Turkey and the Armenians
Feb 15th 2007 | ANKARA
From The Economist print edition
A new dispute over the Armenians may sour Turkish-American relations
TURKEY’S fraught relationship with America is heading into a new crisis. This may intensify anti-American feelings among millions of Turks. It could even hurt America’s efforts to restore order in Iraq.
The latest spat stems from a bill in America’s Congress that would recognise the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as the first genocide of the 20th century. The fate of the Armenians remains Turkey’s biggest taboo. Denying the official version, which says that Armenians killed Turks in larger numbers than they were killed themselves, has landed scores of Turkish academics and writers, including a Nobel prize-winning author, Orhan Pamuk, in court. Last month, a Turkish-Armenian editor, Hrant Dink, was murdered by an ultra-nationalist teenager, who accused Mr Dink of insulting Turkey.
Successive American administrations have quashed genocide resolutions, arguing that Turkey is too precious an ally to lose. Jewish groups, grateful for Turkey’s warm links to Israel, have helped. But the background landscape has changed.
First came the Turkish parliament’s refusal in March 2003 to let American troops cross its soil to invade Iraq. Next were the Turkish government’s overtures to Iran, Syria and Hamas, which infuriated many in Washington, DC. Throw America’s refusal to attack PKK Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, and Turkish threats to do the job themselves, into this “bubbling noxious stew, and we’re heading for a perfect storm,” says one administration official.
Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic speaker of America’s House of Representatives, whose Californian constituents include many rich Armenians, refused to meet Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, in Washington last week. Mr Gul spoke of “lasting damage” if America joined 18 countries that term the Armenian massacres genocide. American officials agree that vital interests are at stake. Turkey has approved the overflight of 4,900 sorties to Iraq for unspecified “combat support” since the start of the war, as well as the treatment of wounded American soldiers in Turkish hospitals.
Some worry that, if an Armenian-genocide bill is passed, Turkey’s mildly Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may end this co-operation, so as to woo nationalist votes in the run-up to Turkey’s parliamentary election later this year. Hawks in the opposition are already baying for the expulsion of thousands of illegal migrant workers from Armenia and for a ban on flights between Armenia and Turkey. Fear is mounting among Turkey’s own ethnic Armenians : racist graffiti have been scrawled on the walls of their churches, and threatening e-mails continue to flood the offices of Agos , the weekly newspaper Mr Dink founded and ran.
What to do ? Turkey could start by scrapping article 301 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to “insult Turkishness”. As Mr Dink argued, recognition of Turkey’s past misdeeds would best come from unfettered debate among Turks, not from vote-seeking foreign politicians. In a hopeful sign, Mr Gul has complained that “people outside Turkey think you can be thrown into jail for opening your mouth.” Worse, as Mr Dink tragically discovered, you can be killed.
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