Erdogan’s Condolences: Bombshell or Misfire?

By Edmond Y. Azadian

Knee-jerk discounting is not the answer to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s condolence to the survivors and the decedents of the Armenian Genocide, because his overture comes to break the ice on the silence of an entire century. However, before the Turkish prime minister’s message reaches the Armenian martyrs, offering them a well-deserved “peace,” it has to resonate in the dark annals of Turkish history. The Turks have concocted their own narrative of the Genocide to comfort their conscience and to obfuscate the truth in the world community.

Over the years, they have constructed a monstrous castle of lies and fiction, inhabited by a dormant demons of the “deep state,” which feed on the spirit of their warrior ancestors, such as Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Fatih Sultan Muhammed — with a killer instinct bent on destroying civilizations in order to enjoy the treasures left behind by vanquished and vanished nations. That killer instinct has survived feeding on history textbooks indoctrinating the perpetrators’ version of history to justify the desecration of the houses of worship and the distribution of the victims’ wealth as “abandoned property.”

Before rejecting outright the apology, it is important to analyze the message, to highlight what he said and especially what he did not say, and above all, why his statement was released on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the Genocide.

One of the Turkish commentators stated that Erdogan is a man of surprises, but reviewing his record, we would agree that the expression of condolence to the Armenians is perfectly in line with his past policies.

When Mr. Erdogan’s back is against the wall, he can act predictably, like when he apologized to the Dersim Kurds who were massacred after the 1937 revolt. By apologizing to the Kurds, he tried to kill a few political birds at the same time: to reassure the Kurds that he is serious in bringing a negotiated settlement to the long-festering Kurdish grievances, while at the same time delivering an oblique rebuke to the opposition Republic Party which was in power when the atrocities were committed. Although a long way from apologizing to the Armenians, he is up to solving some burning political issues with his appeal to the Armenians.

Commenting in the April 24, 2014 issue of Today’s Zaman, columnist Bulent Kenes states: “[In Turkey] usually a thing is done out of necessity or taken but not because of our principles or attachment to moral or official values or our respect on ability to have empathy for others entail it or because we are democrats. And more often than not, what needs to be done is done at the eleventh hour. Moreover, and worse still, sometimes what needs to be done is not done with sincerity but the pretense of sincerity.”

This statement pretty much defines the true value of Erdogan’s actions. But others explore Turkey’s predicament further to come to absolute conclusions. One such statement has appeared in a commentary on Al-Jazeera by Cengiz Aktan, a senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Center and a former director at United Nations. Mr. Aktan believes that Erdogan has come up with the statement because “Turkey has long lost the battle of truth.”

Continuing his biting statement, Mr. Aktan further states: “In Turkey, thorough knowledge of what really happened and the consequences of a countrywide disaster is cruelly lacking. The memory was scrupulously distorted and minimized by the state. For the sake of comparison, there are more than 26,000 volumes published abroad against less than 20 serious accounts in Turkey.”

That statement also answers Erdogan’s persistence in calling for the formation of a joint committee of scholars to “find out” the historic truth, like reinventing the wheel.

The prime minister almost achieved his intended results by triggering a barrage of commentaries in the media, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. (Certainly he did not expect a very receptive reaction from the Armenians.) The sublime is French President Francois Hollande’s courageous statement and the ridiculous being an Istanbul-Armenian, subservient-minded community leader, Bedros Sirinoglu’s statement, which after rehashing the official Turkish line about the Genocide “nominates” Erdogan for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Hollande said in a speech on the 99th anniversary commemoration in France: “This tragedy has a name, just one name and that is Genocide.” He further made a solemn commitment to attend the centennial in Armenia, to create a memory center for Armenian history in France, to restore the law on Genocide struck down by the French Constitutional Court last year and support the Swiss government’s fight in the European Court of Human Rights against the Perincek verdict. While commenting on Erdogan’s condolences, he said, “This was an advance, but not enough.”

Our own secretary of state, John Kerry, said he was “stunned” by Erdogan’s pronouncement and he seemed to be speechless, since he refrained from further comments.

Thomas DeWaal, an expert on the region, stated: “So, is Erdogan’s statement a sign of change in Turkey or a calculated political maneuver? It is both.”

Turkish society is living in a paradoxical state: the more repression is demonstrated by the Islamist party, the more liberals are coming out with daring expressions of liberty. And despite his adamant denials of the Genocide, Erdogan has given more to minorities than any of his predecessors.

One of the main reasons which compelled Erdogan to take the first step on this issue was that quantitative changes in Turkish civil society were forcing qualitative changes. Those changes were compounded by Turkey’s other unresolved problems to move the Turkish leader to an exercise in letting off some steam.

The Turkish-Israeli relations are not fully restored. The Kurdish problem is still around and Kurdish militias are infiltrating back into Turkey to force Erdogan to make good on his pledge.

The EU doors are still shut for Ankara, waiting for further progress on a number of issues, such as freedom of speech, intransigence in the Cyprus crisis and yes, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Also Erdogan’s Arab policy blew up in his fact. It seems that his appeal did not go beyond the Arab street. His policy in Egypt failed, triggering a barrage of Genocide coverage in the Egyptian media, which until recently had been Erdogan’s turf.

There is no doubt that Erdogan’s initiative was orchestrated with Washington. US Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern’s message that President Obama would come out with a stronger statement on the Genocide was in the making when Erdogan agreed to take the lead and deflect world attention from Mr. Obama’s run-of-the-mill statement.

The self-contradictory condolence does not offer much in itself, at best it illustrates Turkey’s denialist policy without any substantive change. The novelty is it’s being the first step in the right direction. But above all, the reactions in the media and in diplomatic circles are mostly favoring the Armenian side. A week later, Mr. Erdogan’s denial in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose is meant to generate further reactions against the Prime Minister. His lame excuse in that interview is laughable when he states, “This is not possible. Because if there was a Genocide [there would not be] Armenians still living in Turkey.” The extermination of 90 percent of the people is not apparently enough for Mr. Erdogan to qualify as a genocide. Only a 100-percent elimination would make it a genocide. If Hitler had survived, he could have learned to apply the same logic on the issue of the Jewish Holocaust.

On his own, Mr. Erdogan will not move further than this first step, but if conditions warrant, he will keep up in step not to relapse in history. People are getting bolder in their demands. For example, recently Turkish scholar and human rights activist Ragip Zarakolu challenged the Turkish government to return Mr. Ararat and Ani to the Armenians as a good-will gesture.

There still remains a seed of subtle message in Erdogan’s statement as there was a counter message in President Serge Sargisian’s message when he paid tribute to righteous Turks who had saved Armenians during the Genocide.

If we need to determine Erdogan’s initiative appropriately, we have to resort to a Chinese proverb, which says, persistent drops of water will eventually pierce the rock.

Mr. Erdogan’s statement constitutes the first drop.