(Reuters) - Turkey enlisted the help of a U.S. historian on Thursday as part of its campaign to counter damaging, decades-old claims that Armenians suffered genocide at Ottoman Turkish hands during and after World War One.
Turkey is worried that the 90th anniversary of the alleged genocide on April 24 will trigger a fresh outpouring of sympathy for the Armenians which could harm its image and even derail the planned start of European Union entry talks in October. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan went on the offensive earlier this month, calling for an impartial study of the genocide claims and declaring Turkey's archives open to all scholars.
Invited to address the Ankara parliament on Thursday, Justin McCarthy, an expert on the Ottoman period, argued that a complex historical tragedy had been manipulated for ideological reasons, becoming a vehicle for anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish prejudice.
"The Armenian question has from the start been a political campaign... Yes, many Armenians were killed by Turks at this time and many Turks were killed by Armenians, but this was war, not genocide," McCarthy said. "Many politicians use the Armenian genocide not so much because they believe it but because they see it as a means to prevent Turkey joining the European Union," said McCarthy.
McCarthy urged Turkey to fund translations from Turkish into English and other European languages of historical records and books providing documentary evidence that there was no genocide.
Foreign diplomats said Turkey's support for an impartial study of the genocide issue, possibly under the aegis of the United Nations, was a positive development. But they said inviting an opponent of the genocide claims to address lawmakers who largely shared his views would merely reconfirm, not challenge, people's firmly held views.
It would have been more fruitful to invite people of differing opinions on the subject to the parliament, said one. "They are still very timid," the diplomat said.
Armenia, a tiny ex-Soviet republic which has no diplomatic relations with Turkey, has rejected Erdogan's proposal for an impartial investigation, saying scholars had already established the genocide as indisputable fact. The European Parliament and several national assemblies from France to Canada have also backed the claims in recent years, passing resolutions urging Turkey to accept its past misdeeds.
Some EU politicians, notably in France, home to Europe's largest community in the Armenian Diaspora, say Turkey must accept the genocide claims before it can start talks to join the wealthy bloc.