Syrian refugee impact

ISTANBUL–“It’s a decision that we will never accept: we shan’t hesitate even for a second,” Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yıldırım told reporters immediately after hearing that the German Parliament had voted overwhelmingly for a motion recognizing that the deaths of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was genocide. Turkey announced that it was withdrawing its ambassador from Berlin for consultations. Germany’s ambassador in Ankara was summoned to the Foreign Ministry later today.

Though Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and the country’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stayed away from the vote, there was only one abstention and one vote cast against the motion. Though the resolution was tabled by the Green Party and its Turkish-born co-chairman Cem Özdemir, the membership of Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democrats, and its Social Democratic coalition partners have dealt a body-blow to her policy of maintaining a close working relationship with Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to prevent a flood of refugees from Syria and beyond travelling from Turkey into the EU.

Armenians marched by Turkish soldiers
Armenians marched by Turkish soldiers

Near unanimous vote

Norbert Lammert, president of the lower house of the German parliament, described its near unanimous vote as “remarkable.”

Though Germany is only following similar resolutions taken some years ago by parliaments in eleven other European countries including France, the vote reflects the German public’s displeasure at Merkel’s recent policies towards Turkey, in particular her decision to allow prosecutors to investigate alleged insults against President Erdoğan in a satirical poem by Jan Boehmermann, a German comedian. If convicted under a law dating back to 1871 and last invoked unsuccessfully in the 1960s, Boehmermann could face a jail sentence or heavy fine.

Merkel also appeared to lend President Erdoğan pointed support last autumn when she visited him in Ankara just a few days before a crucial general election in which the main opposition parties refrained from campaigning because of widespread fears of violence.

Opening old wounds

The resolution is likely to have reopened old divisions inside Germany which has a Turkish immigrant population of more than three million, many of whose members have demonstrated noisily but to little effect against the resolution in the last few days.

The Turkish government has hinted that it expects to see support from the Turks in Germany as a result of the vote but not specified the form this might take.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference following talks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
German Chancellor Angela Merkel; REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

A smaller number of Armenians, who have a community of only 60,000 in Germany, also demonstrated waving the flag of the Republic of Armenia. Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, appealed to Germans “not to bow” to President Erdoğan. Armenians claim that up to 1.5 million of their people died during a forced resettlement in World War I as they were moved out of their homes and into areas in Syria away from the Russian war front, a move they regard as a deliberate policy of extermination. Turks, relying on demographic work by US Ottomanist scholars, accept that up to 800,000 people died, but say that disease and hardship as well as deliberate brutality were to blame, while a much larger number of Muslim Ottomans – nearly three million – also perished during the First World War.

Missing documents?

Opinions are predictably polarized on the key point of whether there was a deliberate policy of extermination. Ottoman archive documents do not order a policy of mass killing and Turks point out that some order officials to treat the displaced Armenians well, but the Armenians point to documents, missing since the 1930s, which allegedly once confirmed the genocide instructions.

Until the last decade, people in Turkey who said publicly that they believed that there had been an Armenian genocide in 1915 were liable to be prosecuted by the authorities for insulting the Turkish nation and there were even occasional cases of foreigners being arrested for doing so.

Though the Turkish line on the issue has softened in recent years, with Ankara acknowledging that the Armenians endured enormous suffering during the war, statements this week by Turkey’s present prime minister, Binali Yildirim, suggest that official attitudes may once more be hardening.

On the eve of the vote, Yildirim described the resolution before the German parliament as “irrational,” declaring that the events of 1915 were ones that are ordinary in war time, a suggestion which could deepen Turkey’s international isolation over the issue.

After the vote Yildirim seem unlikely to change his line, saying that a handful of “racist Armemian lobbyists” had managed to sway one of Turkey’s allies. “There is nothing in our past of which we should be ashamed,” he declared.

His words have done nothing to help Turkey’s critically important relations with Germany get back on course.

Leave a comment