When Erdogan Apologizes

Erdogan speaks at “The Symposium on Our Archives’ Development, Vision and Contributions to Historical Research” (April 2019) (Photo: Office of the President of Turkey)

On April 24, 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had Armenians on his mind. He railed and cajoled, and spared no form of communication—a speech, a letter and a barrage of tweets—to stay afloat on a day that threatened to drown his country’s legacy in shame. His speech and tweets were primarily directed at his countrymen; his letter at Turkey’s Armenian community; and a statement by his Foreign Ministry at the international community and the “radical” diaspora.

“The relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters, who massacred the Muslim people, including women and children, in eastern Anatolia, was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period. The doors of our archives are wide open to all seeking the truth,” tweeted Erdogan. This was but one of his many tweets referring to the “events of 1915.”

The others were self-congratulatory in essence, praising his country’s archival troves. “Archives are the memory of a nation and a state. Nations without memories cannot know where they come from, where they are today and where they are headed to. A strong tradition of archive is also a testimony to a strong state history,” read another tweet. “One of the issues about which we proudly proclaim the truth to the whole World thanks to our archives is the Armenian issue…” read part of another. Some of these tweets were quoted from a speech he delivered that very same day at “The Symposium on Our Archives’ Development, Vision and Contributions to Historical Research.”

That very same day, the Turkish President’s official website posted a letter Erdogan sent to the General Vicar of the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, Aram Ateşyan. The letter was rife with justifications, equivocations, temporal distancing of the crime and a warning.

“This year as well, I remember with respect the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives under harsh conditions of the First World War and offer my sincere condolences to their grandchildren,” wrote Erdogan. He referred to a “massive humanitarian crises” which he implied was an ordinary occurrence “as had been the case during any other empire’s disintegration period.” He briefly praised the “great contributions” of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He spoke of the “free” and “equal” Armenian citizens of his country today who play “important roles” in society “as they did in the past.” He referred to the “shared grief and joy” of “these two peoples”—presumably Turks and Armenians—and their “common objective…to heal the wounds of the past.”

What would be the “right” message by Ankara? What would constitute a sincere state apology?

“We will continue to stand with you for the alleviation of your sufferings and the resolution of your problems. I especially would like to underline that the peace, security and happiness of the Armenian community in our country are of very special importance to us. We will stand against those who allow even a single Armenian citizen of ours to be alienated or excluded… I believe that the way to building a shared future is to be one and united. In this regard, I kindly request you to avoid helping those who seek to create hatred, grudge and hostility by distorting our common history. With these thoughts in my mind, I remember with respect, once again, the Ottoman Armenians whom we lost during the First World War,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued the following statement in response to US President Donald Trump’s “Medz Yeghern” message:

We reject US President Donald Trump’s statement dated 24 April 2019 with regard to the events of 1915. This statement, based on the subjective narrative fictionalized by Armenians, is of no worth. Distortion of history for domestic political considerations can never be accepted. We remind pains of more than 500 thousand Muslims slaughtered by Armenian rebels in the same period and invite President Trump to be fair. Turkey is still behind its proposal to establish a Joint Historical Commission to shed light on all aspects of the events that took place 104 years ago. Radical Armenians, who want to ensure their responsibilities in the events of 1915 are overlooked, do not show the courage to respond positively to this proposal. On this occasion, we commemorate with respect Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all other Ottoman communities who lost their lives during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

These messages can be summed up in a couple of sentences: The Genocide is an Armenian fabrication. The deportations were not; but they were the most reasonable of actions and were well deserved. Armenian gangs are the true culprits. Suffering was expected as the empire collapsed. Armenian citizens of Turkey ought to be grateful and supportive of the state. We’re proud of our archives and would love to lock up Armenian historians in our archival mazes until they see things our way.

One would presume that no one was surprised reading the threats and justifications above. Outraged? Perhaps. Shocked? No. Most descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors expect this line of rhetoric from official Ankara. And most have been outspoken in their rejection of the official “condolences” and the equivocating language of Erdogan’s administration.

The question that interests me here however is what would be the “right” message by Ankara? What would constitute a sincere state apology?

