Armenia and Turkey fight RSVP war over centenaries

By bne IntelliNews February 6, 2015

Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -


It looked like an olive branch. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkey’s prime minister, last year offered an unprecedented expression of condolence for the “inhumane” massacres Armenians suffered by Ottoman soldiers in 1915, the world hailed it as a sign of softening in the Turkish rhetoric.

The historic first, however, did little to satisfy the Armenians, who want the deaths of an estimated 1.5mn people recognised as genocide. Nor was Armenia comforted by the recent statement by current premier Ahmet Davutoğlu condemning the murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink eight years ago and calling for a new beginning in Turkish-Armenian relations.

Those attempts fell short, and now relations have gone backwards again. In January, Erdoğan, now president, invited over 100 heads of state, including Armenian President Serzh Sarkisyan, to remember the 100th anniversary of the World War I’s battle of Gallipoli on April 24, the same day Armenians will observe the centenary of the Armenian massacre. The move has raised a few eyebrows, including in Turkey, and sparked a RSVP war between Ankara and Yerevan.

Sarkisyan had little choice but to rebut the invite. Armenia is preparing its own roster of international guests, including US president Barak Obama and France’s Francois Hollande, for a large-scale set of events to mark the 1915 events.

In an open letter to Erdoğan, the Armenian president stated that the move shows Turkey is continuing  “its traditional policy of denialism”,” with a post-script: “A few months ago I invited you to join us in commemoration (…) It is not a common practice for us to be hosted at the invitee’s, without receiving a response to our invitation.” Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan handed personally the letter while attending Erdoğan’s inauguration ceremony in Ankara in August last year.

The ball rolled back to Erdogan whose spokesperson labeled Sarkisyan’s remarks on Turkey as “insults and hate speech”.

Bad timing

Every April, Armenians around the world mark the Medz Yeghern, the Great Crime, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who died when the Ottoman Turks deported them en masse from then-western Armenia, now eastern Turkey, to the Syrian desert and elsewhere in 1915-16. They were killed or died from starvation or disease. Remembrance Day is set on April 24, the day (also known as Red Sunday) the Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, in then Constantinople.

Turkish officials say that the mass killings were a result of widespread chaos in the dying days of the Ottoman empire, but argue that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian population and that many Turks also died in the turmoil of war. The total number of dead is disputed. Armenians say 1.5 million died, Turkey says the number is up to half a million. In 2014, the Turkish foreign ministry criticised a US senate committee resolution that described the killings as a genocide, arguing that it “distorts history and law”.

The Gallipoli campaign, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign (or Çanakkale Savaşı in Turkish) marks one of the Allies’ major defeats during WWI. It is also a defining moment in Turkey’s history and it led to the founding of the Republic of Turkey eight years later under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who rose to fame as a commander at Gallipoli. It is also considered the birth of a national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand: the two countries remember their fallen soldiers on April 25 when their army corps landed on the peninsula (hence Anzac Day).

Turkey, on the other hand has traditionally commemorated Gallipoli on March 18, the date 18 British and French battleships, guarded by other warships, first attacked the Dardanelles forts.

The decision to move the commemoration to April 24 is certainly “bad timing”, wrote Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based independent think-tank Regional Centre Studies, although “each declaration not only offers and expands the space for dialogue and engagement, but also helps to at least 'sustain the momentum' and to foster a new environment more conductive for both sides to re-engage”.

Confronting the past

According to the Armenian National Institute, 21 countries officially recognise the Armenian genocide, including Switzerland which is currently at the centre of a high-profile legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights focusing on Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Turkish Workers Party, who called the Armenian genocide “an international lie” while in the country in 2005.

While until a decade ago talking about the 1915 events was a feat of bravery, today critical voices calling for Turkey to confront its past are growing inside the country.

“Turkey has long lost the battle of truth. The destruction of the Armenian population on its ancestral land is a sheer fact, whatever else you might call it,” wrote Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center.

The issue is highly sensitive. “While many in Turkey see the selection of 24 April as a mistaken and obviously disingenuous move to counter the Armenian genocide commemoration, many also feel that Turkish moves to return property and to discuss the 1915 events are not adequately appreciated,” Giragosian told bne IntelliNews in an e-mail from Istanbul. There is a “deep divide and stark split over the genocide issue,” he added.

On February 2 the Turkish authorities returned the ownership of an historic Armenian cemetery in central Istanbul to the Armenian community, in the wake of new legal amendments that allow the return of properties seized from minorities.

On January 29, Erdoğan said that Turkey is ready to “pay the price” if found guilty of the mass killings of Armenians a century ago, adding that his country would take the necessary steps if historians conclude that it was at fault for the World War I-era massacres that Armenians say amounted to genocide. 

In a twist of fate, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has mistakenly published a picture of the Armenian Genocide monument in Yerevan amidst a collage of photos for a official day planner, prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Çanakkale. The ministry vowed to find and punish the responsible person.

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