On April 23, one day before the 99th anniversary of the Armenian massacres in the Ottoman Empire, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised both the Turkish and world public by distributing a statement affirming that the events of 1915 had “inhumane consequences.” Contrary to traditional state behavior, Erdogan used a conciliatory tone in the statement and offered condolences to the grandchildren of those who lost their lives in 1915. He also underlined the importance of tolerance, mutual respect, condemnation of hatred, and negotiation—no matter the disagreement at hand. At the same time, Erdogan repeated his former proposal for a joint historical commission to investigate the contested period while urging that the events of 1915 should not be used as an excuse for hostility against Turkey.
The statement sparked different reactions from Armenians. Samson Ozararat, an expert on Turkish-Armenian relations, defined the statement as “perfect in terms of humane and conscientious considerations” and saw it as “a historical step,” but argued that the joint historical commission is unnecessary since several resources exist on the subject. Conversely, Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, rebuffed Erdogan’s statement by labeling it as a “cold-hearted and cynical ploy” and argued that the Turkish state is “repacking its genocide denials.”
Erdogan’s statement should be seen neither as “a historical step” nor “a cynical ploy.” First, it is an important step, quite similar to Erdogan’s 2005 Diyarbakir speech that broke the ice between Turkey and the Kurds, whose identity and social-cultural rights had been rejected by the state since its foundation. In this speech, Erdogan defined the Kurdish problem in Turkey as his own problem, stating that since “every state made mistakes in its past, it is improper for powerful states to disregard the mistakes committed in the past. A powerful state is one which can talk over its mistakes. We are investing in the future by facing the past in Turkey.” Erdogan’s Diyarbakir speech was mainly symbolic, but it broke important new ground by confronting the taboo against public discussion of the Kurdish issue. Since 2005, Turkey implemented some cultural and political reforms on the Kurdish issue. Although these reforms do not satisfy the Kurdish political movement, today—unlike in the 1980s and 1990s—political and non-political actors freely discuss the Kurdish issue and its possible solutions. Erdogan took a similar approach in his speech on the events of 1915, which shattered an important taboo and opened space for discussion between political actors, press and academics.
Still, Erdogan’s statement on the events of 1915 does not rate a “historical step,” especially when compared to his 2005 Diyarbakir opening. On the Armenian issue, Turks and Armenians maintain incompatible red lines. According to the Armenians, the Turkish government first must recognize the Armenian genocide as an established historical fact before discussing other contested issues, such as border problems between Turkey and Armenia. To the Turks, continued investigation of the events of 1915 remains important, and Ankara constantly calls on scholars to conduct research in Turkey’s fully opened archives. Neither side will likely relax its red line. For the Armenians, the genocide represents a fundamental component of their national identity, whereas the Turks view its recognition as a first step behind which would follow calls for compensation and even territorial demands.
By comparison, the Kurdish political movement and the Turkish government shared somewhat compatible lines after the PKK, or Kurdish Workers’ Party, withdrew its intention to form an independent Kurdish state in 1993 and prioritized the improvement of Kurdish cultural, social, and political rights. In the 1990s, the Turkish military, which then dominated the political system, wanted to terminate the PKK and obstructed cultural reforms on the Kurdish issue, which produced unrealistic red lines. By contrast, Erdogan’s control of the military after the Ergenekon trials allowed Ankara to relax its red lines and initiate reforms on the Kurdish issue and dialogue with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2009. The mutually incompatible red lines of the Turkish-Armenian dispute render such dialogue and negotiations unlikely.
Additionally, the plurality of actors on the Armenian side further hampers prospects for resolution. In the Turkish-Kurdish issue, the Turkish government knows that Ocalan will be a partner at the table despite the existence of various legal and illegal Kurdish groups. By contrast, the two main Armenian political actors to not share identical goals or methods: the Armenian state confronts border problems with Turkey, while the Armenian diaspora in the United States remains free from the difficulties of their brothers in Armenia. Although both groups consider the genocide a historical fact, the diaspora advances a more activist and inflexible attitude than the Armenian state and can directly affect the decision-makers in Washington, magnifying its voice globally. This duality leads to confusion on the Turkish side. Thus, even if Turkey agrees with the Armenian state on border issues and initiates a dialogue with Ankara, activist behavior from the diaspora can damage relations between the two states and torpedo negotiations.
These two reasons – incompatible red lines and the duality of actors on the Armenian side – leave little reason to expect tangible results from Erdogan’s statement on the events of 1915. It is, at best, a “Diyarbakir speech of Turkish-Armenian relations” and nothing more. As a result, an “Armenian Opening” akin to the “Kurdish Opening” of 2009 should not be expected. From this perspective, the effects of Erdogan’s statement are mainly domestic – the speech broke a taboo in Turkey and opened the issue to public discussion. Yet any positive development in Turkish-Armenian relations, however desirable, is less likely to occur because of the structural reasons laid out above.
Murat Ulgul is a Turkish Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Delaware, where he studies ethnic conflict and Turkish politics.