Ankara’s Armenian Charm Offensive -
By Barçin Yinanç
Turkey has again weathered that time of the year when ambassadors line up in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get their share of protests on April 24 when Armenians remember the massacre of their kin at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915. This year the Dutch and Georgian ambassadors were among several heads of mission in Ankara to be summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear the official reaction to their country’s unveiling of a monument or a statue in memory of the Anatolian Armenians who were killed or deported en masse during the First World War.
But this year, on the 99th anniversary of the Armenian tragedy, there was a significant shift in Turkey’s official stance toward the commemorations. In previous years Turkey has objected to the remembrance day; during tributes in 2012, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said: “There is no difference for us between April 23 and April 24.” This year, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a surprise written statement on April 23, in which he said: “The 24th of April carries a particular significance for our Armenian citizens and for all Armenians around the world, and provides a valuable opportunity to share opinions freely on a historical matter.”
With this statement, Turkey has officially accepted April 24 as a remembrance day, a huge step as it is the first time a Turkish leader has formally offered condolences for the mass killings. “The statement was certainly as dramatic and impressive as it was unexpected,” said Richard Giragosian, the head of a Yerevan based think tank. Giragosian was in Istanbul to attend one of the commemoration ceremonies that have been held in several cities across Turkey for the past few years.
Ömer Lütem, a retired Turkish ambassador who spent four decades dealing with the Armenian issue, believes that Armenian efforts toward recognition of the atrocities as genocide—expected to peak next year for the 100th anniversary—are behind Erdoğan’s statement. “With the centennial of 1915 approaching, I think the government had the idea to do something that would withdraw people’s attention, especially the Armenians. I think this is the main cause,” he said.
The prime minister’s statement was certainly part of an effort to fend off the Armenian campaign for next year’s milestone commemorations. But not everyone thinks the impending centennial is behind Turkey’s change of heart. Volkan Vural, another retired ambassador, believes it was soul searching, and a wider drive to reconcile with Turkey’s minority groups that enabled the government to review the past. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has previously tried to deal with the issue by improving the rights of minorities in Turkey, which include Armenians, and also attempting to normalize relations with Armenia, with which it has no diplomatic relations.
Yet a 2009 initiative to foster ties with Armenia did not end well after disagreement over the status of Nagorno–Karabakh, an Azerbaijani territory under the occupation of Armenia. As Turkey’s relations with Azerbaijan outweigh those with Yerevan, a renewed effort toward reconciliation with Armenia looks unlikely. The prospect of appeasement looks even slimmer given Turkey is in the midst of an electoral period, with presidential elections due in August and general elections scheduled for next year.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government, which refuses to recognize the atrocities committed in 1915 as genocide, continues to work on its much touted “counter offensive” to Armenian plans for the centennial. Vural has in the past suggested an apology be issued along with an offer of citizenship to the children of survivors. “No apology for genocide, but an apology for the deportation that caused human suffering,” he said. The offer of citizenship to the descendants of displaced Armenians is currently being discussed in Ankara.
At the same time, many take the view that the impact of the centennial should not be exaggerated. “There will definitely be headaches. It will probably poison relations with some countries, not all, but with some like France and the United States, to a certain extent and Latin American countries as well. But I don’t think this will be a very disturbing thing for Turkey,” said Vural.