Extending an Olive Branch: Rebuilding Turkish-Armenian Relations

There is a lot Turkey can do to facilitate reconciliation with its eastern neighbor...

One hundred years after the Ottoman-era atrocities against the Armenians, a fierce battle is still being fought between Turkey and Armenia over historical truth. In this war, politicians and lobbyists have replaced the generals, and international legislative bodies serve as battlegrounds where history and politics are mixed, often irresponsibly.

On April 24, Armenians around the world annually commemorate the mass atrocities that were perpetrated against them by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Most historians put the number of Armenian Christians who perished at between 1 million and 1.5 million and consider the events to have been genocide. Turkish authorities, however, have contested these figures and rejected the use of the term genocide. The official Turkish position instead attributes the deaths and displacements to the broader context of the war, during which many Muslims, Turks, and other minority groups also perished. Although the scholarly record is not ambiguous, Turkish officials have advocated for the formation of an international commission of historians to study the matter before a definitive conclusion is reached. For Armenians, Turkey’s contestation of history and disavowals of responsibility remain a source of deep bitterness.

This year’s remembrance of the Medz Yeghern (an Armenian term commonly translated as “Great Catastrophe”) carries extraordinary weight and expectations, as it is the centenary of the massacres. To commemorate the events, Armenian leaders have invited world leaders to gather later this week in Yerevan. Numerous ceremonies and other memorial events have already been organized to bring international attention to the tragic history. The Armenian diaspora’s campaign to achieve genocide recognition from local, national and multilateral governments, newspapers, academic organizations and other policy makers has grown in intensity. In recent days, Pope Francis and the European Parliament called upon the Turkish government to acknowledge the mass deportations and killings as genocide. On Monday, the German government retreated from its long-standing avoidance of the term.

For the Turkish government, the term genocide is neuralgic and fraught with legal and financial implications. Not surprisingly, Turkey responded to these calls for recognition in an instinctively defensive and uncompromising way, recalling its ambassador to the Vatican for consultations and warning that such calls would harm relations. In an acrimonious war of words, Turkish leaders have branded the Pope as part of "an evil front" that is stirring hatred and using “blackmail” to plot against them, and they lashed out against the “unfounded claims.”

This harsh reaction was preceded by Turkey’s decision earlier this year to move a commemoration of the World War I battle of Gallipoli from its customary date on March 18 to April 24-25 in order to compete with the genocide remembrance activities in Yerevan. This political maneuvering stoked considerable resentment on the Armenian side and has forced world leaders, who might otherwise have participated in both commemorations, to make an uncomfortable choice between the two.

These developments are regrettable because they come after Turkish officials have made steps in recent years toward reconciliation with Armenia and its global diaspora. The uproar negates the symbolic goodwill that might have come out of the statement last year by then Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and this year’s declaration by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, each of which recognized the pain of the Armenians and extended condolences to the descendants of those who perished. The revived discord also allows hardline nationalists on both sides to persist in their categorical demonization of the other.

Even more unfortunately, the tension overshadows the important societal changes taking place in Turkey toward understanding the fate of Ottoman Armenians. Less than a decade ago, the Turkish government was still prosecuting citizens for describing the events of 1915 as genocide. Since that time, an awakening has begun regarding the “Armenian issue”—several books have been published, international conferences and televised debates have been held, and an online apology campaign received over 30,000 signatures of support. Several Turks have revealed long-hidden family secrets about their ancestors being Armenians who were rescued from the death marches and taken into their families. These developments have helped to stir this particularly difficult and controversial history in the broader Turkish consciousness.

It is now not uncommon for Turks, along with Armenians from around the world, to assemble across Turkey on April 24 to commemorate the fate of Ottoman Armenians. The anniversary date has also become an occasion to remember the courageous Armenian-Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink, for his struggle to get Turkish society to reconsider its history and investigate how a once-thriving Armenian community in Anatolia disappeared. Increasingly, the officially scripted narrative, portraying Ottoman-era Armenians as traitors who were simply relocated, is being questioned.