The conciliatory statement by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to Armenians signals a departure from the country's previous position on a difficult chapter of its history. Experts view it partially as an election tactic.
The statement came as a surprise to Turks and the international community. The text of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was circulated in nine languages, including Eastern Armenian, the official language of Armenia, as well as Western Armenian, the language of many Armenians in the Diaspora.
"As with all citizens of the Ottoman Empire, it is a humane duty to understand and share with Armenians their memories of the suffering they enduring during this period of time," Erdogan said.
The imposed deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which began on April 24, 1915, had "inhumane consequences," Erdogan said. He extended his condolences explicitly to the descendants of the victims. Never before has a high-ranking Turkish politician come so close to making a formal apology for the crimes.
At the same time, however, Erdogan made it clear that while modern Turkey tolerated the genocide accusations, the county did not share them. In his statement, he emphasized that "various opinions and thoughts about the events in 1915 are freely expressed in Turkey."
Just a few years ago, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk was put on trial for calling on the country to recognize genocide.
Ankara's new position
Nearly 1.5 million Armenians died in the death marches and massacres between 1915 and 1917. Turkey, however, refuses to classify these crimes as genocide. Erdogan's statement marks the first time that the country recognizes the inhumanity of the 1915 deportations and the suffering of Armenians, without partially blaming the victims for their own suffering. This had previously been the official line.
Erdogan's text now defines the Turkish position, independent of the prime minister's motives, according to the well-known Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, co-founder of the independent media platform P24 in Turkey. "What was said can no longer be unsaid," he told DW.
Baydar said he views Erdogan's initiative as a mixture of a fundamentally new beginning in the Armenian issue and tactical considerations. "An optimist would say that the statement stands for a slow path toward recognizing genocide," he said. "A pessimist would say Erdogan is playing a clever game of tactics to reduce the pressure on Ankara ahead of the centennial. I think it's both."
'Pure tactics' before presidential election?
Baydar said Erdogan was fully aware that international demands for recognition of Turkey's genocide would significantly increase in advance of the 100th anniversary in 2015. "The dark memories won't go away - and Ankara knows this."
Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, a political scientist from Greece at the Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said Erdogan has not only the international community in mind, but also domestic Turkish politics.
"Although it's good he said this, I believe it was purely a tactic," Triantaphyllou told DW. "It's likely that with the gesture, he sought to broaden his voter base ahead of the presidential election."
The Turkish public generally expects the 60-year-old Erdogan to run for the highest public office. To attain success in the first round, he would need a simple majority - more than the 45 percent that his AK party received recently in local elections. The votes of liberal Turks and 80,000 Armenians could make an ample contribution toward this goal.
The nationalist party MHP, which is still seeking its own candidate for the presidential election, reacted with outrage to Erdogan's Armenia statements. MHP head Devlet Bahceli called the text unpatriotic and said the wording was reminiscent of descriptions of Turkish ethnic diversity made by imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The Republican People's Party (CHP) reacted more cautiously, while still accusing Erdogan of wanting to exploit Armenian topics. With an eye on the presidential election, CHP politician Faruk Logoglu said it was suspect that although Erdogan has acted as prime minister for 10 years, he only this year made this public declaration.
Kurd party BDP, among others, called on the prime minister to go a step farther: They would like to see the Turkish state officially apologize to the Armenians.
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