Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan tries to ignore Genocide

Despite Ankara’s attempts to downplay the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the ghosts of past Turkish atrocities won’t be silenced, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Tomorrow, 24 April, marks the anniversary of one of the major tragedies of the 20th century. This heartrending commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who lost their lives in the mass expulsions from Eastern Anatolia in 1915 occurs every year. Tomorrow’s ceremonies will have an extra poignancy.

They will commemorate the centenary of the horrific massacres and “death marches” that will remain eternally engraved in the collective memory of the Armenian people, whether in present-day Armenia or in the diaspora, as well as in the humanitarian consciousness of all mankind.

This year’s commemoration is also different because of Pope Francis’s historic decision to describe the mass killings and deportations of the Armenians as “genocide”. The pope’s remarks to this effect two weeks ago sent shockwaves through Turkey and took President Recep Tayyip Erdogan totally off-guard.

Erdogan had imagined that a gesture or two would fend off the spectre of international recognition of the Armenian genocide, which had been haunting the Turkish Republic since its inception in 1923.

Last year, on this occasion ⎯ the 99th commemoration of the 1915 “events”, as they have been officially termed in Turkey ⎯ he delivered an emotional message of condolence to the Armenian people.

It was an unprecedented step, but came nowhere near an official acknowledgement of responsibility. Also, while the intended recipients were not convinced, the message earned praise from the White House, which described the step as “encouraging” and urged “more” without specifying what this “more” would be.

Erdogan’s second step was to try to win the affection of the pope, to whom he delivered an eloquently worded invitation last year. The ever solicitous former prime minister now president, oversaw every detail of the papal visit in November, from the moment the pope crossed the threshold as an honoured guest into the luxurious Presidential Palace, through his visit to Istanbul, until his departure to the accompaniment of the president’s heartfelt wishes for the health and longevity of the head of the Catholic Church.

With this tactic, Erdogan was certain that he had achieved a diplomat success and that the centenary of the Armenian massacre would pass without a ripple. But it was not to be.

How much this has to do with Erdogan’s crisis management or pre-emptive style is difficult to say, but it appears that fate is determined to pack some heavy-duty surprises for him. Another may hail from the US, long Ankara’s best friend, at least until Obama came on the scene. With the help of the powerful pro-Israeli lobby, Congress had long prevented passage of a bipartisan bill acknowledging the Armenian genocide.

Several weeks ago, Fevzi Bilgin, director of the Washington-based Rethink Institute, predicted a major change. He wrote that the doors of the House of Representatives are wide open to the Armenians as the US is not headed by a Republican president, and that this situation offers them a golden opportunity.

He considers it likely that Congress will pass a resolution condemning “the alleged massacres perpetrated against the Armenians at the end of the Ottoman era.” He went on to observe that Turkey has much to worry about in this regard: questions regarding compensation, land and other pending issues.

Bilgin called for efforts to resolve the crisis in its appropriate framework as soon as possible, whether or not a congressional resolution is forthcoming.

Signs from Washington add weight to Bilgin’s assessment. Following Pope Francis’s remarks, a State Department spokeswoman issued a statement that may be a prelude to definitive congressional action on the resolution.

Said Marie Harf: “The US president and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact and mourned the fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.”

She added that US officials have “stated that a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all our interests, including Turkey’s, Armenia’s and America’s.” Nevertheless, she avoided explicit mention of the word “genocide”. Obama had used the “g-word” in his 2008 electoral campaign, during which he pledged to recognise the Armenian genocide.

 Other countries and organisations around the world have joined the growing list of those who do use the word “genocide”, and many world leaders and international delegations are expected to participate in the commemorative ceremonies in Yerevan tomorrow.

So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) has come up with another ruse. Ankara this year has shifted the date for the annual commemoration of the Turkish victory in the World War I Battle of Gallipoli to ⎯ coincidentally ⎯ 24 April.

Until this year the event was celebrated on 18 April. Zaman newspaper reports that more than 100 invitations were sent out to world leaders, including the president of Armenia, to attend the ceremonies in Istanbul and Çanakkale. Alas, Turkey continues its deliberate denial policy and is perfecting its instrumentation for distorting history.