***

The Apology

It is April 24, 2020. President Erdogan stands on the steps of the Haydarpasha Train Station in Istanbul, where around 250 Armenian intellectuals, politicians, community leaders and writers, who had been detained on April 24, 1915, were boarded on trains and sent to Ankara and later killed. The day marks the beginning of a genocide campaign that targeted the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontian Greek population of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Erdogan draws a deep breath and begins to speak. The event is broadcast live by major national and international television stations.

***

[1] I stand before you today to extend the long-overdue apology that my government owes to the survivors and descendants of survivors of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide. The Turkish state killed up to 1,500,000 Armenians, 300,000 Assyrians and 500,000 Pontic Greeks between 1915 and 1923. The Christian population of this country stood at roughly 20 percent before the genocide. Today, that number is less than 0.2 percent. [1] I apologize for this systemic and government-sponsored campaign that targeted your communities, exterminated your leadership, killed your men, raped, abducted, and enslaved your women and children and sent the surviving members of your communities on death marches that many did not survive.

[2] I recognize the aim and consequences of that campaign, which uprooted you from your ancestral lands, systematically robbed you of your properties, lands, churches, schools, businesses and homes. This campaign of dispossession was not confined to the years 1915-1923, but it continued, peaking again in the 1950s and 1970s. I apologize to the Greek community for the Istanbul pogrom of September 6 and 7, 1955, when the government incited and condoned the violence against the Greek community in Istanbul, the looting and burning of your businesses, the beatings and the killing of up to 30 members of your community.

[3] I recognize the ways in which the perpetrators and this government and state enriched themselves through these plunders and continue to profit to this day. I recognize the continued destruction of your churches and cemeteries by treasure hunters who search for gold[2].

[4] I recognize, for instance, that until very recently—2014 to be exact—the presidential palace—the Cankaya Mansion—where I conducted much of my work, was in truth the confiscated home of Ohannes Kasabian, an Armenian jeweler and businessman. Today, my government has converted Kasabian’s home into the prime ministerial offices. I apologize for this continued injustice.

[5] I recognize that in the century following the start of this campaign of extermination and Turkification, the state has diligently engaged in a campaign of denial and intimidation, robbing you of your dignity. Denial has followed you to different shores where, as descendants of survivors, you sought to reconstitute your communities and remember all those who were victimized. While you pursued your quest for justice, this government and the governments before it denied, justified or minimized your suffering.

[6] I recognize that even today, those of you who have somehow managed to remain in this country—you who we have called “remnants of the sword”—continue to live in fear, facing intimidation, harassment, and discrimination. I recognize that the actions of this state have forced you to hide your identities and relinquish your names and religion; some of you have mothers or grandmothers who survived the genocide by being abducted or taken in by Turkish and Kurdish families and their stories have been suppressed in this atmosphere created by successive Turkish governments. In all these cases, the state remained meticulous in identifying you in official records. Until today, successive governments maintained “race codes.” The Turkish government mistrusted you, and its treatment of you showed that.

[7] I recognize that even today the state continues to harbor an atmosphere of fear. My government denied you your basic need for security. Some of you felt that most strongly in 2007, when the outspoken Armenian editor Hrant Dink was gunned down in front of his offices. My government intimidated him. We harassed him. We dragged him to the courts for speaking the truth. And we eventually killed him. The one to pull the trigger was an ultra-nationalist youth, but he is the product of this state’s rhetoric and treatment of you. We refused to offer his family justice. We hid the truth of his murder, of our complicity in that heinous crime.

[8] I recognize that by naming streets and public spaces after the masterminds of the genocide—Talaat, Enver and Jemal—the state continues to praise and condone this crime against humanity.

[9] I recognize that Turkish history textbooks advance the dominant narrative of genocide denial. I recognize that the Turkish government continues to teach its children this language of denial, vilifying you and painting you as enemies of the state. I recognize the state’s widespread and systemic effort to erase your presence from history through purposely destroying your churches, omitting references to your history and presence on these lands, as well as the renaming of villages, cities and towns.

[10] This government and governments before it did all this in a concerted effort at denial and Turkification, to create a homogenous Turkey—a Turkey for Turks only. I recognize these policies were rooted in racism, prejudice, xenophobia, greed and hatred.

[11] I recognize that my government’s justifications have only paved the way to new injustices against you and other groups in this country.

[12] I recognize these facts and take full responsibility for them.

