Right on the eve of April 24, the day that Armenians all across the world commemorate the Meds Yeghern, or the “Great Calamity” that Turks inflicted on them in 1915, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan took a surprising step. He published a two-page message, which honored the loss of the Armenians in a way that no Turkish statesmen has before. “We wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace,” Erdoğan said. “And we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”
This certainly fell short of submitting to the common Armenian demand of “recognizing the genocide,” which I doubt will ever happen. Because most Turks see 1915 as an ethnic cleansing in an era in which, they, too, were subjected to the same horrors in other parts of the crumbling empire.
Yet still, published in nine different languages, including “West Armenian” and “East Armenian,” Erdoğan’s message was clearly a well-calculated effort to reach out to the Armenians at a time when the centennial of 1915, which is expected be globally significant, is only one year ahead. It also comes at a time when Erdoğan was criticized, at home and in the world, for his authoritarianism and conspiracy-theory-rich nationalism.
In other words, one can say this was a pragmatic move, rather than a conscientious mea culpa. But it was still a significant step for Turkey, which used to either deny or trivialize the suffering of the Armenians. Hence, Erdoğan deserves to be commended for taking it, no matter how “political” his feelings were.
At this point, let me also note that this relatively more open-minded stance on “the Armenian issue” by Erdoğan and his party, compared to the rigidity of former political elites of Turkey, has some ideological roots as well. In a nutshell, Erdoğan’s “Ottomanism” simply gives him more room to be reformist vis-a-vis the Armenians (and the Kurds, for that matter), than the “Turkish nationalism” that the former elites subscribed to.
The reason is “Ottomanism” implies a broad umbrella under which Turks co-existed peacefully with other peoples of the empire, including the Armenians and the Kurds. The tragic expulsion of Armenians in 1915 was not an outcome of this pluralist Ottoman paradigm. It was an outcome of the fall of that paradigm. The Young Turks, who decided on the exodus, were subscribers of a new ideology called “Turkish nationalism,” which was, as one must see, a response to the Serbian, Greek
and Bulgarian nationalisms of the Balkans.
Soon after the foundation of the Republic, the more secularist version of the Young Turk ideology evolved into Kemalism and became the official creed. Today, Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), which had defeated the Kemalist establishment, is building a post-Kemalist Turkey. In this view, the expulsion of Armenians and the forced assimilation of the Kurds are historic mistakes that should be corrected.
In short, the very ideology of the AKP allows itself to take formerly unthinkable steps to reconcile with the Kurds and Armenians. Yet, the same ideology is not an asset, but a roadblock when it comes to reconciling with Alevis or secular Turks – and no wonder Erdoğan’s problems with these two camps are deepening, because, as the Americans say, there is no free lunch. Every ideological hegemony comes with new strengths, but also new shortcomings.