Commentary: Erdogan’s Apology Opens a Pandora’s Box For Turkey


By Edmond Y. Azadian

By all estimates, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a smart politician and much of the credit of Turkey’s rise on the international stage goes to him personally and, to some extent, to his party. But his country’s history does not cooperate with him, since Turkey has too many skeletons (figuratively and literally) in its closet and they may jump out at any moment to embarrass the country and its leaders.

That is exactly what happened when the prime minister made a calculated move to apologize for the mass murders of Dersim during 1937-38 operations, when more than 100,00 Alevis and Kurds were massacred in the name of suppressing a so-called revolt.

Erdogan’s calculated political risk triggered incalculable reactions, which are still piling up. He is a master of hypocrisy and demagoguery; he can use anything and everything to pursue his political agenda.

But, it seems, this time, there is a boomerang effect that may cost Turkey dearly as compared to the anticipated political dividends.

Currently there is a cutthroat competition between Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and both are trying not to leave any stone unturned when it comes to embarrassing and bringing down the other.

The ruling AK Party successfully eliminated a powerful opponent, Deniz Baykal, who was the head of the

Republican Party, by leaking a sex tape involving him and a former staffer. The seemingly mild-mannered and moderate Kemal Kilicdaroglu replaced him, though now he, too, is spewing fire against Erdogan, his party and his administration.

At this time, accusations and counter accusations are flying from one party to the other. Mr. Erdogan had multiple targets in mind when he touched upon the Dersim issue, when he stated: “Dersim is among the most tragic events in recent history. It is a disaster that should now be questioned with courage. The party that should confront this incident is not the ruling Justice and Development Party; it is the Republican People’s Party which is behind this bloody disaster, who should face this incident and its chairman from Tunceli (current name of Dersim).”

In a dramatic move, Mr. Erdogan went further by stating: “Is it me who should apologize or you [Kemal Kilicdaroglu]? If there is the need for an apology on behalf of the state and if there is such an opportunity, I can do it and I am apologizing. But if there is someone who should apologize on behalf of CHP it is you, as you are from Dersim. You were saying you felt honored to be from Dersim. Now, save your honor.”

Erdogan, who is fond of asking for apologies from Israel, Germany and Armenia, himself was engaged in this apology game.

One of the multiple targets of Erdogan’s apology policy is to get at the opposition Republican People’s party, founded by Ataturk himself. The hot target was Kilicdaroglu, head of that party. The cold and discrete target, however, is Ataturk himself, whose legacy is being dismantled, brick by brick, by the ruling Islamist party.

The Ergenekon investigations, the arrest of the army brass and the campaign against the military establishment are all part and parcel of that persistent policy. Another target, of course, was the Alevi population in Dersim, whose votes the prime minister was wooing.

All these are on the domestic front. But Erdogan also was targeting his international audience by indicating that Turkey is gradually coming to terms with its bloody history.

Thus, he was expecting to win brownie points to be applied towards Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Some quarters in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora raised premature hopes that the floodgates of apologies were being thrown wide open and that the next apology could come regarding the Armenian Genocide. But Erdogan manipulated his debate with the opposition party in such a way that he shut the door on that possibility. To begin with, his statement about Dersim case was exclusionary as he began his statement with the following sentence:

“Dersim is among the most tragic events in recent history,” which means there is no event more tragic, thus the

Armenian Genocide is not even being considered. But Erdogan further developed on that exclusionary theme when Kilicdaroglu suggested Erdogan’s policy may also force upon Turkey an apology for the Armenian Genocide, much in line with the Diaspora-Armenian thinking. Erdogan retorted: “You are putting me in the same basket with the Armenian Diaspora! Shame on you! How dare you put me and the Armenian Diaspora in the same basket!”

Kilicdaroglu said that it is not enough to apologize for the Dersim massacres and that the state has to open the archives on that incident. Opening the archives will become another can of worms, where the military leaders who had concocted the incident there, where the Alevi population had managed to continue in a semi-autonomous system despite Ataturk’s policy of population engineering to homogenize Turkey, will be implicated. One of the demands of the military, at that time, was for Alevi leaders to hand over 25,000 Armenians who had survived the Genocide by finding a safe haven in Dersim. Another case was the crimes committed by Sabiha Gokçen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter and Turkey first military pilot. Armenians in Dersim were doubly hurt that their “sister” had joined the Turkish military to shower bombs on them. Hrant Dink had discovered and publicized the fact that Sabiha Gokcen was an Armenian orphan, much to the chagrin of Turkish racists.

Of course, the Turkish military conducted carpet-bombing and exiled the Dersim survivors to other regions of the republic to assimilate them, after confiscating their properties. Despite Erdogan’s careful delineation of his apology, virtually avoiding and excluding the Armenian Genocide, an avalanche of press commentaries are demanding apologies for the Armenian Genocide.

It was impossible for Armenians to explode and explore the Genocide issue in the Turkish media in current dimensions. But one statement by Erdogan didn’t.

He may live to regret it, or if we give too much credit to his political acumen, his move may have been a deliberate one.

Eren Keskin, a contributor to Radikal newspaper, says that before anyone else, Turkey should apologize for the 1915 genocide of the Armenians. He has further conducted a survey among many academics who have come up with a series of cases which need apologies. Thus Dr. Mourad Paker brings the case of 5,000 inmates in Diyarbakir prison who were tortured. Another professor reminds people of the massacre of Marash and Chorum. Rifaat Bali brings up the cases of Jews in Thrace being bankrupted through confiscations in 1934 and the wealth tax on non-Muslims in 1941, which sent many to die in labor camps. Regarding the Armenians, Keskin insists that an apology is not enough. They also have to be compensated for their losses.

The Human Rights Committee of Turkey has released a communiqué requesting the formation of Truth Committee to investigate the issues of the Armenian Genocide and the forced assimilation of the Kurdish population.

But the most succinct and sharp questions were asked in the newspaper Sabah by columnist Engin Ardic, informing that lawyers have already taken up the issue of Dersim and they are planning to sue the Turkish state. Coming to the Armenian case he states that there is a conspiracy of silence, especially by the wealthy class. “If you dig down their past, you will find out that they murdered Armenians and they usurped their properties. Should the case be raised, there will be an issue of money. They think how could a government compensate Armenians after spending $200 billion to suppress Kurdish rebellion? But there is a basic question: is there a principle of continuity in the government? If no, why apologize for Dersim? If yes, why leave out 1915?”

These questions lead to the very fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, under the guise of Europeanizing his country, conducted the racist policy of the Nazis, as characterized by the above writer. In carrying that state policy, he has used and collaborated by all the government officials who had executed the Ittihadist plan of the Armenian Genocide.

From Sultan Abdul Hamid to Talaat, the genocidal policy has worked inexorably. Ataturk continued it, under the nose of the Great Powers, who even now claim Turkey as our “trusted ally,” no matter how much blood has stained that “ally’s” hands.

The Genocide issue has become a hot topic for Turkish society, more than Armenians could anticipate. Should

Turkey take the road to self-cleansing, maybe the turn will come to apologize for the Armenian Genocide.

Erdogan has opened Pandora’s Box inadvertently. Let us see what may come out of it.