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Erdogan Strikes Nationalist Tone Ahead of Armenian Commemorations

FILE - Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, March 3, 2015.
FILE - Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, March 3, 2015.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the European Parliament and Pope Francis for describing the 1915 killings of Armenians at the hands of Turks as a genocide. With the centennial anniversary of the mass killings approaching, there is growing debate within Turkey’s small Armenian minority about Erdogan's ruling AK Party.

The push in the West to build momentum for a broader recognition of "genocide" comes less than two months before parliamentary elections in Turkey, where Erdogan is seeking to add to the majority held by his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

With economic growth slowing, peace talks to end a long Kurdish insurgency failing, and security threats stemming from Iraq and Syria mounting, the ruling party is waging an increasingly nationalistic campaign. The rhetoric is causing concern among Turkey’s Armenian minority, according to Yetvart Danzikyan, editor of the Turkish Armenian Agos newspaper.

"It's a new atmosphere in Turkey. We can see some hard language on the Armenian issue again," said Danzikyan. "Yes, AKP did some reforms, but we’ve entered a new period. The state always skips to old traditions and AKP has become a state party."

Conflicted dates

Concerns have been heightened by the decision to switch centennial commemorations of the World War I Battle of Gallipoli from March to April 24 to clash with the worldwide commemorations by Armenians.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as genocide. Turkey, however, insists the numbers have been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest, not genocide.

Turkish Armenian Markar Esayan, a columnist for Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, said under the rule of the AK Party, life has been transformed in positive ways for Armenians.

"There is an unacknowledged fact that for the last 90 years, on April 24 we were not able to commemorate the people we lost in 1915," said Esayan. "We couldn't do commemoration ceremonies in the churches or visit the cemeteries because it was very dangerous. It wasn't officially banned, but if we did, it would have been seriously dangerous for us. Now we can, and do all these things.

Under the ruling party, the government has tried to make amends by returning many properties seized by the Turkish state from Turkey’s minorities.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University said despite the push to make reparations, the growing nationalist message of the government coupled with wider anti-democratic steps poses a dilemma for Armenians.

"They have done more than their predecessors, that is very sure; but, they also recognize that [the change in] democracy and human rights is getting worrisome," said Aktar. "But, at the end of the day, they recognize AKP is the best of the worst in terms of pro-non-Muslims attitudes."

Ongoing issues

Last year, then-prime Minister Erdogan offered condolences to the relatives of those who had died during the mass killings of 1915. The statement was seen as unprecedented. Since then, with preparations taking place for marking the centennial of the killings, there has been a big shift in the Turkish leadership’s messaging.

Adding to concerns is the recent experience of the Jewish minority. In March, a pro-AK Party TV station broadcast a documentary about alleged international Jewish conspiracies against Turkey.

"One year after or two years after what can be, I am not sure," said Agos editor Danzikyan. "All the Armenians in Turkey can't be sure something is going to be good or to be bad. We can live some years in good condition. We can't be sure that this is going to continue. In Turkey the balances change very often."

Among Armenians, there is hope that with the passing of the commemorations, as well as the general election in June, tensions and nationalist rhetoric will subside. Observers, however, warn that in Turkish history, during any move toward authoritarianism and weakening of democracy, the country’s minorities invariably are among those who suffer most.