Turkey’s erratic genocide jurisprudence

Turkey’s erratic genocide jurisprudence

In the early 1990s, Turkey started to generously buy off-the-shelf arms from foreign manufacturers who had happily discovered an emerging but potentially lucrative market.

Spoiled by big companies vying for Turkish contracts in manners reminiscent of the insurance policy salesman in Tintin’s adventures, the Turks occupying important official seats discovered they could extract benefits from their roles as rich buyers. Some personally got rich. More innocent ones calculated that Turkey could use defense contracts as a foreign policy tool.

Before the French legislature recognized the Armenian genocide in 2001 Turkey threatened to freeze all economic, political and military ties with the country, including defense contracts. The French recognized the Armenian genocide. And Turkey’s bilateral trade with France rose from $4 billion in 2001 to $15 billion a decade later.

However, a decade later Turkey was threatening France again: This time, all economic, political and military ties would be frozen if the French legislature criminalized the denial of Armenian genocide.

Then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the French bill, if passed, would “dishonor our country and nation.”

Having learned from past experiences how punishing Turkey’s wrath could be, the French legislature passed the genocide denial bill. A few months later, France’s Supreme Court overturned the bill. So, “our country and nation were not dishonored.” In June 2012, Mr. Davutoğlu cheerfully announced Turkey and France could now live happily ever after.

That set a new Turkish jurisprudence on the genocide dispute. Between 2001 and 2012, Turkey moved from threatening countries whose legislatures could recognize the genocide to living happily ever after with such countries as long as their denial laws do not take effect.

As erratic in its position as before, Turkey, these days, is trying to market a new product. And that new product, too, is related to a defense contract. In September 2013, Ankara selected a Chinese company in a multi-billion dollar bid for the construction of its first long-range air and anti-missile defense architecture. As talks with the Chinese bidder inevitably stumbled, Turkey first opened parallel talks with a French-Italian group (whose legislature recognizes the genocide), which it had ranked second in the bidding, and then with an American partnership that had come third.

Zigzagging between three solutions ranging between $3.4 billion to $4.5 billion, the Turks decided to resort to the tactic they had discovered in the 1990s: Let’s wait and see, before we select the winner, how Washington and Paris will commemorate the centennial of the genocide. If, for instance, President Barack Obama kept his pre-election promise, broke the taboo and used the word “genocide” in his annual Apr. 24 speech, we cross out the Americans. Similarly, if the French administration went to another extreme on Apr. 24, the French-Italian contender would risk losing the contract; Lucky Beijing. Apr. 24 will be just another fine spring day.

The Turkish inconsistency persists. What if Paris commemorates Apr. 24 in a low-profile manner but Mr. Obama mentions the word that terribly scares off Ankara? Cross out the Americans. Jump into the French-Italian bid. But did the French legislature not recognize genocide in 2001 and even pass a bill that would have criminalized denial? Yes, but that was long time ago and in 2012 Mr. Davutoğlu decided to forget about it all just because the French supreme court overturned the denial bill (while the bill that recognizes genocide remains effective).

Once again, Ankara is wrong in its carpet bazaar calculus. If Mr. Obama once again avoids the word “genocide” in his annual speech, it will not be because he fears the Turkish wrath, which does not exist – other than as a joke. It will be because he will not wish to enable Turkey’s rulers to run from one public rally to another and scream to the already anti-American (and anti-Semitic) crowds that “this is a dark imperialist-Jewish-American-Gülenist plot to stop the rise of the Turkish empire.” A neat, extra two-to-four percentage points for the ruling party. Public curses and private thanks to President Obama.

Turkey’s deterrence-through-$$$$$ policy on the Armenian genocide issue embarrassingly collapsed in 2012. With the French precedent, no country takes “Turkey’s wrath” seriously because it does not exist.