarie Bank’s infrastructure division and now, in semi-retirement, he sits on a dozen of the most prestigious corporate and government boards. But we won’t be talking about any of that. I have instead invited Carapiet to lunch beside the glistening waters of Sydney Harbour because he is also one of Australia’s most prominent Armenians.

It is topical because the centenary of the Armenian genocide officially falls on April 24, just one day before Anzac Day. On that day in 1915, with the British and Australian attack on the Dardanelles imminent and the Russians invading from the east, the Turks launched a year of murder and deportations that killed about 1.5 million Christian Armenians, who were accused of disloyalty. More than half the Armenian population of the Ottoman empire perished.

When I had called to set up the lunch, Carapiet had warned he was not an expert on the topic, just a finance guy who happened to be from the 50,000-strong Armenian community.

But, after just half an hour of talking, the topic gets his blood running hot. At one point, he erupts with frustration that the Australian government is refusing even to use the word “genocide” because it is afraid Turkey might stop our dignitaries attending the Gallipoli centenary ceremonies.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently described what happened to the Armenians as an “alleged genocide”.

It drives Carapiet wild. “There is overwhelming evidence. Julie Bishop came out and said ‘alleged’. Alleged genocide! Who wrote that for you?” he almost shouts at her imagined presence. “The Department of Foreign Affairs advises and they blindly follow and ignore the moral compass.”

We are dining at Graze, the outdoor restaurant just in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art on Circular Quay. Carapiet suggested it because it is close to his private office and he says it wouldn’t “break the budget” since, as is usual in these lunches, I had offered to pay.

Carapiet’s sense of a good deal reminds me both that Armenians are renowned the world over as traders and that Carapiet is a rags-to-riches migrant himself, with an understanding of the value of money.

The other thing about the choice of restaurant is that, at various points in the conversation, the contrast between the terrible events of 100 years ago and the bobbing ferries and delighted tourists in front of our table makes Carapiet laugh at how seriously Australians take their First World problems.

“We have pretty much the best of everything, look at this,” he exclaims gesturing at our surroundings.

No wine for lunch. Carapiet orders salad but no onions or capsicum. I am gluten-free and go for a sirloin with nothing. We agree to have a coffee later.

Survivors’ Horror Stories

Just like Gallipoli, the Armenian genocide was a long time ago, so only the middle-aged grandchildren of the survivors are alive.

Carapiet, 56, retired from Macquarie in 2011 and  chairs Smartgroup Corporation, an ASX-listed salary packaging company. He is on the boards of the federal government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Infrastructure Australia, and a few NSW state government businesses. He has two children and a granddaughter, and lives with his wife Helen.

Carapiet’s connection to the genocide is less direct than some, including Treasurer Joe Hockey, whose grandfather survived one of the forced death marches of Armenians into the Syrian desert in 1915.

Carapiet’s parents and grandparents spent the terrible year of 1915 in the safety of the diaspora in British India and were not directly affected at all. Carapiet grew up there and migrated here only in 1975. His father dropped the typical Armenian surname ending “-yan” or “-ian”. Carapetian became Carapiet.

Until the young Carapiet married, the genocide came up only in remembrance services in the Armenian Orthodox Church, which is the focus of the diaspora community. Then, when he was 15, his father gave him a copy of a classic 1930s historical novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which was written by an Austrian Jew and celebrates one small group of heroic Armenians who took up arms against the Turks instead of accepting slaughter.

What brought the genocide home was marrying his wife and meeting her family. Helen’s mother’s family fled from western Turkey to Bulgaria with only what they could cram on a cart.

Helen’s father’s family was not so lucky. From Keyseri in eastern Turkey, where the genocide was most fierce, her grandfather was sent on and survived the death march into the Syrian desert.

Helen then experienced the dislocation that followed the genocide for so many Armenians. She herself was born in Yerevan, the capital of the Soviet Union’s autonomous republic of Armenia, a sliver of land squeezed between Turkey and Russia. After the Second World War, her parents and many others emigrated to the Soviet Union as an alternative to the uncertainty of stateless exile in the Middle East.

“It was a terrible decision,” Carapiet says. As Josef Stalin’s terror raged, Helen and her family fled to neighbouring Georgia, where they made a living making shoes, including for Stalin’s daughter. From there they somehow emigrated to Australia in the ’70s.

It was by talking to Helen’s mother and her genocide-survivor grandfather that Carapiet improved his basic Armenian. He listened as the old man bled history. But Carapiet was also repelled by the savagery of the politics of the Armenian exiles.

In the 1970s and ’80s,  radical Armenian exiles waged a terror campaign and assassinated Turkish diplomats, including the consul in Sydney, in 1982. Carapiet says he was busy earning, stacking shelves for Woolworths, working as a bank teller at National Australia Bank and then, by 1985, was one of the first to join Macquarie Bank.

