Armenian issue won't go away but German-Turkish relations will survive row
Published 04/06/2016 | 02:30
This week the German parliament became the latest in Europe to declare the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide, heightening tensions with Turkey at a time when its assistance is key to managing the continent's refugee challenge.
Last year marked the centenary of what many historians - and an increasing number of countries - now call a genocide. It is estimated that more than a million Armenians were killed in Ottoman Turkey as World War One raged, though Turkey insists such figures are exaggerated. The memory of those killings continues to haunt the region.
Armenia's president Serzh Sargsyan last year described the massacre as "unprecedented in terms of volume and ramifications" for that era. "Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian," he said.
The 100th anniversary rekindled an often bitter debate over whether the killings constituted genocide. Turkey's position is that the mass killings were a tragic episode in a brutal war, but not a planned genocide, and it has lashed out at those who suggest otherwise. Last year Turkey accused Pope Francis of inciting hatred when he called the massacre "the first genocide of the 20th century".
When the German parliament's symbolic resolution, put forward by Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition, was passed with overwhelming support on Thursday, reaction from Ankara was swift. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Germany.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that "this decision will seriously impact Turkish-German relations" and vowed that recalling the ambassador was only the "first step".
Turkey's prime minister Binali Yildirim called the German vote a "historic error". The foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu angrily tweeted: "The way to close the dark pages of your own history is not by defaming the histories of other countries with irresponsible and baseless decisions."
The question of what happened to the Armenians over a century ago harkens to a time when Germany was allied with the Ottomans in World War One. As a result, the parliament's resolution has been hailed by some historians as acknowledgment of Germany's indirect role. In the parliamentary session this week, speaker Norbert Lammert noted that addressing historical wrongs can be painful, as Germans know due to "our own chapters of dark history". Nevertheless, he continued: "We have also seen that an honest and self-critical appraisal of the past does not endanger relations with other countries . . . In fact, it is a precondition for understanding, reconciliation and co-operation."
Chancellor Merkel was later careful to emphasise the ties that bind Turkey and Germany, including the fact that the latter is home to an estimated three million ethnic Turks. But she stressed that "controversial arguments over some questions are part of a democratic culture." Twelve of the EU's 28-member states have now recognised the Armenian massacres as genocide. France, which is home to one of the world's largest Armenian diaspora communities, was one of the first to take the position. Armenian activists continue to lobby other states to follow suit.
Ireland, which is viewed by Ankara as one of the most supportive of its attempt to join the EU, has refrained from using the word. In a statement released during the anniversary last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs noted the "terrible events which resulted in the tragic deaths of very large numbers of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire" but did not refer to them as genocide, instead urging Armenia and Turkey to pursue reconciliation. The US, for whom Turkey is a key ally and a powerful partner in Nato, has also avoided using the term even though President Obama promised he would during his 2008 election campaign.
While Ankara may bluster over the German parliament's resolution, it is not likely to seriously damage relations in the long-term. Germany is Turkey's biggest trade partner in the EU. Ankara is also counting on Berlin's support for the full implementation of the recent controversial deal on migration that promised visa-free travel within the EU for Turkish nationals in exchange for Turkey absorbing migrants forcibly returned from Greece. Turkey was also given assurances its EU accession process would be accelerated. In the past, when countries such as France recognised the Armenian killings as genocide, the initial diplomatic rows were short-lived and soon gave way to the realpolitik of bilateral relations. The refugee crisis at Europe's door may have given a whole new frame to its relationship with Turkey, but the German vote shows the Armenian question has not gone away.