The question now is whether Turkey and Armenia remain stuck at that longstanding, futile state of non-convergence. Are they perpetually doomed to go around in circles like so the characters in a Harold Pinter play?

The noise and commotion from Turkey these days is familiar and suggests that it is highly unlikely that this country will budge on the Armenian question, at least for the time being.

Orhan Pamuk, the famous Turkish novelist who, like Pinter, is a Nobel Prize laureate, was the only prominent Turkish literary voice to openly call for recognition of the Armenian genocide.

He paid the price in the form of attacks against his “anti-Turkish” stances and the refusal of his compatriots to celebrate his Nobel Prize ⎯ the first awarded to a Turkish citizen. When he headed off to Stockholm to receive the award there was none of the expected fanfare at Ataturk Airport.

This did not deter Pamuk from continuing his campaign to confront general Turkish intransigence on the Armenian subject. He was among the first to condemn the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007.

Dink had been prosecuted several times for “denigrating Turkishness”, the charge levelled at him for having referred to “the events of 1915” as genocide. The last time was for having justified using this term “because its consequences show it to be true and label it so. We see that people who had lived on this soil for 4,000 years were exterminated by these events.”

Dink saw himself as a bridge between the Turkish and Armenian peoples, but his voice was permanently silenced by the bullet of a 17-year-old Turkish ultranationalist.

Pamuk’s outspokenness inspired others to follow his lead. One was Ismet Berkan, columnist for Radikal, who wrote in that newspaper’s edition of 28 January 2007: “We must rid ourselves of ethnocentric, the ultranationalist and xenophobic tendencies. This is essential if we are to protect the lives of people like Hrant Dink.”

There eventually surfaced more signs of change from below. For one, in spite of his well-known opposition to the ruling JDP and Erdogan (for which reason his name is anathema in the pro-government media), the popularity of Pamuk’s novels climbed, becoming a staple in Turkish bestseller lists year after year.

As his political views have not changed, this can be taken as an indication of a growing segment of public opinion at least willing to discuss the Armenian tragedy in terms that are unacceptable in the official literature and the authorised public school history textbooks.

Thus mounting pressure from within is combining with enormous pressure from the outside. The latter derives much of its impetus from the fact that Erdogan is no longer regarded as a friend who deserves to be pampered and indulged.

Sympathy for him abroad has eroded as steadily and rapidly as his autocratic inclinations have surfaced and as relentlessly as his government has gnawed away at democratic freedoms. In the last five years in particular, antidemocratic practices and trends of the JDP government have been the frequent subject of European Commission reports and in the international press.

This naturally adds to the pressures on foreign policy architects and decision-makers abroad to move to curb the trends and ambitions that are dragging Turkey back into the clutches of Third World dictatorship. The US press, in particular, has been increasingly harsh in its criticisms of the Turkish president.

For example, before the Pope landed in Ankara’s Esenboga Airport last November, a US newspaper wrote that “Erdogan’s Turkey”, which the pope was visiting, has “no freedom of religion or of the press” and “Christians there are in a dilemma.”

Such remarks prompted some portions of the Turkish press to caution the ruling elites that there could be trouble with the American ally around the time of the annual commemoration of the Armenian massacres.

Democrats are not traditionally close to Turkey. They see it as an autocratic despotic state. It has lost its chief advantage and most salient trait as a model state in the Greater Middle East with the rise of “Erdogan’s Turkey.” As Bilgin observed in an interview with Bir Gün newspaper, the changing tone of the US press towards Turkey reflects a real crisis of confidence in Erdogan.

Some hot and uncomfortable winds have been gathering momentum since the events sparked by the Gezi Park protests in late May 2013. Nor should we ignore deteriorating relations with Israel. In this context, one writer remarked that it was no coincidence that Armenian-American Kim Kardashian headed off to Israel after her recent trip to Armenia, especially in view of what has been described as a rise in the anti-Semitic tenor of Erdogan’s rhetoric.

Such observations taken together with the JDP government’s support for Islamist extremist movements, even before the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group, have led more and more congressmen to say, “That man, Erdogan, isn’t the man we thought he was.”

As for who that man is, as Fevzi Bilgin says, he is an Islamist who wants to apply Sharia law, who is fighting secularism and who supports the terrorist IS organisation. This will all come out in the sessions of the House of Representatives.

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