Turkey Grapples with Its Past

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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This weekend will be the 100th anniversary of what most historians consider the twentieth century’s first genocide.  Turkey objects to the use of the term ‘genocide’ in the case of the disappearance and killing of over one million Armenians in 1915 and the issue continues to remain a sore point in the relationship between Armenia and Turkey. With the centennial anniversary fast approaching, many, including Pope Francis, have waded into the war of words, though it appears that the U.S. president will refrain from using the “g-word” when speaking on the tragic events. Many in Turkey feel that the international community is targeting Turkey unfairly, but there are some who feel that Turkey ought to change tack, if not policy, when it comes to this matter. There is also the hope that following the commemoration of that tragic event, perhaps the two countries will come together and begin mending their relationship.

Reflecting on the comments made by Pope Francis and the violence that has taken place during the last century, The National’s (UAE) editorial staff expresses hope that greater cooperation at the UN level as well as between countries will make sure that such events are not repeated again: “Pope Francis waded into the discussion with his comments on the 100th anniversary of the massacres that killed more than one million Armenians. He referred to the events as the first genocide of the 20th century, a label that Turkey firmly rejects….whatever the semantics of the tragic events that came to pass in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating, the sad reality is that the 20th century has had a long list of genocides. Not a single decade was free from some sort of horrific mass killing….The 2006 UN Security Council resolution, which compels the international community to intervene if a genocide is occurring, was both an acknowledgement of the brutal legacy of the 20th century and a way to make the 21st the one when genocides were consigned to history.”

But such idealistic, yet well-meaning, expressions of hope for the future, have been absent for the most part from the Turkish media, where one of the greatest concerns, at least for the Daily Sabah’s Ergin Gunes, has been whether Barack Obama would follow the example of other western countries and refer to the massacres as ‘genocide’: “The U.S. is also well aware that it is not the job of modern-day governments to pass judgment on the events of 1915. The current administration has consistently refrained from taking positions on historical issues other than ‘encouraging the relevant parties to continue to work with its neighbors to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue in accordance with international law’ (i.e. the Japan-S.Korea comfort women issue). If the U.S. moves away from this approach, particularly against a key NATO ally, it would greatly damage its long-standing role as an intermediary in international disputes. April 24 is time for President Obama to decide whether he will respect international law or to choose to take a political position by recognizing a one-sided story.”

There is, however, a sense in Turkey that the country’s image has taken a hit and as such some expect it to change tack, if not policy. For example, Today’s Zaman Mehmet Oztarsu worries that “Turkey, which has been trying to preserve its power in the international arena by relying on the support of its Western allies, is currently suffering from serious backlash. Our politicians, who are unable to realize the growing resentment towards Turkey in the West due to domestic political considerations, continue to make bold and optimistic statements…. arguing that our people were also killed is not a good approach for Turkey as well, and this is not sincere. In addition, praising the governments of the past and ignoring their sins are also insincere. The same is done by the Armenians who praise the Dashnak leaders and those who committed massacres in Karabakh. So we realize that both sides have the capacity to rely on the same methods for further hostility. However, despite their similarity in many respects, the parties do not make efforts for reconciliation.”
The overwhelming sentiment expressed in the Turkish dailies, though, is the feeling that both countries need to move beyond their present frosty relationship. Daily Sabah’s editorial staff urges the relevant countries and the international community to come together and promote ‘peace and stability’: “On Wednesday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which states that “the tragic events that took place in 1915-1917 against the Armenians in the territory of the Ottoman Empire represent a genocide….Considering that the debate will presumably remain at the top of the world’s political agenda for the next couple of weeks, we would like to call on the governments of Turkey and Armenia, along with the international community, to revive the hope of former Ottoman nations for reconciliation and to promote peace and stability in the region through open dialogue….Finally, the international community must reconsider their current approach and remember that they, too, stand to benefit from promoting stronger ties between Turkey and Armenia in a troubled region.”

In an op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News, Semih Idiz expresses similar feelings, suggesting that unless the two countries can overcome the current impasse, they may be condemned to remain in the current state for the foreseeable future: “After the centenary passes, this emotional seesaw for both sides will continue as the Armenian genocide debate rages one way or another. This will poison any chance there is of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, even though there are more human contacts between the two nations today than was the case before….It seems counterproductive in term of the interests of both countries for Armenia to keep trying to force-feed Turkey with its version of history, and for Turkey to stick to its own version of what happened in 1915 while denying all other versions….If Turkey and Armenia can show the courage to do what the world generally expects of them, then this will be a new dawn for both countries. If they can’t, the endless genocide debate, and all the disappointments and unfulfilled expectations tied up with it, will continue indefinitely.”

We might not need to wait too long before we find out whether Turkish and Armenian politicians will heed Mr. Idiz’ advice. Barcin Yinanc believes that with Turkish parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in June of this year, the two countries have an opportunity to reset their relationship, even though he accepts the fact that much of the impetus for change will have to come from the Turkish side: “the formation of a new government in Turkey following the June 7 elections should provide a new fresh start of negotiations between the two sides. This time though, past mistakes should be avoided and a formula found to include indirectly both the Azerbaijan and Armenian diaspora in the picture. Meanwhile, independent of the process with Armenia, the Turkish government should continue to take all the necessary steps to improve the conditions of the Armenian community in Turkey, while contact with the Armenian diaspora should be intensified….This might appear as insufficient for certain circles. But it should not be underestimated. The genie is out to push Turkey to face some of the dark pages of its history. It will be impossible to push the genie back.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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