x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Turks in fear that Obama will use the 'genocide' word over Armenians

Ankara launches charm offensive as it worries about what Obama will say in speech on 95th anniversary of massacres.

ISTANBUL // Turkey's government has started a charm offensive to show it cares about its Armenian minority, only a week after it caused an outcry by threatening to expel tens of thousands of Armenians. Ankara is anxious to avoid anything that could lead the United States to officially recognise the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Minds are focused on April 24, the day the US president Barack Obama will deliver a traditional statement commemorating the massacres in Anatolia that began on that day in 1915. Ankara wants to make sure that Mr Obama's statement will not include the word genocide, a term that Turkey rejects.

"If he does not use the g-word, all is fine," one Turkish diplomat said. Yesterday, it emerged that the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, assured Turkey the White House opposes a congressional resolution labelling the massacres as genocide. The Turkish foreign ministry issued the statement after a telephone call between Mrs Clinton and Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday. Turkey fears that recognition of the massacres as genocide by the US could trigger a wave of similar decisions around the world and even lead to compensation claims. In protest against a decision by the foreign committee of the US House of Representatives to recognise the Armenian genocide, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington earlier this month. The diplomat is not going to be sent back to his post until after April 24, a sign of the seriousness of the rift between the two close allies.

But Turkey's efforts to counter pressure from politicians and the Armenian community in the US, who want Washington to recognise the genocide, hit a snag when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said he may throw tens of thousands of illegal Armenians out of the country. Speaking to the BBC's Turkish service during a visit to London on March 16, Mr Erdogan said there were 70,000 Turkish citizens of Armenian descent and another 100,000 illegal Armenians in Turkey. "If necessary, I may have to tell them to go back to their country," Mr Erdogan said. "I am not obliged to keep them here."

His remarks, coming after Sweden's parliament accepted a resolution recognising the genocide following the US committee decision, triggered an uproar in Turkey and also Armenia, where the government said Mr Erdogan's statement recalled the memories of 1915. Turkish media accused the prime minister of treating Armenians in Turkey as pawns in an effort to keep foreign countries from recognising the genocide.

Mr Erdogan said his words had been misrepresented in news reports. But shortly afterwards, the prime minister started a series of gestures designed to show the public that his government does not target Armenians. Mr Erdogan himself met leaders of the Turkish-Armenian community in his residence in Ankara on Friday. Meanwhile, the ministry of culture gave the green light for Armenians to celebrate mass once a year in a restored island church in the south-eastern part of the country, and one of Mr Erdogan's deputies promised to work to make sure that children of Armenians living illegally in Turkey could get an education.

Bedros Sirinoglu, a leading member of the Armenian community in Turkey, speaking after his meeting with Mr Erdogan, said he rejected the term genocide. "It was a confrontation between two close friends that unfortunately ended badly," he said. He added that the number of illegal Armenians in Turkey was around 40,000, not 100,000. His own community had provided Mr Erdogan with the inflated figure and apologised to him, he said.

Mr Sirinoglu, whose grandfather perished in the massacres, stressed that Turkey and the world should move on. "There is no use in dwelling on this too much," he said. "We have to forget this, we have to look to the future." As Mr Sirinoglu echoed Ankara's official line, one newspaper called him "an Armenian to the prime minister's taste". Armenia and many international scholars say the government of modern Turkey's predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, tried to wipe out its Armenian population during the First World War, and that up to 1.5 million were killed. Turkey does not deny that innocent people died, but puts the number of victims much lower. It also says the deaths were the unintended consequences of a relocation campaign under wartime conditions and that many Muslim Turks were killed by Armenian groups.

Despite their differences, Turkey and Armenia signed ground-breaking agreements last year that included pledges to open the border between the countries and establish a joint committee of experts to look at the events of 1915. Neither side has ratified the agreements so far. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister and one of the architects of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, said his country was still trying to reach out to Armenians everywhere. Ankara even wants direct contact with the Armenian diaspora, traditionally seen as a sworn enemy by Turkey, the minister said, according to the Radikal newspaper.

As an example for Ankara's readiness to face the past, Mr Davutoglu pointed to a passage for a speech he had prepared for the signing ceremony of the Turkish-Armenian protocols last October. There were no speeches at the ceremony because each side protested against what the other one was planning to say. "We have to employ empathy to understand what Armenians experienced, what they felt and what happened to them afterwards," Mr Davutoglu said, summing up his speech. "But they also have to respect our memory."

@Email:tseibert@thenational.ae