[13] I apologize for these crimes, unequivocally and sincerely.

[14] This apology is this government’s initial step on a new path marked by a truthful reckoning with its past and present. This is the moment leaders of this country break the language of denial, and attempt to pave a new path forward. This is the first blow to the edifice of hatred and xenophobia—a new Turkey will only be able to rise on foundations of truth, justice, equality and self-reflection.

[15] Congruent to this apology, my government has consulted with victim organizations and individuals, representatives of various Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic Greek communities and experts in the field of transitional justice to draft bills and take important steps to counter the injustices of the past. Among these efforts are the return of confiscated properties and lands where possible; reparations to the descendants of victims; the rewriting of textbooks where denial and justification occur; support—whether moral or in resources—to the community organizations still functioning in this country; the construction of public memorials in cities and towns across this country; the renaming of streets and public spaces named after the masterminds of the genocide; and a comprehensive investigation into recent crimes, including the murder of Hrant Dink. In addition, we will make our archives fully available to researchers and set in place funds to support the research conducted by individuals and organizations in the field of genocide studies.

[16] Today, this government is lifting the illegal and unilateral economic blockade against Armenia that has been in place since 1993. We are in communication with Yerevan to draft a plan of normalizing diplomatic relations without preconditions.

[17] Finally, I proclaim this day—April 24—National Remembrance Day of the Armenian Genocide.

[18] I proclaim May 19 the National Remembrance Day of the Pontian Greek Genocide.

[19] I proclaim August 7 the National Memorial Day of the Assyrian Genocide.

[20] I hope that together we can continue to envision a new path forward.

Thank you.

***

Erdogan’s letter is clear and to the point.

[1] The opening paragraph lays out a clear acknowledgement of the wrongs and takes responsibility for them. It acknowledges the magnitude of loss in terms of numbers. Erdogan recognizes the concept of intent—that the orders of genocide came from the top echelons of government—which is a clear break from the justifications given in the past. The line of denial that has been pushed forward thus far has in essence argued: We didn’t do it; and if we did do it, we were justified by the realities of World War I. In recent years, Erdogan and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have issued “condolence” messages to Armenians. Erdogan focused[3] on “our shared pain,” equating the losses from genocide with Turkish losses during World War I. Similarly, Davutoglu argued[4] that Turks and Armenians “share… a ‘common pain’ inherited from our grandparents.” Both statements were rejected by large segments of Armenian communities, and gave rise to a flood of editorials, op-eds and statements denouncing them.

[2] The second paragraph further recognizes the extent of the crime: the uprooting of peoples from their ancestral homes and the dispossession that accompanied it.

[3] The third paragraph recognizes that the genocide not only benefited the perpetrators of the time, but also how it continues to profit the descendants of the perpetrators and the state. For instance, the US Incirlik Air Base, the Diyarbakir Airport and many other major landmarks are located on confiscated Armenian properties. It has been argued that today’s economy and the creation of a new wealthy class in Turkey is rooted in this campaign of dispossession.[5]

[4] Paragraph 4 serves to give a closer example of the dispossession and state profiteering.

[5] Paragraph 5 addresses a different dimension of the injury—that of denial. Erdogan acknowledges the magnitude of this denial campaign and the injury it has caused, and takes responsibility for it.

[6] Paragraph 6 recognizes the suffering of the survivors and descendants of survivors who remained in the country. It recognizes the plight of the remaining communities, the Islamized and hidden descendants of survivors. It also acknowledges their continued oppression, and the state’s continued role in it. The last sentence of the paragraph refers to the identity codes in place in Turkey, where the ethnicity of individuals are codified on their identity cards and official documents. The codes have been in place since 1923, and identify individuals with Armenian, Jewish, and Greek background.[6]

[7] Paragraph 7 recognizes the state’s role in failing to protect minorities. The murder of Hrant Dink became a turning point in recent Turkish history, where the degree of hatred was seen in plain sight. Dink’s funeral brought out around 200,000 mourners, who were appalled by the deed. Justice still evades the Dink family. The legal process has been criticized for failing to reveal the extent to which authorities and police officers were complicit in his murder, despite a European Court of Human Rights verdict[7]. Here, Erdogan acknowledges the role of society and the atmosphere created by the state as complicit elements in his murder.

