Tuesday, January 13, 2009

“Sorry” Seems to Be the Hardest Word: Turkish elites agonize over apology campaign

A Commentary by Jirair Haratunian
Trustee, Armenian Assembly of America
http://www.aaainc.org Published: 09 January, 2009

For the past few weeks Turkey has been agonizing over an internet petition initiated by a group of Turkish intellectuals apologizing for the 1915 “Great Catastrophe” that befell the Armenian population in Anatolia. The campaign ignited a counter movement led by former Turkish ambassadors and a sharp rebuke by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Prime Minister said, “If there was a crime let those who committed it apologize. My nation, my country has no such issue.”

Curiously, President Abdullah Gul initially characterized the petition as evidence that Turkey is committed to the democratic principle of free expression, but on January 1, after much criticism for his passive reaction to the apology campaign, he confessed that it was not helpful in the process of negotiations with Armenia.

Remarkably, the latest reports say that 26,000 signatories have registered their personal apology to the internet petition, and the Turkish media has headlined the campaign as a major news story for weeks. They also gave wide coverage to the Armenian Assembly of America statement quoting its Executive Director, Bryan Ardouny, who said, “An irreversible trend has commenced in Turkey. This public apology is a first step in that direction and will inevitably lead Turkey in coming to grips with its genocidal past.”

The petition’s authors carefully avoided using the “Genocide” label in their apology statement. Instead they called the horrors of 1915 “The Great Catastrophe,” a term that in Armenian is called “Medz Yeghern.” This was widely used by Armenians before Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide. The petition also avoided asking the Turkish state to recognize the Armenian Genocide in any way. The campaign, the authors asserted, is a means for Turks to personally apologize for the horrors Armenians endured at the hands of the Ottoman regime.

The opposition arguments range from denial of any crimes against Armenians to the comparison of equivalent losses suffered by Turks at the hands of Armenian insurgents. They also recalled the assassination of Turkish diplomats by Armenian terrorists in the 1970s.

A most interesting phenomenon in Turkey took place on the 32nd day of the apology petition when the Turkish State Television network broadcast a debate between three advocates and three retired ambassadors who opposed the petition.

The moderator opened the debate noting its objectives. He said, “At the root of the issue lies what happened to the Armenians in 1915: was it a catastrophe, genocide, or deportation? Should we apologize? To whom and for what should we apologize?”

One of the authors of the apology petition, Dr. Cengiz Aktar, explained, “We apologized for not being able to talk about this for many years. We also apologize for not being able to share the pain of our Armenian brothers and sisters to a sufficient extent.”

In response, former Ambassador Sukru Elekdag said, in part, “First they are referring to ‘The Great Catastrophe’ which is a synonym for genocide.” He complained that the petitioners were only telling part of the story. “There was a deportation decision of course, but this was done in legitimate self defense during conditions of war. The Russian army was advancing and Armenians took up arms and joined that army.”

The moderator asked whether the apology petition makes a positive contribution to solving the difficult issues between Turkey and Armenia. Elekdag replied, “This campaign cannot serve a useful purpose.” He noted that secret negotiations exist between Ankara and Yerevan and that the Turkish proposal for a joint historic commission to examine the history of the period was part of the negotiations.

Opponents also declared that the petition strengthens the Armenian position on the issue in international quarters where the Armenian Diaspora campaigns for international recognition of genocide.

Dr. Aktar made a passionate defense of the petition. He said that the petition involved individual and personal apologies and does not address itself to either the Armenian or Turkish governments. He said responses from Armenians were positive. “They are giving a positive response with tears in their eyes because they are finally seeing a compassionate response after 90 years.”

He also addressed the assertions that it was only deportation that was sanctioned by the Ottoman government. He said, “The truth of the matter is that the deportations were one of the biggest calamities that ever happened in Anatolia. The Anatolian economy collapsed because of this irrational decision, and from that time until today the economy has not been revived in eastern Anatolia.”

This television debate was a watershed event in Turkey. It illuminated the differing sides of the genocide issue at a time when Ankara has indicated an interest in changing its rigid policy towards Armenia. It is a step away from past positions that sought to isolate Armenia politically and economically. Instead, despite opposition from Azerbaijan, Turkey has offered a program to establish a stability and security platform in the Caucasus that includes both Armenia and Russia. This, in addition to bilateral negotiations with Armenia, are positive but fragile developments that will hopefully ease tensions and lead to a more normal and stable relationship between Armenia and Turkey who, in the final analysis, are destined to remain permanent neighbors.

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