Turkey seeks to prevent snowball effect of Armenian dispute

Turkey has rejected applying the term genocide to the events that took place in 1915 during World War I when Armenians were subject to mass killings and deportations. This state ideology that did not allow an open debate on the Armenian issue until recently has been internalized by the majority of Turks. As a result, they feel offended when their ancestors, the Ottoman Turks, are constantly accused of committing genocide against Armenians or for the mass killings. Even for many Turkish academics it has been a taboo issue to even talk about differing ideas on the allegations of Armenian genocide.

The Turkish government, to the surprise of many, released a statement on April 23, the eve of the 99th anniversary of the mass deportation of Armenians in 1915, offering Turkey’s condolences for the first time to the grandchildren of the Armenians who lost their lives under Ottoman rule during the war.

Armenians mark the date of April 24, 1915 as the start of what they regard as a genocide. Turkey denies Armenian claims that up to 1.5 million people were killed and that it constituted an act of genocide.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the first Turkish statesmen to offer condolences to the Armenians, said the events of 1915 had “inhumane consequences” and expressed hope that those who died were at peace.

For many Turks, Erdogan’s message of condolence to the Armenians came as a shock because they have been brainwashed with the state’s ideology of denial of any kind of Turkish or Ottoman wrongdoing. We Turks have been brought up reading ideological textbooks that talk only about the heroic achievements of our ancestors, as if they could have made no mistakes over the course of history.

Hence, Turks from every walk of life — a taxi driver or a hairdresser or an intellectual — that I came across following government’s statement of condolence to the grandchildren of Armenians deplored this move by the government.

This kind of adverse reaction from Turks to a message of condolence is the psychological aspect of the matter.

As to the political aspect, 99 years after the mass killings of Armenians I do not use the term genocide, as it has to be proven by an independent and objective committee of historians. Turkish decision-makers, at long last, have realized that Ankara has to do something to prevent the genocide claims from turning into a legal matter under which millions of Armenians will gain the right to seek compensation from Turkey.

Some 20 countries, from Argentina to Canada and across the Atlantic to Europe recognize the World War I-era incidents as a genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks against the Anatolian Armenians. The threat of the US Congress recognizing the events as genocide also remains.

If the US Congress finally recognizes the events as genocide, this will have a snowball effect in the sense that the remaining countries of the world will not hesitate to adopt similar resolutions.

And the US Congress is close to recognizing the events of 1915 as a genocide. It could occur next year, on the 100th anniversary of what the Armenians term a genocide.

Therefore, the timing of the Turkish government offering condolences to the Armenians is critical to control damage that may be irreparable next year.

Turkey still has an opportunity to limit the damage if it renews, for instance, efforts to normalize its relations with Armenia, a neighbor on its eastern border.

Turkey’s attempt at rapprochement with Armenia collapsed just after it started in 2009. The border between the two countries has remained closed since 1993.

In 2004, Prime Minister Erdogan announced the creation of a “committee of historians” to be composed of Turks and Armenians as well as third parties, if necessary, to investigate the genocide allegations. Armenia declined to respond to this Turkish offer.

Still, if Turkey opens its border with Armenia and starts diplomatic relations with its neighbor, whose independence it recognized in 1991, it may create a chance for there to be less pressure exerted on Turkey regarding the genocide allegations.

The Armenian leadership and Armenian citizens should also seek to win the hearts and minds of Turks. Armenian leaders should at least offer their condolences to the families of 46 people, many of whom were Turkish diplomats, killed by the Armenian terrorist organization the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), active in the 1980s and early 1990s. ASALA sought the Turkish government’s public acknowledgement of its responsibility for the alleged Armenian genocide, as well as payment of reparations and that Turkey cede territory to an independent Armenian homeland.