Thursday, March 18, 2010

The "Erdogan Factor" Returns

The great wild card in Turkish politics continues to be Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his shoot-from-the-hip take on things. From Darfur to Xinjiang, the "Erdogan Factor" (as previously discussed in this post) has frequently left Turkey watchers scratching their heads and Turkish policy makers picking up the pieces.

Erdogan's straight-talk express recently arrived in London, where the PM gave an interview to the BBC's Turkish-language service. In the interview (here, in Turkish) Erdogan suggested that one of the results of the recent Armenian genocide resolutions passed in Sweden and the United States could be the mass expulsion from Turkey of the thousands of Armenians working illegally in the country. "There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country,” Erdogan told the BBC . “Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.”

This is disturbing stuff on so many levels. Turkey is clearly not gearing up to do what Erdogan is suggesting might happen, but dragging the illegal Armenian workers into the dispute as a way of threatening Armenia and its politically active diaspora has ominous and unfortunate connotations. Analyst Mehmet Ali Birand makes the obvious point that merely invoking the possibility of a mass deportations in this case makes for truly bad politics. From his column in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
Now a smear campaign in the lines of “Turkey as a perpetrator of genocide did not want the poor Armenians to earn a few bucks” will start and people talk in purple prose saying, “In the past they killed millions of people and now they will condemn 100,000 Armenians to death by starving....”

....They’d say, “See, again the Turks are casting out the Armenians.”

And this action would be labeled “second deportation.”
You can read his full column here.

Today's Zaman, meanwhile, steps out of the Ergenekon/Balyoz thicket that it seems to have gotten lost in these days and, in today's paper, comes up with a journalistically solid piece, one that takes the PM to task for what he said and gets down to answering the important question of just how many Armenian illegals are actually working in Turkey? From the article:
Öztürk Türkdoğan, the chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD), said Erdoğan’s remarks could easily be considered a “threat” and as discrimination. “These remarks could lead some people to think that to expel people is a 2010 version of forced migration. This mentality is far from human rights-oriented thinking. People have the right to work, and this is universal. There are many Turkish workers all over the world; does it mean that Turkey will accept their expulsion when there is an international problem? Secondly, these remarks are discriminatory; there are many workers in Turkey of different nationalities,” he said....

....The İHD’s Türkdoğan was also critical of Erdoğan’s remarks regarding ethnically Armenian Turkish citizens: “We can see that the classic republican understanding based on ethnic Turkism is still valid. Minorities cannot be the subject of bargaining in international relations. This is racist discourse and only proves how far we are from a human rights-oriented perspective,” Türkdoğan said.
You can read the full piece here.

Based on its reporting, Today's Zaman estimates that there are probably 12,000 to 13,000 Armenians working illegally in Turkey, rather than 100,000 (94 percent of them are women, most likely doing domestic work). (A report on the issue from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia can be found here.) It appears that the number has been inflated over the years, perhaps so that it can be used as a political bargaining chip with Armenia and as an instrument for trumpeting Turkish tolerance.

Certainly, some of the damage control that members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have tried to do in the wake of Erdogan's comments has smacked of this.

“As has been known for many years, there are Armenians illegally living and working in Turkey, and as a reflection of our goodwill and efforts toward normalization which started in 2005, we do not really touch them," AKP member of parliament Suat Kiniklioglu told Today's Zaman.

"We tolerate them and take their difficult circumstances into consideration. In particular, we are not questioning their status due to the acceleration of the normalization process in Turkish-Armenian relations. The prime minister needed to draw this fact to people’s attention, especially now, when resolutions have been accepted which damage normalization. I think Turkey’s magnanimity is being ignored.”

Erdogan's comment about the illegal Armenians also ended up obscuring some of the more important and to-the-point comments that he made in the BBC interview. One of these comments was about the need for Armenia to break free from the hold of its diaspora, but his remarks about the illegals were a gift-wrapped present for the diaspora and its political lobby, which is intent on portraying Turkey as unrepentant country that has learned little from the past.


Richard said...

Pretty good account Yigal. One thing that strikes me about the genocide issue is that so many commentators and journalists have a Turkey-centric perspective. In other words they are concerned about how it affects Turkey, Turkey's relations with the EU, the US, Israel, etc.

It would be refreshing to talk to Armenians of all backgrounds - in Armenia, Diaspora, in Turkey, and try and understand why the issue is so important to them and why it wont go away.

In that vein have you been to Yerevan?

Yigal Schleifer said...

Thanks for the comment Richard. Beyond the fact that this is a Turkey-centric blog, I think the Turkey-centric perspective on the genocide issue reflects the reality that Turkey's actions vis-a-vis this issue have a lot more impact than Armenia's. A rupture in Turkey-U.S. relations is much more significant and damaging to U.S. interests than a rupture in Armenia-U.S. relations. My intention is not to dismiss the concerns of Armenians of all backgrounds regarding this issue. But for someone interested in foreign policy, the reality is that Turkey carries a lot more weight regarding this issue.

In terms of your second question: I was in Yerevan in 2008 for the presidential elections (and also travelled outside of the city). Because of the elections, I found most people concerned with current-day political and economic issues. When the genocide issue came up, I found that people approached it with a mix of pragmatism and a determination to keep the memory of what happened alive and properly commemorated.

Richard said...

Fair points. However the point I am making is that the genocide resolutions in the US (and the same is true in other countries) are pushed primarily by American citizens (albeit of Armenian descent) and not by Armenia which is only 18 years old and has no budget for lobbying.

The issue is essentially not one between Armenia and Turkey. If the protocols were ratified tomorrow and the border was opened, those American citizens would still be pushing and lobbying their representatives, as they see it as a matter of justice. The issue is kept alive from generation to generation and is not going away and has an impact on foreign relations.

Yigal Schleifer said...

Understood. So what's the way forward?

Richard said...

The way forward depends on the perspective:

Armenia should immediately ratify the protocols. This would put pressure on Turkey to do the same.

Turkey should forswear from publicly linking the protocols with Armenian concessions on Karabagh. There is evidence that by doing so Turkey has actually hindered those negotiations as Armenia cant be seen to give in to Turkish pressure.

On or before April 24 Obama issues a statement referring to the genocide similar to the one made by President Regan in 1981. Perhaps in the same way as Regan did i.e. as part of a general commemoration of crimes against humanity.

This would allow Obama to live up to his promise and take the heat off any further resolutions in the House. He all but said the word last year in Turkey.

Turkey will be upset but the State Department will make clear that the US agrees with the legal opinion prepared for the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission that the Genocide Convention cannot apply retrospectively even though the elements of genocide were met.

Consequently Turkey is not liable for compensation or territorial claims.


Yigal Schleifer said...

Sounds like a plan to me! Why aren't we there?