Turkey Uneasy Over Obama’s Statement on Armenia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 81

Protesters on Armenian Remembrance Day in Los Angeles (LA Times)

President Barack Obama’s long awaited statement on the Armenian Remembrance Day caused mixed reactions on both sides of the dispute. Although Obama refrained from referring to the killing of Armenians as "genocide," which reflected well on Turkish diplomacy, his clear expression of support for the Armenian position caused anger in Turkey. In his statement, Obama said:

"Ninety four years ago, one of the great atrocities of the twentieth century began. Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The ‘Meds Yeghern’ must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people" (www.whitehouse.gov, April 24).

Obama came under criticism by the supporters of the Armenian genocide claims for stopping short of using the word "genocide" to describe the events of 1915 -a pledge which he made during his election campaign. Like other presidents before him, Obama apparently prioritized realpolitik and did not want to harm the strategic relationship with Turkey by risking a negative Turkish reaction over the controversial issue. Moreover, there is a more immediate reason for him to avoid the term: Obama does not want to jeopardize the rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. His carefully worded statement is yet another indication of his support for the bilateral talks, to which Turkey and Armenia responded positively by announcing a roadmap to work toward the normalization of their relations.

Nonetheless, this prudent act on Obama’s part did not entirely satisfy Turkish expectations. Ankara focused on the aspects of Obama’s description of the events of 1915 which are regarded as unacceptable from the Turkish perspective. In spite of this, the phrases Obama chose to depict the Armenian suffering were a serious blow for Turkish diplomacy, which had done its utmost to exclude the word "genocide" from the White House statement. Despite backtracking from his campaign promise, Obama called the killing of Armenians a great atrocity and used the Armenian term "Meds Yeghern" (great disaster) to describe the events, as well as noting that his views on that period of history remained unchanged.

Turkish officials and politicians uniformly criticized Obama’s statement, calling it one-sided and historically inaccurate. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he disagreed with parts of Obama’s statement, adding that "in particular, there are hundreds of thousands of Turks and Muslims who lost their lives in 1915. Everyone’s suffering has to be shared." A press statement released by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also maintained that some expressions in Obama’s statement combined with the interpretation of the events of 1915 were unacceptable from Turkey’s perspective (Anadolu Ajansi, April 25).

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was more pointed in his criticism: "the statement is far from satisfying. We cannot accept it as it is." Erdogan questioned Obama’s attitude and argued that by giving credence to Armenian claims, Obama had bowed to short-term political considerations. "We are deeply saddened by politicians’ attempts to exploit the events of 1915 for electoral concerns," Erdogan added. Reflecting a sense of "disappointment" with Obama, Erdogan maintained that Turkey is not a country that can be manipulated with empty promises (Hurriyet, April 27).

Representatives of the opposition parties also criticized Obama’s statement. The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party argued that he used only the Armenian side’s terminology. Whereas the leader of the Nationalist Action Party alleged that the statement taken in its entirety, supported unequivocally Armenian genocide claims. The opposition found Obama’s account of the 1915 events as distorting historical reality. Moreover, they capitalized on this incident to criticize the government’s foreign policy, maintaining that in order to prevent Obama from using the word "genocide" involved making concessions to Armenia in breach of Turkey’s national interests -which also alienated Azerbaijan. Characterizing Obama’s statement as the starkest proof yet of the government’s failed approach, they called for a reversal of such "submissive" policies, and backing away from the rapprochement with Yerevan (Anadolu Ajansi, ANKA, April 25).

The strong reactions from both the government and the opposition raised questions as to how this development might damage Turkish-American relations. Since Obama’s inauguration, Turkey and the United States have revitalized their strategic partnership. Yet Ankara made it clear that a miscalculated American intervention in the Armenian issue might spoil Turkish-American relations.

In its official responses so far, Turkey has not taken punitive measures to protest against Obama’s statement. Turkish diplomatic sources reported that U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, James Jeffrey, was invited to the Foreign Ministry to discuss the developments. Ankara’s concerns and uneasiness regarding the statement were relayed to him, but no official note of protest to Washington was presented (ANKA, April 27).

For its part, Ankara must have realized that despite its intensive diplomacy, it has failed to influence Western public opinion in favor of its view of the events in 1915. This episode shows that the government cannot sustain its policy of denial, and should develop a new approach to explain its own version of events. Nonetheless, Turkey is unlikely to sever ties with the United States, though the controversy demonstrates how the politics of the Armenian "genocide" can potentially undermine Turkish-American relations. The periodic resurrection of this debate in American politics hijacks Turkish-American relations, perpetuating a crisis of trust. Nor does it further the interests of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, since American intervention threatens to derail any genuine desire to find a solution in Ankara. In the face of domestic opposition, no Turkish government can afford to proceed with a dialogue with Armenia or maintain friendly relations with the United States if Washington is perceived as taking sides.