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Armenia: Franco-Turkish Relations Deteriorate

Prague, 12 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey has taken the first concrete step to retaliate against France for a controversial resolution passed unanimously late last month (May 29) by the French National Assembly. The one-sentence resolution publicly recognized the Armenian genocide by Turks that Armenians say cost the lives of at 1east 1.2 million of their brethren in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire during World War I. Turks say that only 300,000 Armenians died in a civil war from 1915 to 1917 which also cost the lives of many Turkish civilians.

The Turkish government yesterday confirmed reports that, because of the Assembly's resolution, it has put on hold at least one planned purchase of French armaments by Ankara. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Necati Utkan said Ankara has suspended a $145 million purchase of Eryx anti-tank missiles from France's Aerospatiale company.

Utkan also said that a scheduled meeting of defense officials of both countries has been put off because of what he called the "unpleasant (and) negative phase" in current Franco-Turkish relations. But he was unable to confirm a published report that another major French company, Thompson, has been excluded from the purchase of naval aircraft by Turkey. Utkan said he needed to check that out further.

The French Senate still has to approve the National Assembly's resolution before it becomes law. The debate on the resolution, originally due to be held within the next fortnight, was postponed by the Senate this week. That effectively deferred a vote on the bill for at least two-and-a-half months because the upper house goes into summer recess at the end of this month.

French officials (unnamed) acknowledge that the Senate postponement had been encouraged by the ruling leftist coalition government, which has been embarrassed by the Assembly's action and hopes it can somehow be modified by the Senate. Ironically, the left commands a majority in the far more powerful Assembly, while the Senate is controlled by the center-right.

The bill was introduced into the Assembly by a group of Socialist deputies and guided through the body's Foreign Relations Committee by its chairman Jack Lang, a long-time minister and close associate of former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. The flamboyant and highly popular Lang is also a human-rights activist with close connections to France's 300,000-strong ethnic Armenian community, most of whom are descendants of survivors of the World War I killings. But he was denied a ministry in the one-year-old government of Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin. Instead, because Jospin has sought to end what younger Socialists call "Mitterrandisme," Lang was shunted off to head the previously rubber-stamp Foreign-Relations Committee.

Earlier this month, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel wrote to his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, a conservative, asking him to use his influence to halt passage of the bill. About the same time, Socialist Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine sought unsuccessfully to convince his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem that the Assembly's action was a purely parliamentary, and not a government, initiative. This week the Socialist president of the Assembly, Laurent Fabius, tried to mollify Ankara by saying that the resolution was not aimed at the modern Turkish government that took over after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Apparently, neither Fabius' arguments nor those of other French apologists for the bill have changed the minds of Turkish officials. The English-language "Turkish Daily News," the newspaper that first announced Ankara's retaliative actions, says in today's edition that foreign ministry and other (unnamed) sources are skeptical about the French Senate's being able to alter the resolution. The paper writes that "a Foreign Ministry source stressed that (such) an assessment cannot be trusted (and) that Ankara's reaction to the bill so far (reflects) the danger posed to Franco-Turkish relations by (its eventual) passage as a law."