[8] Paragraph 8 recognizes how the naming of streets and public spaces after the masterminds of the genocide continues to cause injury, and furthermore condones the crime.

[9] Paragraph 9 recognizes the ways in which denial and the erasure of non-Turkic identities continues to this day, particularly in textbooks, the renaming of places, and references to history. It recognizes the complicit role of the education system in perpetuating injustices.[8]

[10] Paragraph 10 recognizes the root causes of the crime: racism, prejudice, xenophobia, greed, and hatred.

[11] In paragraph 11, Erdogan recognizes how failure to reconcile with past injustices make new injustices possible. Here, it is implied that he is referring to the state’s treatment of “othered” groups, including the Kurds.

[12] In paragraph 12, Erdogan reiterates his recognition of “these facts” and his willingness to take responsibility for them. By reiterating it, he leaves no room for vagueness.

[13] In paragraph 13, Erdogan reiterates his apology—clearly and unambiguously.

[14] In paragraph 14, Erdogan reveals that the apology is but a first step of atonement and a marked break from the language of denial. He also qualifies it as a first step towards a new vision of an inclusive state.

[15] Paragraph 15 describes some of the further measures that will be taken by the state, in consultation with victim groups and organizations. This shows the commitment of his office to taking meaningful steps towards restitution, reparations, and societal rehabilitation.

[16] In paragraph 16, Erdogan reveals a change in foreign policy, where the illegal blockade against Armenia is lifted without preconditions, and further talks between official Yerevan and Ankara are in the works. In 2009, the normalization attempt between the two countries—referred to as “The Zurich Protocols”—largely failed because of public outcry in Armenian communities worldwide against preconditions present in the deal, including a clause that rendered the issue of genocide recognition into a historic debate to be discussed by a historical commission made up of “experts” from the two countries.

[17-19] In paragraphs 17, 18, and 19, Erdogan assigns days of mourning of the Armenian, Pontian Greek, and Assyrian genocides. The dates are those set by their respective communities as days of remembrance.

[20] In his concluding sentence, Erdogan expresses his hope that “together” a new future will be possible. The sentence denotes a willingness to work together in ensuring that past injustices are not repeated in the future.

Erdogan’s apology is unambiguous and to the point—from the opening sentence to the end of his message. Erdogan largely avoids using the passive voice, but instead relies on an active voice and active verbs. He does not use temporal distancing, but on the contrary, recognizes the continued injustices affecting the survivors and descendants of survivors—from denial to the continuation of oppressive policies and rhetoric. He enumerates the injustices, and their different dimensions. He provides no justifications and no qualifiers. By using the first-person singular pronoun “I,” Erdogan takes personal responsibility for the wrongs. Erdogan, whose apology as well as the acts to follow it, would be drafted together with victim groups and organizations, is familiar with his audience. Furthermore, naming some of the root causes of the crimes—racism, prejudice, xenophobia, greed and hatred—suggests that Erdogan has drawn some lessons from this accounting.

Finally, it is important to realize that the apology will surely fall short of the expectations of some individuals and organizations, since not everyone has the same idea of what justice should look like. Groups are not homogeneous and include a multitude of voices and needs. It is important for Erdogan to come to terms with this and refrain from acting in an antagonistic way towards those who reject these efforts.

***

And three apples fell from heaven…

 

Author’s note: In drafting this apology letter, this author drew advice and inspiration from Stewart David Ikeda’s “The Art of Apology: Grading the Ex-Presidents on their Internment Lessons” (2000). (Ikeda’s article is available here: http://web.archive.org/web/20120702114615/http://www.imdiversity.com/villages/asian/history_heritage/ikeda_internment_apology.asp). Finally, the author is grateful to Prof. Rajini Srikanth of UMASS Boston, whose course on literature and conflict examined a range of topics including issues relating to state apologies and helped shape this article.

[1] Current percentage based on the Central Intelligence Agency’s “The World Factbook,” available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2122.html#tu .

[2] It is a popular belief in Turkey that Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks buried their gold beneath their churches during the genocide. Many articles have discussed such destruction. During my many travels in the Eastern provinces of Turkey, I did not encounter a single church whose grounds and interior were not pockmarked by deep, wide holes.

