Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an offered what the government said were unprecedented condolences yesterday (23 April) to the grandchildren of Armenians killed in World War One by Ottoman soldiers.
In a statement issued on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the deeply contested deaths, Erdo?an unexpectedly described the events of 1915 as “inhumane”, using more conciliatory language than has often been the case for Turkish leaders.
Turkish government officials said it was the first time a Turkish prime minister had offered such explicit condolences and described the statement as a historic step, but Erdo?an’s words were dismissed as “cold-hearted and cynical” by an influential US-based Armenian advocacy group.
The exact nature and scale of what happened during the fighting that started in 1915 is highly contentious and continues to sour relations between Turkey and Armenia, a former Soviet republic.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians died in clashes, but denies that up to 1.5 million were killed and that this constituted an act of genocide – a term used by many Western historians and foreign parliaments (see background).
Earlier in April, for example, a US Senate committee resolution branded the massacre of Armenians as genocide.
Erdo?an’s statement – unusually released in nine different languages including Armenian – repeated previous calls for dialogue between the two countries, and the setting up of a historical commission to probe events surrounding the killings.
“It is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren,” he said.
“Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences – such as relocation – during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards one another.”
On the defensive
Although striking a conciliatory tone, Erdo?an reiterated a long-held Turkish position that the deaths of millions of people during the violence of the period should be remembered “without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity”.
Turkey is a Muslim state, while Armenia is Christian.
“Using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey, and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible,” he added.
Armenia has up to now declined the offer for a joint historical commission, as it regards the alleged genocide as an established historical fact, and believes Turkey would use such a commission to press its own version of events.
Armenia accuses the Ottoman authorities at the time of systematically massacring large numbers of Armenians, then deporting many more, including women, children and the elderly and infirm in terrible conditions on so-called death marches.
Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan accused Turkey of “utter denial” of what Armenia sees as the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire 99 years ago, but said his country does not consider Turks its enemy.
Sarksyan’s website posted on Wednesday the remarks he was to deliver on Thursday.
The “Armenian Genocide … is alive as far as the successor of the Ottoman Turkey continues its policy of utter denial,” Sarksyan said in an address to be delivered on Remembrance Day on Thursday, according to an English translation on the site.
“We are convinced that the denial of a crime constitutes the direct continuation of that very crime. Only recognition and condemnation can prevent the repetition of such crimes in the future,” he said, calling on Turkey to “repent”.
Sarksyan did not mention Erdogan’s remarks in the address and made clear Armenia believes it is up to Turkey to “set aside the historical stigma” and “set free their state’s future from this heavy burden”.
The executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America said that Turkey was increasingly isolated over its version of what happened in 1915.
“Ankara is repackaging its genocide denials,” Aram Hamparian said in response to Erdo?an’s remarks. “The fact remains that, as this cold-hearted and cynical ploy so plainly demonstrates, Turkey is, today, escalating its denial of truth and obstruction of justice for the Armenian Genocide.”
Last December, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made Turkey’s first high-level visit to Armenia in nearly five years, raising the prospect of a revival in peace efforts between the historical rivals which stalled in 2010.
Turkey cut ties and shut its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, which was then fighting a losing battle against Armenian separatists in Karabakh. The frontier remains closed.
Hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians died during forced removals in 1915 by the Ottoman army from what is now Eastern Turkey, but Turkey denies that the move constituted genocide.
The country's attitude vis-à-vis the bloodshed in 1915 is one of the defining aspects of modern Turkish diplomacy, with any use of the term ‘genocide’ either within Turkey or abroad swiftly denounced by Ankara.
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was killed in 2007 after openly saying that the events of 1915 were genocide.