When President Abdullah Gül decided in 2008 to watch the match between the national football teams of Turkey and Armenia for the European Cup, together with Armenian President Serzh Sargsian in Yerevan, it was a big deal.
There was hope on the horizon for trying to leave behind the deep conflict between the two nations over the mass killing of Armenians during the First World War, in the last years of the six-century-long Ottoman Empire.
For years, Turkish governments had dismissed the cry of Armenians for recognizing the massacres – ignited by a decree of the fallen Ottoman government on April 24, 1915 for the deportation of Armenians from the areas of the Russian occupation – as genocide. Gül’s call was no such recognition.
Neither was Sargsian’s invitation to Gül for the football match. When I interviewed Sargsian in Yerevan in 2008, he said that no one could find any Armenian on earth who would say that those massacres were not a genocide, but that could not be an obstacle for establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Gül actually went to Yerevan; Sargsian came to Turkey, to Bursa, where the return match was played. Swiss-mediated diplomacy ended up with a protocol for normalization in 2009, but that was it. No further progress was possible.
There were reasons, like the deadlock in the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. The Armenian invasion of Azerbaijan’s territory in 1993 was the reason for their lack of diplomatic relations, for example.
On the other hand, Ankara is well aware that the 100th anniversary of the 1915 deportation would turn into a real irritant if no steps are taken. For years, U.S. presidents have managed to stop Congress from deciding to recognize April 24 as “Armenian Genocide Day,” due to the strategic partnership of Turkey in a key geography. It was, however, a routine for many heads of state from France to Canada to issue statements condemning the “Armenian genocide” and asking Turkey to recognize it.
Yesterday was the first time that a Turkish prime minister has issued a statement on the eve of April 24, offering condolences, sharing the grief of the grandsons and granddaughters of those who lost their lives, also saying the deportation had caused “inhumane consequences.”
In his statement, Erdoğan carefully made a distinction between the Ottoman Sultanate government of the time and the Republic-era governments, making a point of saying that the establishment of the Turkish Republic on the 94th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Parliament was actually against the wrongdoings of the final Ottoman governments, including their welcoming of invading armies.
Perhaps it is not the exact wording that most Armenians in Armenia, Turkey and elsewhere have been waiting for. But it clearly states a shift in the mentality in a positive direction.
There is particular stress on the notion of a “common future” between Turkish and Armenian peoples in the statement. That is a call for historic reconciliation. It could be a new start for getting the historical conflict solved for the benefit of both peoples.