“I worked out pretty early that my skill was in commerce like a lot of Armenians and because of my somewhat direct views and occasional lack of patience with people I found these debates somewhat …” Carapiet waves his hand dismissively.

We tuck in and my steak is perfect although I slightly regret not ordering sides. Sydney Harbour is turning on a lovely show. But we are quite engrossed in a very different time and place.

Stranger in the Homeland

The politics changed again in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and, for the first time in 80 years, the Armenians had their own country.

“My wife always said when the wall came down, ‘I don’t believe this is happening.”‘

Carapiet visited the newly independent former Soviet republic of Armenia with his children but it was a confusing experience. On the one hand, this was the spiritual homeland where everybody on the street looked like a relative. Carapiet visited the well where StGregory the Illuminator, patron saint of the Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian country, was imprisoned in the fourth century.

On the other hand, Soviet Armenia had evolved very differently from the  diaspora. It was desperately poor, less worried about the past and at war with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Carapiet still gives money to Armenian charities and still feels a certain abstract loyalty to the homeland but he felt rather uncomfortable during his visit.

Even though he has the time and money to travel, he has never been back. “People in Armenia aren’t affluent, it’s a tough gig. I could go back but I have never got around toit,” Carapiet says.

Independent Armenia’s attitude to the genocide was also subtly different from that of the diaspora. The tiny republic’s primary focus was on survival in the dangerous Caucasus region and it wanted to end its bad relations with Turkey, which had imposed a blockade on its crucial land border.

In 2009, Armenia’s president tried to establish normal trade and diplomatic relations with Turkey. In exchange, Armenia was considering dropping its demand for an apology for the genocide and settling for a vague promise to create a  working group of historians to look into what happened.

As the details of this diplomatic stitch-up leaked out, one of the key factors that killed it was the opposition from the diaspora, including Carapiet. He is sympathetic to tiny Armenia’s desire not to make enemies but equally adamant it must not sell out to Turkey. Carapiet happened to be at a World Bank meeting in Istanbul in 2009, when Turkey and Armenia were talking about this peace-for-silence deal, and was outraged Armenia might not extract a clear apology for the genocide.

“I don’t think they should have done a deal. There’s an order to things. I think you have to take these things a step at a time.

“First you have to say, ‘Yes, this was a wrong,’ and then you think, ‘How do you right the wrong?’

“Look at the Aboriginal population here. Not everybody is happy with just an apology but there are huge swaths of people who are more satisfied than before [Kevin] Rudd said he was sorry.”

Apology not enough

We have flat whites and not the thick Turkish coffee drunk in Armenia. In the past decade in Turkey, a new moderate Islamist government with no ties to the old military establishment has allowed more discussion about the events of 1915, so the idea of admitting a genocide might one day be conceivable.

But Carapiet thinks an apology might not be enough. Like many in the diaspora, Carapiet still thinks an apology should be just a prelude to reparations to survivors’ families. I suggest that, after so many years, Turkey will never accept this but he says Turkey has to change. “I have got no links to Turkey but I can recognise that for other people the symbolism isn’t enough. There will be certain instances where assets were taken that can be given back and should be given back, and there will be cases where they cannot and they will make other arrangements,” he says.

I ask him if he shares the dream of many exiles that Turkey will give territory back to Armenia. He says only that he thinks it is funny that Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, where Noah landed the biblical ark, is now across the border in Turkey and not Armenia.

Which brings us back to Gallipoli. He is disgusted that politicians are refusing to talk truth to Turkey just so they can have a seat on the podium at Anzac Cove on April 25. Carapiet says NSW and South Australia have specifically acknowledged the genocide and the subject can be taught in their schools, but the federal government says nothing. Hockey made speeches in opposition about the genocide but now remains silent.

Frenchmen also died in their thousands in the Dardanelles campaign but French President Francois Hollande will miss Turkey and travel to Armenia to honour the 1.5 million. Carapiet says Australia’s past links to Turkey make it the perfect country to press the genocide issue.

“I think friends are the best people to call out other friends. If a friend came and told you the truth, you would actually do something about it. And if [saying the truth] meant you lost their friendship, it was not a friendship in the first place.”

Carapiet himself has none of the visceral hatred of the Turks that Armenians did a generation ago. Helen grew up speaking Turkish and enjoys visiting Istanbul, where many of the traders are still ethnic Armenians or Armenians who converted to Islam in 1915.

As we turn our gaze back to Sydney Harbour, I ask Carapiet what it will mean for his children to be Armenian since they will never have met a survivor and have almost no direct connection to the events of 1915.

Carapiet’s answer is relevant to many migrants  whose cultures have been fundamentally changed  by catastrophe. “You have to try harder because you don’t have a safety net. There is no safety net.”

As we part, Carapiet pulls out his mobile phone. “That’s him.”

He shows me a scan of a sepia photo of a man dressed in black. It is Helen’s grandfather who survived the death march to Syria and who, in old age, told his story to her  Australian-Armenian husband, the young Carapiet.

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