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Armenia Calls Turkish PM's Condolences on WWI Deaths Political Ploy

  • Dorian Jones

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, April 4, 2014

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, April 4, 2014

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent condolences to the relatives of Armenians killed in World War I by Ottoman soldiers has been drawing positive responses globally.

The message came last Wednesday, one day before Armenians marked the 99th anniversary of the killings in 1915 by Ottoman Turks. Erdogan released the statement in Turkish, Armenian and seven other languages, expressing hope that those killed are in peace and offering Turkey's condolences to their descendants.

Though the message had an unprecedented conciliatory tone, Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels, says Erdogan's move was part of a wider strategy.

"This has been a plan that was prepared by the foreign ministry. It was not something that was initially set up by the prime minister. It is part of Turkey's strategy to change the perception of the country on this issue of Armenia, and more steps are due to follow," said Ulgen.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan brushed off Ankara's condolences, accusing Turkey of "utter denial" in failing to recognize the World War I mass killings of Armenians as genocide.

Up to 1.5 million people died in the massacre, and many consider it the first genocide of the 20th century. Armenia wants Turkey to recognize it as genocide, but Ankara has categorically rejected the term, insisting instead that up to 500,000 Armenians died as a result of fighting and starvation during World War I.

The issue remains deeply contentious in Turkey. Many supporters of Turkish nationalism, who make up a large percentage of the prime minister's grassroots supporters, strongly oppose any efforts to recognize the killings as genocide.

Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center says that with presidential elections looming, there are limits to how far Erdogan can go on the Armenian issue.

"Bearing in mind his designs to become the president and his personal idea about the genocide, that is the utmost limit. He can't go further than that and it won't have an effect on relations between Armenia and Turkey," said Aktar.

Leading members of Armenia's diaspora have accused Erdogan of being more interested in seeking to derail recognition of the Armenian genocide than wanting cordial relations.

But Ankara denies such charges, pointing to the positive responses to Erdogan's message, both nationally and internationally, including from some prominent members of Turkey's small Armenian minority.

Analyst Ulgen says whether or not relations with Armenia move in a positive direction, Erdogan has already scored an important diplomatic success.

"Given the overall quite positive response that this statement has triggered both domestically and internationally, it has helped to improve the image of the government and of the prime minister at a time when there has been many criticisms regarding the behavior of the government," said Ulgen.

In his comments, Erdogan also repeated an earlier proposal by Turkey for a joint study of the events if 1915, involving academics from both countries. Whether this effort and others will bear fruit remains to be seen.