[3] You can find Erdogan’s message here: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkish-prime-minister-mr_-recep-tayyip-erdogan-published-a-message-on-the-events-of-1915.en.mfa

[4] You can find Davutoglu’s full message here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/02/turks-armenians-erdogan-condolences-1915-armenian-massacre

[5] See for instance: Uğur Ümit Üngör and Mehmet Polatel’s Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011; and Varak Ketsemanian’s “The Confiscation of Armenian Properties: An Interview with Ümit Kurt”, The Armenian Weekly, September 23, 2013 (Available here: http://bit.ly/2pptMmH ).

[6] See “Minorities in Turkey tagged by ‘race codes,’ official document reveals,” in Hurriyet Daily News, August 1, 2013 (Available here: http://bit.ly/2pt6JnY ).

[7] See “Turkey Unanimously Convicted in Hrant Dink Case,” Bianet, Sept. 15, 2010. Available here: http://bianet.org/english/minorities/124789-turkey-unanimously-convicted-in-hrant-dink-case

[8] See for instance “Akcam: Textbooks and the Armenian Genocide in Turkey: Heading Towards 2015” by Taner Akcam, in The Armenian Weekly, Dec. 4, 2014 (available here: https://armenianweekly.com/2014/12/04/textbooks/) ; and “A Century after Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial only Deepens,” by Tim Arango in The New York Times, April 16, 2015 (Available here: http://nyti.ms/2oOUnZu).

 

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Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
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@NanoreB

Beirut-Born, Boston-Based | RT Not Endorsement
RT @ChrisBohjalian: Fascinated by @NanoreB's seminar on identity at #ArtLinks. Interesting to see HOW we identify ourselves. Wish @realDona - 2 years ago

11 Comments

  1. Turkey would still remain a mortal threat to Armenia because of Turkey’s and NATO’s expansionist and pan-Turkist policies toward the east.

  2. Turkish government can never admit wrong doing because Armenian survivors from around the world would make financial reparation claims that Turkey could never repay.

    MY solution would be for Turkey to open it’s borders along Armenia and allow Armenian goods to flow into Turkey duty free for 125 years.

    This would help Armenia to further develop it’s export economy would should allow a higher level of prosperity to develop in our country.

    • Great writing, Nanore.
      After reading Erdogan’s statement, I have to wonder if Armenia’s isolation is a form of punishment or a blessing?

  3. So well written, your “When Erdogan Apologizes”. Hopefully this will be passed on to all Armenians to read. Unfortunately the wrong person is in power and it is doubtful he will ever apologize. Hopefully I will be alive to see this apology take place and for the Armenian and Turkish peoples live together peacefully forever.

  4. I read, read again and again. A formidable piece of work.
    Nanore’s article is incredibly piercing, fact filled and a call to never forget and continue the pursuit of justice; recognition and reparations.
    Nanore’s article is one of the best articles about the crimes and atrocities committed by the Turks, the incessant campaign of denial, distorting the undeniable facts and dishonest attempts to revise history.
    The sad reality is that Erdogan will never change and will never apologize.
    But the Armenian nation should stand united and firmly until the Armenian Genocide is recognized by all the nations of the world.
    The day will come.
    Vart Adjemian

  5. You have to be living in space if you think Turkey will ever appologize. For me and millions like me Talat, Enver and Cemal are patriots

    • It is quite clear you are the one who has been living in space all her life. Did you know what happened to those three Turkish devils you call patriots? They are rotting in hell and sent there by our Armenian patriots. A handful of Armenian patriots put an end to the dreams of these coward Turkish monsters and effectively ended the Ottoman empire. Your genocidal patriots got a big dose and a bitter taste of their own medicine. The irony was the fact that they were responsible for murdering millions to invent an empire on other people’s lands but they themselves were assassinated and died like stray dogs on foreign soil. Ah, what a beautiful ending to your blood-thirsty patriots.

  6. Genocidal Turkey’s terrorist-in-chief and islamo-fascist mullah Erdogan is a double-talking charlatan and a snake oil salesman. He showed his true ugly Turkish face by referring to murdered Armenian men, women and children as “Armenian gangs”. Only a scoundrel with no remorse can make such hateful racist statements. Don’t expect anything from this criminal.

    Here are two famous quotes from this Turkish wolf in sheep’s clothing:
    1. Democracy is like a train: when you reach your destination, you get off.
    2. The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.

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