All over the world, governments, parliaments and civil society organizations commemorate and discuss the mass killings of Armenians in 1915/16. Naming the events a genocide however meets criticism by the Turkish political establishment. Timur Akhmetov has analysed reactions by Turkish authorities and intellectuals.
On the occasion of the centenary of the tragic events, statements on the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire made last week by the Pope and the European Parliament have evoked strong reactions from Turkey’s political establishment. This is no wonder: As the euphemism goes, the “events of 1915” are still considered a taboo in Turkish society. Likewise, it is an official policy to deny the genocide, the simple notion of which can have legal consequences. Responses by the Turkish authorities and statements of its intelligentsia are indicative of this approach: When evaluating the events of 1915, the Turkish side not only utilizes tragic historical experiences of European countries, but also resorts to accusing Europe itself of being biased against the Turks.
The first who spoke about the genocide this year was Pope Francis. During the service in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 12, he made a reference to the fate of the Armenians who 100 years ago were persecuted and killed en masse in the former Ottoman Empire. The Pope clearly stated that “the first genocide in the history of the twentieth century was committed in 1915 against the Armenians”. However, it was not the first time when Pope Francis used the G-word. According to The Economist, the head of the Holy See had already brought up the Armenian genocide in June 2013 during a reception of the Armenian delegation headed by the Patriarch of Cilicia of Armenian Catholics.
Following the Pope’s statement on the genocide, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu posted in his Twitter account a statement saying that “the spiritual power must not distribute enmity and hatred, throwing baseless accusations”. Hours after, the Nuncio of the Holy See to Turkey, Luchibello Antonio, was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, where he was given an official statement by the Turkish government. The document reads that the Turkish government was surprised that the Pope avoided mentioning the sufferings and deaths of those subjects of the Ottoman Empire that were of non-Christian faiths. Further, the government criticized that the atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews and Gypsies during World War II were not mentioned at all in the Pope’s statement. Last but not least, Turkish officials noted in the document that the events of 1915 are not recognized by any international judicial body.
Turkish people “experienced grief and losses greater than anyone else”
The European Parliament (EP) also made its contribution to the debates. Since its official recognition of the genocide in 1987, the EP had already passed several resolutions on the commemoration of the Armenian history. On April 15, it passed yet another one calling on the Turkish leadership to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. The EP resolution subsequently also declared April 24 the Day of the Armenian Genocide in the European Union.
While delivering a speech at a business forum held during his official visit to Kazakhstan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented on the EP resolution on the Armenian genocide. Against it, he asserted that the historical injustice was actually committed to the Turkish people, who in the years of the alleged genocide “experienced grief and losses greater than anyone else”. While claiming that Turkey has no problems with the Armenian people, and the dispute over the 1915-events should not tarnish the bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey, Erdogan went on to urge the Armenian leadership to cooperate. He proposed establishing a bilateral commission of historians and other experts for joint investigations of the alleged events.
The head of the Turkish cabinet also responded to the EP resolution. During a press conference on April 17, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told journalists that if Europe wanted to contribute to the peaceful coexistence of cultures and peoples, steps that could lead to incitement of hatred against certain religious or national groups needed to be avoided. The increasing number of hate crimes on the basis of nationality and religion were a precursor of the growing difficulties Europe faces in doing so. The Prime Minister also emphasized that Turkey has repeatedly called on Armenia to start dialogue. During the congress of the Confederation of Civil Servants’ Trade Unions on April 18, Davutoğlu recalled that a statement for cooperation was issued on behalf of all parliamentary parties already in 2005. The former head of cabinet and now President Erdogan also published an open letter last year, in which he expressed his condolences to the descendants of the victims who died in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.
What about other peoples in 1915?
In this context, prominent Turkish parliamentary parties also felt compelled to join in. On April 16, representatives of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party published a statement in which they criticized the resolution of the European Parliament. They declared that the document did not take into account that during the First World War not only Armenians, but also other peoples living in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire were greatly affected. Other parties who signed the statement also condemned the European Parliament for contributing to the growth of tension in the Armenian-Turkish relations.
What is more, opposition parties hastened to take advantage of this resentful situation. For example, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the National Movement Party, one of the most nationalist political forces in Turkey, condemned not only the resolution of the European Parliament, but also the Turkish government itself. According to Bahceli, steps such signing the Zürich protocols in 2009 that led to the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armina or the open letter Erdogan sent last year to express his condolences to the descendants of killed Armenians, proved to be disastrous and undermined Turkey’s position in the world.
Meanwhile, the Turkish press is particularly interested in the case of Etyen Mahcupyan, a well-known intellectual of Armenian descent who recently resigned from his advisory post to Prime Minister Davutoğlu. In a move by the Turkish government that was considered an indication of the improved status of Armenians in Turkey, Mahcupyan was appointed in October 2014. Only half a year in, he then openly called for recognition of the genocide in early April. The considerable controversy this created notwithstanding, some say that the 65 year-old quit because he reached the maximum age for civil servants. Mahcupyan himself declared his intention to continue to cooperate with the government on informal lines.
A manifold policy
In light of such statements from Turkish authorities, several conclusions about the policy of genocide denial in the country can be drawn.
To start with, Ankara is convinced that the criticism from Europe is motivated more by turco- and Islamophobic sentiments than a desire for “truth”. Most prominently, this idea that anti-Islamic views are pushing EU’s leaders to actively criticize Turkey is widely used by the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party in domestic purposes.
Secondly, Turkish authorities try to fabricate a “justification” for the genocide from examples of complete or partial extermination of peoples in the period of European colonialism. As such, other countries are blamed for the committed crimes, such as Germany or Russia. In the case of the latter, there is widespread belief among Turks that a large number of deaths occured in Armenia (i.e. not Ottoman Empire) because the Russian administration did allegedly not adequately prevent mass starvation of incoming refugees. This however ignores the common fact that most deaths were among Armenians deported to the desert territories of modern Syria.
Finally, Turkey insists on solving the problem in the framework of bilateral Armenian-Turkish relations. Yet, in the same time, the Turkish government itself linked the restoration of diplomatic relations with Armenia to the resolution of the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It thereby brought a third party into the equation. In this sense, the motives behind Erdogan’s invitation to form a bilateral truth-commission also remain unclear. As such, the Turkish side is silent about multiple cleanings in its national archives while calling for a joint investigation of historical documents.
Despite the risks this entails, it is also worth noting that the Armenian issue, as well as other topics that were previously banned more rigorously, are increasingly widely and actively discussed in the Turkish society. Part of the reason for this lies in the ongoing negotiations with European Union over Turkey’s membership. Thus, one can hope that the trend towards more discussion in the country will continue in the future.