Will Obama Be the Next World Leader to Recognize the Armenian Genocide?

With authorities as diverse as the Vatican and European Parliament recently acknowledging the atrocities of 1915, Turkey’s leaders have been in belligerent mood.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. President Barack Obama, April 15, 2015. Will he go beyond diplomatic phrases on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24.
U.S. President Barack Obama, April 15, 2015. Will he go beyond diplomatic phrases on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In a recent column on the Hurriyet Daily News website, commentator Burak Bekdil promises his readers “good news” and proceeds to recount what his “own sources” told him about “how Turkey will retaliate against the Vatican’s stab in the back: Defense companies from the Vatican will not be allowed to compete for lucrative Turkish contracts, including deals for missile systems and fighter aircraft. Government-friendly NGOs in Turkey will launch massive boycotts against Vatican-made whiteware and other consumer goods.

“Economists expect the Vatican’s powerful carmakers will be affected the most. Turkish tour operators will stop carrying millions of tourists to the holy city every year, depriving the Vatican’s vibrant hotel industry of $$$$$.

“Turkey will also use its superpower influence and block the Vatican’s bid to become a member of the United Nations Security Council. Separately, a planned Turkish soft loan for the Vatican, worth $52 billion, will be suspended until the Pope apologizes to Turkey.

“Rumor also has it that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told his inner cabinet that the Pope’s days as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church were now numbered – just like Syrian President Bashar Assad’s.”

Bekdil’s pointed ridicule, written in response to Davutoglu’s threats of punitive measures against the Vatican that go beyond the recall of the Turkish ambassador, adds to the storm caused by the Vatican’s recognition, on April 12, of the mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide. The annual commemoration of the beginning of the Ottoman war against the Armenians, observed on April 24, always gets Turkey’s foreign ministry into a lather, trying to fend off the charges of genocide, and loosens the tongue of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This year is the centenary of the massacre, and Turkey has already weathered a few heavy blows. Last Wednesday, the European Parliament not only reaffirmed its recognition of the Armenian genocide – as it did in 1987 and 2005 – but also called for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia, and encouraged Turkey to open its archives in order to come to terms with its past.

Pope Francis described the slaughter of Armenians under Ottoman rule during World War I as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” And this Friday, Turkey will hold its breath in preparation for President Barack Obama’s speech on the issue. Will the U.S. president finally recognize the killings as genocide, or will he once again make do with diplomatic language that comes close to the dangerous definition without crossing the line into adopting it, in order to avoid another rift in Washington’s relations with Ankara?

Stepping up the rhetoric

Erdogan, meanwhile, is shooting in every direction. Before the European Parliament adopted the resolution, he said that “whatever decision [it] took on Armenian genocide claims would go in one ear and out the other.” He stepped up the rhetoric a few days later, reminding anyone who would listen that Turkey could still deport the tens of thousands of Armenians living within its borders because they are not Turkish citizens. This was a reference mainly to the 25,000 or so Armenians who crossed the border from Armenia in search of work. Their children receive medical care and education, but are not eligible for certificates upon completion of their studies.

A year ago, Erdogan expressed his condolences to the grandchildren of the victims. The first such gesture by a Turkish leader, it did not go as far as apologizing or acknowledging the genocide. Instead, Erdogan spoke about “events that had inhumane consequences – such as relocation – during World War I.” But this year, in light of the parliamentary election in less than two months (June 7), Erdogan has changed his tune, playing a nationalist melody that he hopes will bring Turkey’s right wing to his side.

In order to divert attention away from this week’s Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, Ankara decided to shift its commemoration of the anniversary of the British invasion of Gallipoli from its traditional April 25 date to April 24. In addition, Davutoglu’s adviser on Armenian affairs, Etyen Mahçupyan, was dismissed – presumably for daring to use the term “genocide” in reference to the Armenian massacres, although the official reason was that he had reached retirement age.

Unlike last year, Turkey seems unlikely to say it is “considering” granting citizenship to descendants of the victims. Like the Palestinians who view return to their homeland as an inalienable right, Armenian demands include the restoration of property that was confiscated or destroyed; the return to homes that were given to Turks, including to the first president, Atatürk; and citizenship for all relatives of the victims. In Turkey, as in Israel, the claims are considered unrealistic.

At the same time, the Armenian community within Turkey – which is estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000 – fears that the militancy of the Armenian community in the diaspora could incite violence against the former. Reports in the Armenian media speak of a sense of anxiety among Armenians in Turkey, some of whom have experienced verbal abuse and many conceal their Armenian identities. Anti-Armenian graffiti appeared recently on the walls of an Armenian church in Istanbul.

And what about Israel? Will this be the year that the prime minister joins the pope and the European Parliament, or will he perpetuate the Jewish monopoly over the terms “genocide” and “holocaust”?

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