Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is no stranger to controversy. Having vilified Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009 and announced that women are not equal to men in 2014, he has now chastised the head of the Catholic Church, warning the Pope to not repeat his “mistake” of condemning the mass killing of Armenians during the First World War.
The “mistake” occurred at a Mass in Rome attended by the president of Armenia and the head of the Armenian Church. During the service, Pope Francis spoke about three unprecedented tragedies which took place during the twentieth century: the crimes of Nazism, Stalinism, and the genocide of the Armenian people, which, he said “is widely considered the first genocide of the 20th Century.”
In retaliation for the Pope’s statement, the Turkish government recalled its ambassador to the Vatican. Erdogan has publicly condemned the Pontiff. Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu, from Erdogan’s AK Party, has shot back wide-ranging accusations about the crimes of the Inquisition, European imperialism, American conflict with Native Americans, and Australian mistreatment of Aborigines. The Grand Mufti of Ankara has hypothesized that the Pope’s comments would accelerate the conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (the one-time Orthodox Cathedral which is currently a museum) into a mosque.
This is more than a storm in a historical teacup. This is a controversial subject raised at a critical time. On April 24 of this year, Armenia, and many nations throughout the world, will commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the start of the genocide which began with the arrest and execution of more than 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul on the night of April 24-25, 1915. A controversy over what happened, who was responsible, and the international response has existed ever since. The centenary is prompting initiatives to recognize the genocide in various countries (such as Germany and the United States), to criminalize its denial in others, and a new wave of calls for Turkey to confront this dark chapter of its past.
Turkey has stalwartly refused to acknowledge the role of the Ottoman government in the killings. This resistance has differed greatly from the reaction in other countries confronting their past. Germany has publicly acknowledged the crimes committed by its government during the Second World War and paid millions in reparations. Australia, the United States, Japan, and the Vatican which have issued public apologies for various crimes committed by their governments and armed forces against native populations or in times of war. Within Turkey, describing the Armenian tragedy as a genocide can be prosecuted under Article 301 of the Penal Code which makes it a criminal offense to insult the Turkish nation. Turkish citizens who have spoken out on the subject have been killed like journalist Hrant Dink (shot in Istanbul in 2007), assaulted like scholar Taner Akcam, or received death threats like Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk to name just three high profile examples.
Erdogan’s nationalist and religious convictions have heightened the importance of the Armenian issue. As a nationalist, Erdogan views accusations of genocide as insulting to Turkish dignity. As a religious man, Erdogan has publicly stated that “it is not possible for those who belong to the Muslim faith to carry out genocide.” Accusations of genocide undermine the narrative surrounding the formation of the modern Turkish state and its current ethnic composition. It has implications not only for Turkey’s relations with the modern state of Armenia, but with its own Kurdish minority (including the ongoing violence in the east), Greeks, Cypriots, Assyrians, and the European Union.
While Erdogan’s remarks on this issue, his combative style, and overblown rhetoric prompt head-scratching and even derision within the Western world (and among large numbers of educated Turks), they enhance his popularity at home, particularly within the AK Party’s support base in Anatolia. Erdogan and the AK Party have been in power since 2002. Erdogan will continue working to solidify that base in the lead up to the elections this year. After 2015, Turks will not go to the polls again until 2019, giving Erdogan and the AK Party four years of uninterrupted rule to further their legislative agenda—continuing its path towards becoming a one-party state. Erdogan has proven to be a shrewd leader and the most successful politician in the history of Turkey. The positions he takes are controversial to Western audiences, but they resonate with Turkish voters.
Part of the success of Erdogan and the AK Party has come from their ability to pursue apparently contradictory policies simultaneously. In spite of the visceral opposition to the term genocide by Erdogan and broad parts of Turkish society, and days after referring to the crimes of the Inquisition, Prime Minister Davotoglou has announced that Turkey will commemorate the April 24 anniversary. Furthermore, like other Turkish leaders, Davotoglou has called for historians to investigate the events of 1915-1918 to determine exactly what happened during those tumultuous years. Davotoglou’s olive twig on the issue is a very modest attempt to generate dialogue and provide Turkey international wiggle room while the AK Party retains control of the domestic narrative.
It is a delicate balancing act which Erdogan, Davotoglou, and the AK Party are proficient in executing. The premise of an investigation to determine the historical facts surrounding the period is evidence that, on this issue, as with so many others, Turkey will proceed only on its own terms. It will investigate the claims of genocide through a process it determines with scholars it selects in a manner it chooses. Turkey is willing to partner with the European Union, but will not be forced into political or social concessions to join the monetary or political union. It will remain an American ally through NATO, but will not be drawn into acting openly against ISIS. It will make noise about looking for a solution to the Cyprus problem, but will make few if any concessions to the Greek-Cypriot side. Turkish leaders will continue to meet with Russian leaders and discuss pipeline projects without resolving the critical geopolitical issues which divide them.
Geography, history, and the experience of the AK Party have made Turkey’s political leaders adroit at this game. Turkey has grown enormously under Erdogan’s rule and is economically and political more powerful than it has been since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Still, the challenges it confronts will require all the skill they have acquired. As April 24 approaches, we can expect tensions to continue to rise and Turkey’s leaders to maintain their active role both domestically and internationally.