Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered on Wednesday first-ever condolences to the descendants of some 1.5 million Armenians massacred in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, signaling a further softening of Turkey’s decades-long genocide denial.
“The incidents of the First World War are our shared pain,” Erdogan said in a landmark statement issued ahead of the 99th anniversary of the genocide that will be marked by Armenians around the world on Thursday.
“It is our hope and belief that the peoples of an ancient and unique geography, who share similar customs and manners will be able to talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner.
“And it is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren," added the statement released in eight languages, including Armenian.
But while acknowledging that April 24 “carries a particular significance” for the Armenians, Erdogan implicitly stood by Ankara’s denial of a premeditated government effort to wipe out the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey. He said that many Turkish, Kurdish and Arab subjects of the crumbling empire also died during the war.
“Certainly, neither constructing hierarchies of pain nor comparing and contrasting suffering carries any meaning for those who experienced this pain themselves … It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period, just like every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire,” Erdogan said.
Even so, the statement represents a major change in a policy of aggressive genocide denial that has been pursued by successive Turkish governments. They have for decades insisted that Armenians died in much smaller numbers and as a result of civil strife. Some Turkish leaders, including Erdogan, have even alleged that it was Armenians who massacred Turks.
“In 1915 and before that, it was the Armenian side that pursued a policy aimed at exterminating our people, which led to hunger, misery and death,” the Turkish premier declared in March 2010. He has reacted furiously to resolutions by foreign parliaments and U.S. congressional committees recognizing the Armenian genocide.
Ankara appeared to have begun softening its hard line on the issue two years ago. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in February 2012 that the Turkish state is ready to “share the pain” of the Armenians.
Significantly, Erdogan implied on Wednesday that his government will not crack down on a growing number of Turks who publicly acknowledge the genocide and urge Ankara to do the same. “Some may perceive this climate of freedom in Turkey as an opportunity to express accusatory, offensive and even provocative assertions and allegations,” he said. “Even so, if this will enable us to better understand historical issues with their legal aspects and to transform resentment to friendship again, it is natural to approach different discourses with empathy and tolerance and expect a similar attitude from all sides.”
In that regard, Erdogan renewed his calls for the creation of a commission of Armenian, Turkish and international historians that would look into the events of 1915 “in a scholarly manner.”
Erdogan had first proposed such a study in a 2005 letter to then Armenian President Robert Kocharian. The latter effectively rejected the idea as a ploy designed to keep more countries from recognizing what many historians regard as the first genocide of the 20th century.
However, Armenia’s current President Serzh Sarkisian seemed to have accepted it shortly after succeeding Kocharian in 2008. U.S.-brokered normalization agreements signed by Ankara and Yerevan in 2009 envisaged the creation of a Turkish-Armenian “subcommission” on historical issues.
The Turkish government has since made parliamentary ratification of the two protocols conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. Erdogan reaffirmed this linkage during an April 7 visit to Baku.