Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s groundbreaking message of condolence to Armenians is a good example of what a prime minister with a strong electoral mandate can do that is positive and good in terms of trying to unite deeply estranged people.
Erdoğan’s message was of course met with mixed reactions by Armenians. It is inevitable that many Armenians should see cynical intentions in his words which they clearly believe were uttered to undermine attempts at genocide recognition.
There is anger on the Turkish side also, especially among ultranationalists, for the opposite reason. People on this side of the fence believe that Erdoğan has given a major boost to the recognition of a claim of genocide which they are determined to deny no matter what.
There is no hope of overcoming hard-line positions on both sides that will continue to prevail. It is also obvious that the government of Armenia will continue to make genocide recognition one of the cornerstones of its foreign policy, while Turkey continues to officially deny that genocide took place in 1915 in the way Armenians say it did.
It appears from press reports, however, that there are people on both sides of this deep divide who are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to Erdoğan, by saying his words represent a good start, if nothing else.
It is a fact, however, that Turkey has arrived at a state sociologically where many formerly taboo subjects have started to be broached. Ordinary Turks are learning for the first time of crimes against humanity committed under the republic, let alone Ottoman times, against Kurds and Alevis through documentaries aired on public television.
It is therefore a unique event for a Turkish prime minister to broach the subject of Armenian suffering under Ottoman rule in this way. There was of course a “relativization” of the 1915 event in Erdoğan’s words. But this should not be taken as an attempted “tit for tat.”
Armenians have to also acknowledge that ordinary Muslims, including Turks, Kurds and Arabs, suffered greatly in Anatolia during World War I, too. Those memories are also embedded in the collective unconscious of these nations.
To deny this is tantamount to denying that ordinary Germans also suffered in World War II, or to belittle that suffering because it was their government that started the war. Perhaps not everyone, but most people in Europe have clearly overcome that approach.
This is also evident in current dramatizations of that era such as the 2013 film “The Book Thief” which shows how ordinary people can get caught in events that transcend them, and try and do the right thing, albeit with little if any success, and end up suffering themselves.
There is no reason why ordinary Turks and Armenians cannot arrive at such an understanding and draw the poison out of their relationship, even if hardliners on both sides will insist on continuing to play politics with history.
It was also important in this respect that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan should have said in his April 24 commemorative message that Turks are not their enemies, and to also acknowledge that many ordinary Turks tried to help their Armenian neighbors at the time as events beyond their control were unfolding around them.
One swallow does not make a spring, of course. Erdoğan will have to build on his message of empathy to the Armenians to prove his sincerity and show that this was not just a cynical attempt at politics.
He will also has to overcome the Azeri obstacle to normalizing ties with Armenia, which will have to happen if a true reconciliation between Turks and Armenians is to start. There are, in short, serious hurdles to overcome yet. But things have to begin somewhere for the next stage to start unfolding. The hope is that Erdoğan’s message is such a start.