By Tim Giannuzzi
For The Calgary Herald
If you want an ugly reminder of the past to stay there, you shouldn't throw a fit whenever someone brings it up. This is a lesson Turkey ought to learn sometime.
The world's freest and best-developed mostly Muslim democracy has a very large skeleton in its closet, one to which it has lately been drawing a great deal of attention, despite harbouring a strong desire that everyone forget about it completely. That lingering remnant would be the Armenian genocide.
In the spring of 1915, the First World War was in its second year, while the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey, was on its sickbed and none too likely to get up again. Believing that their Armenian inhabitants constituted a potential fifth column which would work against the Central Powers (the alliance to which the Ottomans belonged), prominent Ottoman politicians devised a deportation scheme which provided cover for an organized attempt at mass extermination. As many as 1.5 million Armenians met horrid ends.
Turkey has always denied any systematic murder and prefers to ascribe the deaths to the chaos swirling around the Ottoman Empire's last days, but reams of historical evidence would say otherwise.
Various countries and groups have taken up the cause of historical truth and recent weeks have brought more of the same. Three weeks past, the Parliament of Catalonia, in Spain, recognized the genocide. Two weeks ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives squeaked out a resolution (by one vote) which labels the killings as genocide and last week, Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, passed a similar measure.
Turkey reacted to the moves as it always does, recalling its ambassadors, cancelling conclaves and hinting grimly about the damage each country has done to its standing with the Turks. The Swedish and American governments, which each opposed the motions, appear to believe this, with the former calling the vote a mistake and the latter, in the form of the White House, promising to prevent the bill from passing.
The usual arguments cited for toeing Turkey's line are its strategic importance as a bridge between East and West (potentially as a member of the European Union) as a transit point for Central Asian oil pipelines, and the country's NATO membership (Turkey has the alliance's second-biggest army and its Incirlik base is a major staging area for U.S. efforts in Iraq). Dire things will happen, it is often said, if Turkey is crossed over this issue. At the very least, its slowly improving relations with Armenia will be hurt, although these have stalled recently anyways.
Most of this is bunk. Canada officially recognized the Armenian genocide in 2004 with insignificant consequences, as have nearly two dozen other countries, and the Harper government ought to encourage more nations to follow suit. While the Turks bluster and bellow, they are not about to damage themselves by alienating their most powerful allies just to distort the truth.
Turkey's chances of joining the EU are slim since most Europeans and an increasing number of Turks don't want to see it happen, while Incirlik is of diminishing importance as the U.S. draws down in Iraq. The Turks are not about to give up the revenues they earn from the pipelines, nor do they want a Russia-like reputation for erratic behaviour, which would encourage potential customers to look elsewhere. There are too many oil-rich competitors (like Canada) who could potentially fill the gap.
Aside from the harm recognition of the Armenian genocide would do to their puffed-up nationalist preconceptions, Turkish opposition centres on fears of being forced to pay hefty compensation to their victims' descendants. They can put their minds at ease. There is no interest in forcing Turkey to make reparations, not least because plenty of other countries have self-inflicted historical black marks which would get undesired attention if they pushed Turkey to literally pay for its crimes. In this case, a hug and a handshake will work fine.
Timothy Giannuzzi is a Calgary writer specializing in foreign affairs.
Source: The Calgary Herald, 18 March 2010