German Recognition of Armenian Genocide Puts Erdogan in Hot Seat

It’s interesting that these two countries, each of which has a genocide in its history, are at odds over the memorialization and definition of the Armenian holocaust.

A Turkish nationalist protester wearing Ottoman clothes holds placard during a protest against Germany on June 2, 2016 in front of the Germany consulate in Istanbul after German parliament labelled the World War I massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide.
Ozan Kose / AFP

Turkey’s response to the German parliament’s decision to recognize the Armenian genocide was full of nuances. The recall of Turkey’s ambassador to Germany for “consultations” has long since become a purely pro forma act, a step President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also taken when other countries recognized this genocide. But the statements that accompanied this step attest to a dilemma.

Erdogan told journalists during a visit to Kenya that Turkey would take the “necessary” measures, without specifying those measures.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said, “The German parliament’s recognition of ‘distorted and groundless’ allegations as ‘genocide’ is a historic mistake,” adding that the decision was not beneficial to friendly relations between Germany and Turkey.

But the clearest statement came from the new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, who declared, “We’re committed to the agreements we made until the end. Turkey isn’t an extortionist state and we don’t make threats.”

Thus if Ankara’s position doesn’t change, and Erdogan doesn’t overrule the prime minister he appointed, Turkey’s refugee deal with the European Union won’t suffer from the German decision.

It’s interesting that these two countries, each of which has a genocide in its history, are at odds over the memorialization and definition of the Armenian holocaust. While Germany is belatedly recognizing the Armenian holocaust, the Republic of Turkey, which was not the perpetrator of the massacres of the Armenians between 1915 and 1917, refuses to recognize the genocide and still sticks to its mantra that historians, not politicians, will decide how to define the massacre.

But Turkey’s longstanding position on this issue must now be balanced against the refugee deal. If implemented, this deal will grant historic benefits to Turkey’s citizens. Aside from the $6 billion grant Turkey will receive in exchange for allowing the return of refugees who entered Europe through Turkey, the agreement is supposed to accelerate Turkey’s accession to the EU and, most important, permit Turks visa-free travel to Europe.

The latter provision is conditioned on Ankara’s fulfillment of 72 conditions, including amending its sweeping anti-terrorism law and ending its war on the media. But for Erdogan, it could provide a partial solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem. He hopes that opening Europe’s gates will lead to a mass emigration of Turkey’s 15 million to 20 million Kurds. This is too important to jeopardize with a nationalist position that could result in the entire agreement being scrapped.

To solve his dilemma, Erdogan could claim the agreement was signed with the EU, not Germany, and therefore any deterioration in relations between Ankara and Berlin as a result of the German parliament’s decision is a “private” matter that is distinct from Turkey’s relations with the EU. This, of course, could create a precedent under which economic or political interests are more important than national pride. But Erdogan has demonstrated in the past that he can always find good reasons for decisions that contradict his fundamental positions.

If he decides to scrap the refugee deal, some EU countries might actually breathe a sigh of relief. Some of them think the EU is paying too high a price for the agreement. They fear that Europe will be flooded with Turks — Kurdish or otherwise — who will further enlarge Europe’s already sizable Muslim minority. Canceling the agreement would also freeze talks on Turkey’s accession to the EU, which many EU states oppose, due to fears that Turkey would eventually become Europe’s largest country, allowing it to dictate, or at least influence, EU decisions and thereby shape Europe’s character.

Nevertheless, given the significant decline in the number of refugees entering Europe from Turkey since the agreement was signed, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the deal has been a success, even before all the benefits promised to Turkey have been delivered.

The latest disagreement with Turkey comes at a bad time for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose popularity has plummeted, as has that of her party. In the latest polls, over 65 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t support Merkel for a fourth term in next year’s election.

In contrast, Erdogan’s position in Turkey is only growing stronger, and the next election is years away, so he can make threats without fearing for his popularity. The question is whether he’ll let the Armenian genocide dictate his foreign policy, thereby causing Turkey enormous, unnecessary damage.