Prague, 23 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It should have been a landmark in Turkey's growing readiness to address the contentious issues of its past. Instead, the ruling by an Istanbul court has again raised doubts that Turkey's democratic credentials meet the standards required of a candidate for EU membership.
With just 10 days to go to the start of entry talks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to limit the damage. “You may not like what people think, you may disapprove of their views, but you cannot prevent them from expressing themselves," he said. "Moreover, I believe that it runs against democracy, freedoms, and modernism to obstruct a platform for ideas in which we don't know what should have been discussed.”
The European Commission clearly agrees. It described the timing of the ruling as "another provocation," a reference to a separate ruling earlier this month to prosecute Turkey's most celebrated writer, Orhan Pamuk. He faces the possibility of a three-month jail sentence just for raising the subject of the massacre of Armenians in 1915.
The ruling reflects a growing dispute within Turkey between liberals, who see their country as part of Europe, and an alliance of nationalists and religious traditionalists who believe Turkey should forge its own way.
It is a struggle that has historical roots because this has been for a long time a very authoritarian political system. Now it is opening up and some people are not happy about that." -- Niloufar Kuyas
Niloufar Kuyas, a writer and prominent media celebrity, told RFE/RL: "There is a big political struggle between these two opinions, liberal and conservative. It is a struggle that has historical roots because this has been for a long time a very authoritarian political system. Now it is opening up and some people are not happy about that."
Kuyas didn't rule out that the court's decision was a deliberate attempt to undermine Turkey's talks with the EU.
"Whether it is deliberate or not, a lot of people feel, 'yes', it is deliberate, that the 'no' sayers have now taken front stage and are doing everything possible to prevent Turkey's accession to the EU," she said. "A lot of public opinion is concerned that this is deliberate."
Turkey has always denied claims that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred in 1915 by Ottoman troops. Turkey maintains that the number who died was far lower and that the deaths were caused by war, hunger, deportation, and disease.
Outside Turkey, most historians and many governments share the Armenian view that the massacre amounted to genocide. Inside Turkey, however, the subject is so sensitive that for decades even to discuss it has been taboo.
The conference -- titled "The Ottoman Armenians during the Era of Ottoman Decline" -- was first scheduled to take place in May but was postponed after Justice Minister Cemil Cicik accused organizers at Bosphorus University of treason and "stabbing the country in the back."
Still, the very fact that academics and intellectuals are now openly able to plan such a conference suggests change is in the air.
"What's been very interesting in recent months has been a gradual revisionism in the newspapers," Hugh Pope, the author of a recent book on the Turkic world, “Sons of the Conquerors,” who has lived in Turkey for 18 years, told RFE/RL. "For instance, one of the nationalist newspapers, ‘Hurriyet,’ ran a series on the Armenians in which it became clear something had happened that no one had really heard about before. No admissions were made but there was a very interesting moment, where they said republican Prime Minister Kemal Ataturk really disapproved of the massacres. There are new ideas getting into the system and many intellectuals and writers who are becoming braver."
Ankara has gone a long way in recent years to meet EU demands to bring its legislation and practices on human rights into line with those of Brussels. There is more freedom of speech, the position of the Kurdish minority has eased, and contentious issues are beginning to be discussed.
Yet this latest decision suggests those gains remain fragile.