The annual April 24 commemoration of the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians has long played out according to an unchanged script, with Ankara refusing to acknowledge the horrible deeds of the past and Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora using the refusal to again remind the world that Turkey remains unrepentant for what took place almost 100 years ago.
This year, though, things played out a bit differently, with mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan going off script and issuing a statement yesterday that offered Turkey's "condolences" to the grandchildren of those Armenians who lost their lives during the events of 1915. "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 among towards one another," Erdogan's statement, which was translated into nine languages, including Armenian, further said.
Erdogan's words were certainly a change from the blanket denials of the past and were welcomed by some in Turkey's small Armenian community. Rather than groundbreaking, though, they were more of an elaboration on a statement Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made this past December during a visit to Yerevan, when he called the "deportation" of Armenians in 1915 "inhumane."
That Erdogan's April 23 statement showed Davutoglu's influence (and was translated into so many other languages) suggests that the real impetus behind Ankara's new approach on the Armenian issue was more of a foreign relations move than one designed to truly break the deadlock in Turkish-Armeian relations. As columnist Hakan Aksay wrote on the T24 website: "It was obvious that yesterday’s move was planned as a call to international public opinion. Erdogan’s statement was issued in nine languages, including Armenian and Russian, followed by a call from Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying, ‘We hope our hand offered will be reciprocated.’ But there was no call to Yerevan."
Indeed, while Erdogan's change of tone should be welcomed (especially considering how polarizing his language has become over the last year), his statement should be seen as the opening salvo in Ankara's fight against Armenian efforts to turn next year's 100-year commemoration of the mass killings into an all-out campaign against Turkey. Most critically, Turkey doesn't want to see the 1915 events' centennial turned into an opportunity for the United States Congress to pass a resolution recognizing the mass killings as a "genocide." (A resolution to do that died in the senate a few weeks ago, while President Barack Obama, as he did last year, referred to what happened in 1915 using the Armenian term "Meds Yeghern," or Great Catastrophe.)
Had Erdogan made this statement ten years ago, it would have been groundbreaking. Today, considering how close Ankara and Yerevan got to restoring relations in 2009, only to have Erdogan scuttle the effort in the face of Azerbaijan's opposition to it, his statement – though positive – is merely playing catch up with the reality of the times and is mostly designed to give Turkey the cover it needs should it face an organized international campaign to have it shamed over what happened in 1915. Sadly, for Ankara, the “Great Catastrophe” remains not what happened 100 years ago, but the possibility of Congress passing a resolution recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide.