The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, released a surprising statement on April 23 about the deaths surrounding the mass deportation of Armenians during World War I. The responses so far range from warm welcomes to outright rejections of the message. It clearly achieved its intended purpose: It received attention. Discussion has focused on whether it constitutes a serious shift in Turkish policy or an attempt at hedging towards the expected reactions in 2015.
There could be no doubt about the short term intention of the government, as the carefully constructed message was translated into nine languages and circulated into international press on the eve of yet another “genocide resolution” at the U.S. Congress. It has been a routine for Turkish diplomacy for years to stop draft resolutions at the U.S. Congress and prevent the U.S. president from using the G-word in his remembrance of the 1915 events. The same has happened exactly this year: A group of Congressmen presented a draft resolution to the Senate on April 3. The administration did not like it and the President used his now routine wording, “Meds Yeghern,” meaning great calamity, in referring to what happened to Anatolian Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Both Armenians and Turks were not happy, but content, about his choice of words. “Nothing new,” one might say.
Moreover, the long-term expectations from and the consequences of the statement are still vague. Thus one might easily question the sincerity of the change in Erdoğan’s discourse, especially when the memory of the failure of the latest attempt at Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and Erdoğan’s role in it are still fresh.
Yet, I believe Prime Minister Erdoğan’s latest statement should be taken more seriously. Especially when taken into consideration together with an analysis that includes where Turkey is coming from and how much has changed both in Turkish society and its official policy line. Besides the public remembrance of the “shared pains” in Turkey in recent years, as well as other initiatives to show more compassion toward Armenian suffering, the Turkish government’s previous attempts at secret, but direct talks with Armenian diplomats, the restoration of several ancient Armenian churches in Anatolia and finally, football diplomacy, leading to the preparation of two protocols to normalize the relationship between Armenia and Turkey are important indications.
What is more, whatever his intentions were, it should be acknowledged that Prime Minister Erdoğan became the first Turkish leader to offer “condolences to the grandchildren of the Armenians who lost their lives a century ago.” It is an important step, especially when read together with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s description of the 1915 events as a “mistake” during his visit to Armenia. Thus, recognizing the value of the statement, the U.S. has welcomed it and encouraged further efforts from the Turkish side.
Obviously, the latest gesture needs to be supported by concrete policies, such as building diplomatic ties and opening the borders. Otherwise it could remain an empty shell and would cause further disappointment among Armenians. Yet, whether Erdoğan, and thus Turkey, has an ulterior motive in expressing condolences is immaterial. The statement can easily be perceived as a tactical move to forestall the 2015 reactions. But, even if we assume that this is true, it is not that important; since in international relations, there are very few countries without ulterior motives. What is more important is the result. That is what everybody, including the Armenians, should focus on.
If we can all do that, and look into the last years of the Ottoman Empire from the perspective of “shared pains,” instead of a zero-sum-game approach, then it means that we are already on the right track.