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Turkey warned yesterday that it would impose permanent sanctions on France if a bill being discussed by the French Senate, which would punish with prison and a fine anybody denying that the killing of over one million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide, was passed into law.
“Turkey will continue to implement sanctions so long as this bill remains in motion,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said before the debate. Turkey briefly withdrew its ambassador to France and placed sanctions on economic, political and military cooperation with France when the bill passed the French lower house last month. It would criminalize denial of the genocide, making offenders liable to a one-year prison term and a 45,000 Euro fine. Mr Sarkozy’s office said that the law would come into effect in two weeks.
The French action has created extreme anger in Turkey where television news channels gave continuous coverage to the Senate debate. Turkish critics denounce the legislation as a cynical attempt by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to win the vote of the 500,000-strong French Armenian community before the French presidential election later this year. “Turkey is no longer the Turkey of 2001,” Mr Davotoglu said, emphasizing that Turkey is much stronger today than it was in the year when the French parliament first recognized the Armenian genocide.
In a tea house in the Bayoglu district of central Istanbul an elderly man, who gave his name as Ali, vehemently denounced Mr Sarkozy. “He plots like the devil,” he said. “He wouldn’t even pick up the phone to talk to talk to our president. People do that even in war time. He should resign as leader of France.”
The remaining Armenians in Turkey, believed to number about 70,000, are not optimistic about the Turkish government ever admitting to the genocide. At a march last week commemorating the fifth anniversary of the murder of the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, an Armenian woman, Mariam Kalk, said she did not expect any change. “Turkish society is a very silent society,” she said. “The state will never admit to the Armenian massacre.”
Some Turkish historians have moved far in establishing the facts about the Ottoman’s government’s instructions for the massacre of the Armenians in 1915. The exact number killed in shootings or death marches is not known, but historians estimate the figure to be between 1.2 million and 1.4 million. A document found in the papers of one of the Ottoman government leaders and recently published recorded a drop in the Armenian population of the Empire from 1,256,000 in 1914 to 284,157 in 1916.
In the past Turkey had contended that the figures for the dead are exaggerated or that the Armenians were collateral damage, killed in military operations and not on orders from the government.
Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, says that what happened to the Armenians was part of “the religious cleansing that happened with a view to create a homogenous state based on Islam. Non-Muslims had no place in the new nation.” He said it would be very difficult for Turkey to admit this now and when the demand “comes from France, especially from Sarkozy, people here take it badly.”
Professor Aktar said there were three other reasons why the Armenian genocide could not be admitted by Turkey. Those who carried it out had continued to work for the government in senior positions. The cleansing did not stop in 1923 and surviving Armenians, who still numbered 300,000, were still being pushed out of Turkey for years afterwards. Thirdly, “we should not forget that the Armenians were often bourgeoisie and their wealth was plundered.”
Nevertheless, the present government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown itself more tolerant than any of its predecessors towards Armenians and other Christians in Turkey. “The words ‘Armenian genocide’ are no longer taboo,” says Prof Aktar. He adds that the authorities have made sure there were no attacks on those taking part in commemorations of “Genocide Day” on April 24. He believes that there would be a nationalist backlash in Turkey if the French bill was passed into law, but that discussion of what happened would not cease. He says “the genie is out of the bottle.”
Armenians in Istanbul say they are treated with greater tolerance than five years ago, partly because of the general outrage over the murder of Hrant Dink. “Before Armenians were second class citizens in Turkey and now they aren’t,” said Armen Kalk. There are signs of some state support for the Armenian community such as at Vortods Vorodmans, a previously derelict church opposite the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. It re-opened a month ago after being restored by the government and has just been used for a concert.
Armenians in Istanbul are sceptical about the motives of France on the genocide. One Armenian café owner said “it is all politics. It is a storm in a glass.”
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has renewed his personal attack on French President Nicolas Sarkozy for racism and anti-Turkish behavior.
Mr Erdogan said yesterday that Turkish retaliation would be held back since France might “correct its mistake”. This appears unlikely to happen so Turkey may move to withdraw its ambassador and ban French military aircraft and naval vessels from entering Turkish airspace or waters. More damagingly, Turkey could stop placing large defense orders with French firms and exclude France from winning contracts for nuclear power stations and other big projects.
“What has happened is an effort to gain votes through anti-Turkishness,” Mr Erdogan told his AK Party’s members of parliament. The French presidential election is on April 22 and May 6 and Mr Erdogan and most Turks believe he is trying to win the 500,000-strong Armenian vote. As in the past, the Turkish prime minister turned on Mr Sarkozy personally, saying that his grandfather had been part of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki that had been given refuge by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century after being expelled from Spain by the Inquisition. He said that Mr Sarkozy “regardless of how much anti-Turkish feeling he display, his history coincides with the history of Turkey.”
Mr Erdogan and many Turks have developed a visceral loathing for Mr Sarkozy, who has also played a leading role in keeping Turkey out of the European Union. He famously said that every school child knew that Europe ended at the Bosphorus. When the French lower house of Parliament first passed the Bill, Mr Erdogan accused France of massacring 15 per cent of the Algerian population after 1945. He scornfully added that Mr Sarkozy’s father had been a soldier in Algeria at the time and “I am sure has plenty of time to tell his son about it.”
The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, who was personally against the new law, said it was “ill-timed”, but called on Ankara to remain calm. “We have very important economic and trade ties,” Juppe added. “I hope the reality of the situation will not be usurped by emotions.” The mayor of Ankara has suggested changing the name of the street the French embassy is in to Algeria Street and erecting nearby a memorial to Algerian victims of French colonial oppression.
There is a limit to what Turkey can do without damaging itself since France is its fifth biggest export market and bilateral trade in the first ten months of last year was $13.5 billion. France is also a significant investor in Turkey at a time when there are fears that the foreign investment that has driven Turkey’s high growth may begin to flow out of the country. The Turkish government may wait to see if the new law will eventually be declared unconstitutional before introducing long term sanctions.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.