On the eve of the 99th anniversary of the death of 1.5 million Armenians, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took the unprecedented step of offering his "condolences" to the grandchildren of those massacred by Ottoman soldiers.
The statement, which was released Wednesday, was something of a surprise. Armenians and many bodies, including France and a US Senate committee resolution, have officially described the deaths as genocide, and have said that Ottoman forces killed as many as 1.5 million in systematic massacres and forced "death marches" in what is now Turkish territory. Turkey, meanwhile, has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, maintaining that the death toll is inflated, and that many died on both sides.
The violence is, to this day, rarely discussed in Turkey, where local media euphemistically refers to “relocation” or “sad events” when mentioning the marches and killings. Some Turks see the killings as being Armenian "lies" — as in these pictures circulating on social media platforms.
But how much weight did his statement really carry, and does it signal a change in Turkish attitudes? Erdogan's statement was certainly designed to make an impression. Officials took the unusual step of releasing it in 9 languages, including Armenian.
Kemal Kirisci, senior fellow and Director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project at Brookings Institute told VICE News that the wording of the statement was a significant step forward in Turkish-Armenian relations. “I think it is a very important development, Turkey is on a journey and is increasingly facing its own history.”
The statement was carefully worded. Erdogan did not admit misconduct on behalf of Ottoman forces. Instead, he stuck to a long-held line that both sides suffered and described World War I as “our shared pain.”
He did, however describe the "relocation" as "inhumane."
“Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences — such as relocation — during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes towards one another,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the g-word (genocide) was not employed.
"Young people need to be aware of the real history of this country and actually confront it."
This did not satisfy many in the Armenian community, however. The Armenian weekly described it as "the age-old ‘everyone suffered’ denialist refrain," while Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Executive Director Aram Hamparian accused Turkey of "repackaging its genocide denials.”
However, Kirisci says the wording was “very generous” given the many political considerations involved. "This is politics and that is reflected in the wording, which is at times awkward. I think that is a product of trying to please all people."
He added that he suspected a lot of behind-closed-doors negotiations had taken place regarding the content of the statement, and that there had likely been input from the Armenian side.
A commemoration ceremony will be held at Istanbul's Taksim Square this evening. Turkish national Elif Ilik, who is planning to attend, told VICE News that she would be there to offer an apology on behalf of the country, for what she describes as “a planned genocide, a planned purification and ‘Turkification’ of the current territories of the Turkish republic.”
“I don’t in any way identify myself with the ideology or the thinking that orchestrated the genocide," she said. "But I assume the moral responsibility to apologize, as a citizen of the Turkish Republic, so I’ll go to Taksim to show my support and confront the denial of this genocide, for the good of the future of this country.”
She added that she felt wider awareness of the killings was important to Turkey's future. “Young people need to be aware of the real history of this country and actually confront it instead of believing in the official history bullshit and burying their heads in the ground.”
Erdogan's comments may or may not be the start of a process of reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. However, judging by reactions, even if Ankara is serious about confronting a tragic moment in the country's history, there is a long way yet to go.
Image via Flickr