By Gareth Jones - Analysis
ANKARA (Reuters) - A symbolic declaration about events 92 years ago might seem of little but academic interest, but to Turks a text now before the U.S. Congress is so sensitive that they are ready to risk ties with their main strategic ally.
The non-binding resolution, approved by Congress’s Foreign Relations Committee last week and expected to be endorsed in November by the House of Representatives, brands as genocide the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
NATO member Turkey has recalled its envoy to Washington for consultations and has hinted it might halt logistical support to U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan if the bill passes. It may also deny U.S. firms lucrative defense contracts.
Most Turks view the bill as a hostile act that insults their national honor. The resolution also revives old Turkish fears of foreign meddling in its internal affairs.
“The Armenian issue is being used as a lever by those who want to hurt and undermine Turkey,” Murat Mercan, a senior lawmaker of the ruling AK Party, told Reuters, voicing a sentiment widely felt in this key NATO ally of Washington.
“We are proud of our history. We have nothing to hide. The fact we have opened our archives and have proposed a joint committee of historians from Turkey, Armenia and elsewhere to study the documents shows we are confident about our history.”
If Congress passes the resolution, it will be following in the steps of many other foreign legislatures, including those of France, Russia, Greece and Canada. Each time, Turkey has reacted angrily, temporarily cutting trade, defense and other ties.
But the Congress moves are especially hurtful to Ankara, already fuming over Washington’s failure to tackle Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq. Turkey is now considering sending troops into Iraq to crush the rebels, despite U.S. opposition.
Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran liberal commentator, said Turkey should put aside talk of retaliation and adopt calmer tactics in its global efforts to counter the genocide claims.
“But when we see a wall blocking our way we do tend to charge straight at it. It seems to be in our national character,” he said, conceding a change of tactics was unlikely.
William Hale of Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said part of the explanation for Turkey’s behavior lies in its unhappy experiences at foreign hands in the late Ottoman period before Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic in 1923.
“The fundamental problem is the ‘Sevres’ syndrome,” he said, referring to a failed attempt by major Western powers to carve up Turkey after World War One. That treaty, among other things, envisaged creating a large Armenian state in eastern Turkey.
“The Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, including the Armenians, were long used by rapacious foreign powers as a tool to advance their territorial ambitions in Turkey,” he said.
Similarly, he said, U.S. or French politicians trying to put pressure on Turkey to accept the genocide claims are motivated by domestic agendas rather than by a real interest in the past.
The politician behind the Congress resolution has many American Armenians in his district. France, also home to a large Armenian diaspora, has used the issue to try to block Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, Hale said.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed during World War One, but denies they were victims of a systematic genocide. It says many Muslim Turks also died in inter-ethnic fighting that raged as the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Ankara also says many Armenians backed invading Russian forces, thus ensuring Turkish retaliation.
“It is grotesque to say there was a genocide. It was a political struggle over a piece of territory. If they could, the Armenians would have driven out all Muslims,” said Hasan Unal, a nationalist-minded professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University.
“We Turks strongly believe no genocide ever took place.”
Turks fear a wave of compensation and property claims by Armenians if Ankara ever gives any ground on the issue.
Some liberals attribute the power of the genocide taboo in Turkey to a rigidly nationalist education system.
“The idea of genocide does not tally with Turkey’s official historic self-image, with the image we have been taught of a glorious revolution against imperial powers trying to dismember our country,” said Semih Idiz of the Milliyet daily.
Asserting that there was an Armenian genocide is still a crime in Turkey, despite increased freedom of expression due to European Union-inspired reforms.
Nobel Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk narrowly escaped a jail sentence for his comments on the Armenian issue.
Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who had urged Turkey to face up to its history, was shot dead in January outside his Istanbul office by an ultra-nationalist youth.
More than 100,000 Turks took to the streets at Dink’s funeral to protest against ultra-nationalist violence. Many wore the slogan “We are all Armenians”, suggesting a new desire among Turks to reach out despite the past in a spirit of solidarity.
“My fear is that the U.S. Congress vote will now just encourage the hardliners on both sides, just as the veil (on old taboos) was starting to lift,” said Idiz.