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Turkey: Uproar Over Genocide Reflects Need To Reconcile With Past

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Anger among the Turkish people and its government over the recently passed French law recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915 remains strong. Ankara has cancelled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of potential contracts with French companies and threatened to boycott French goods. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports the uproar may reflect Turkey's deep-rooted discomfort over its own history -- and uncertainty about its future as it seeks to gain entry into the European Union.

Prague, 9 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- France's adoption last month of a bill recognizing the 1915 killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia as genocide has caused a public outcry in Turkey.

This week, Turk Telecom announced it would exclude France's Alcatel group from a tender to supply equipment for a mobile telephone network, while the Turkish Youth and Sports Office said it would boycott eight international competitions that are to take place in France this year.

These decisions were among the latest in a series of economic and other reprisals decided by the Turkish authorities in the aftermath of the French vote.

Although France is among Turkey's main economic partners, with bilateral trade amounting to $4.5 billion in 1999, relations between Paris and Ankara have soured over the Armenian genocide issue.

"Farewell France!" lamented Turkey's "Hurriyet" mass-circulation daily newspaper in its 19 January issue, the morning after the vote in the French lower house of parliament, the National Assembly.

Passions have grown stronger since French President Jacques Chirac signed the bill into law last week.

Istanbul taxi drivers suddenly became reluctant to drive French visitors, while some Turkish civil servants have called for a boycott of French goods and for a ban on the teaching of French language in schools.

The "Milliyet" daily on 2 February, quoting a circular issued by the under-secretary of defense, reported that Turkish military personnel have been ordered not to attend parties and dinners with French officials or businessmen.

Ankara's harsh tone appears to be out of proportion to the cautious wording of the French law. The eight-word text explicitly avoids assigning blame for the 1915 killings, and neither Turkey nor the Ottoman Empire is named.

Still, judging from the reaction, it appears as if every Turkish citizen felt personally offended.

Etienne Copeaux is a regional expert at France's Group for Research and Studies on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Affairs [known under the French acronym GREMMO]. He tells RFE/RL that the main reason behind the uproar lies in a state-controlled educational system that ignores the multi-cultural history of the Anatolian peninsula.

"This official [version of history] is constructed in such a way that it seems there is a continuum in the history of the Turks. In the history of the Turks, not in the history of the land, not in the history of Anatolia. The history of Anatolia, a land that has known several empires, several cultures -- including Armenian and Greek cultures -- is totally ignored. As a result, a Turkish child, a Turkish citizen, who receives a normal education does not know that civilizations other than his own have existed on the land where he lives."

Doru Ergil teaches political science at Ankara University. He agrees that Ankara's reaction, which he likens to hysteria, is rooted in Turks' ignorance of their own past:

"I personally learned about an 'Armenian affair' in the last decade of the Ottoman era when I was a graduate student in the United States. [I learned about it] from Armenian students who were pursuing their graduate studies there. What I want to say is that the Turks do not know about their recent history and they react emotionally when [somebody tells them:] 'You've done something wrong.'"

The first mention of the 1915 events appeared in Turkish textbooks only in the mid-1980s as part of efforts to refute accusations of genocide then put forward by the Armenian diaspora.

Armenians claim 1.5 million of their compatriots were killed in the last years of the Ottoman Empire as part of what they describe as a deliberate policy of extermination.

Turkish historians, on the contrary, say the "Young Turk" government in power then decided to "displace" the Armenians of eastern Anatolia to Syria to prevent them from collaborating with neighboring Russia. They say that only rogue elements should be blamed for the killings of most of what Turkish officials estimate as the 300,000 Armenians who died en route to Syria.

Ankara also says Russian-armed Armenian militia slaughtered thousands of Muslims in April 1915, a month before the "Young Turks" ordered the Armenians deported. It also says Armenian and Greek auxiliary soldiers massacred Turks in 1918 and 1919, while Allied troops occupied large parts of Turkey.

French analyst Copeaux says that this belief is deeply rooted in the Turkish mentality.

"Ninety percent of the Turks are absolutely convinced there was no genocide and that, on the contrary, it was the Armenians who killed Turks. It is a very sincere belief. The [Turkish] educational system has been most successful. This kind of totalitarianism in the educational system has perfectly succeeded in transforming the Turkish mentality."

Copeaux also says that many Turkish intellectuals believe eastern Anatolia's Armenians fell victim to a genocidal policy. But, he adds, few dare contradict the official version of events for fear of reprisal from authorities.

Turkish prosecutors yesterday filed charges against the former president of the Ankara-based Human Rights Association for reportedly saying Turkey should apologize for its treatment of Armenians and other minorities in the early 20th century. If found guilty of "insulting and vilifying Turkishness," the man, Akin Birdal, faces up to six years in prison.

Copeaux sees two reasons behind Turkey's denial of the genocide.

The first, he says, is that Turkish authorities fear that if they recognize the 1915 mass killings as genocide then Armenians around the world would press for material compensation.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian told Turkish media last week that Yerevan wants only an apology from Turkey and that Ankara is wrong to fear Armenia would ask for damages or file territorial claims.

Copeaux says the second reason behind the denial is deeply rooted in Turks' vision of the world.

"To recognize the genocide would be to recognize that a very large number of Armenians used to live in Anatolia. Therefore, it would mean there is a multi-cultural Anatolia. But, as we can see today with the issue of the Kurds, the Turkish state is envisaged as a uni-cultural state, a state with a single culture, a single language. So [to recognize the Armenian genocide] would mean Turkey should offer concessions not only to Kurds but also to other nationalities that still live in Turkey."

Turkey is last in line among 13 candidate states for EU membership. Ankara won candidacy status in 1999, but the EU has stipulated a range of political, economic and social changes it would like to see before Turkey can start negotiations.

The country's influential military has expressed reservations about reforms required for EU entry, fearing membership would reduce its influence over domestic and foreign policy.

The EU's Accession Partnership Accord with Turkey, published last year, has caused anger within the top command because of references to Cyprus and territorial disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea.

Yet, most analysts point out that the military, which has directly or indirectly toppled three governments since 1960, does not stand against EU membership. They say the Turkish army balks mostly at concessions it sees as threatening national security.

Copeaux believes that Turkish leaders need to reconcile themselves with their own history before seeking entry into the EU.

"The Turks experience [the genocide issue] as a problem between themselves and Europe, even between themselves and the world. And it definitely is a problem. They are aware that their conception of history, their world view, is an obstacle and that if they really want to be part of Europe and larger international groups they will have to review their conception of history, their world view and so forth. But their world view -- that is, the kind of teaching they dispense [in schools] -- does not allow them to overcome this obstacle."

Last week, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen threw his weight into the dispute between France and Turkey. Verheugen called on Ankara not to overreact to France's genocide law. He said Turkey's anger "would not serve the cause of debate and mutual comprehension."