Why Erdogan’s ‘unprecedented’ statement on Armenian massacres left many unsatisfied


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech  during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on April 22, 2014. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a surprising move Wednesday: Speaking on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the controversial mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman soldiers in 1915, he expressed condolences for the "inhumane" incident.

Erdogan's comments are significant. For many years, the killings in 1915 were rarely talked about by Turkey. However, the events – which left some 1.5 million Armenians in what is now modern Turkey dead during the final years of the Ottoman Empire – have long been a source of anger in Armenia and among the Armenian diaspora.

The Associated Press called the comments an "unprecedented, conciliatory message to Armenians," while a Turkish official told Reuters that it was the first time a Turkish leader had offered condolences so directly to Armenians. The comments were released in nine languages, including Armenian: They were clearly designed to make an impact.

There are a couple of important reasons that Erdogan's comments are being treated with skepticism, however: language and timing.

First, the language of Erdogan's comments was clearly well-thought out — perhaps too thought out for many in the Armenian community.

“The incidents of the First World War are our shared pain,” Erdogan said, adding that millions of people of “of all religions and ethnicities” died during the war. “Using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible,” Erdogan added.

To many, especially those in Armenian lobbying groups, that wasn't enough. Armenian Weekly, an English Armenian publication from Massachusetts, wrote that the Turkish minister used "euphemisms and the age-old 'everyone suffered' denialist refrain." Most importantly, Erdogan didn't mention the word "genocide," despite the fact that many historians now argue that the Armenian killings marked the first genocide of the 20th century (in fact, the man who invented the word, Raphael Lemkin, was partly inspired by the deaths). The lack of that word in Erdogan's statement is almost certainly deliberate: Earlier this month, the Turkish foreign ministry condemned a U.S. Senate committee resolution that called the killings a genocide, arguing that it "distorts history and law."

Meanwhile, Erdogan's comments are being viewed skeptically by some in Turkey due to their timing. Erdogan and his AKP party have suffered almost a year of political tension, from the protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park that began last summer to the corruption scandal and rivalry with Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen that eventually led to Turkey's well-publicized ban on Twitter and YouTube.

The timing of Erdogan's comments is just too perfect for some in Turkey to believe. "While the media hype over statement fills the airwaves, and print pages, he'll get down on business of consolidating more power in Turkey," tweeted Abdullah Bozkurt, a journalist with Today's Zamen (an English-language newspaper linked to the Gulen movement), on Wednesday. Erdogan, who has been pilloried in the international media recently for a number of crackdowns, is simply hoping to curry favor, the argument continues.

Perhaps this is unfair. Regardless of intention, Erdogan's comments may well be an important step in reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, the beginnings of a dialogue about a tragic moment in history. And Erdogan has worked hard to move away from Turkish nationalist positions and improve relationships with minorities, most notably the Kurds. Still, that the language and timing of the comments are leaving many people unsatisfied suggests that there may well be quite a ways to go.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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