Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Like Déjà vu All Over Again

There are moments in a nation’s history when the threats are so great that all political divisions and disagreements need to be thrown aside in an effort to defend the motherland. For Turkey, that moment comes almost once every year, when it’s time for the country to fight yet another attempt to pass a bill in Washington recognizing the Armenian genocide.

A House of Representatives committee is set to vote on a “genocide” resolution tomorrow and teams of Turkish politicians from both sides of the deep political divide in Ankara have been dispatched to Washington to lobby against the effort getting any farther (while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already warned that Turkish-American relations could be harmed if Congress passes a resolution).

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its main rival, the Republican Peoples Party (CHP) can’t see eye-to-eye on some of the most critical issues facing Turkey – the country’s EU bid or revising the problematic constitution, for example – but the bitter political rivals have agreed to work together on fighting the genocide claim. I almost choked on my coffee this morning when I saw a photo in the paper of AKP parliamentarian Murat Mercan sitting together in Washington with the CHP’s Sukru Elekdag, an old school (if not retrograde) Kemalist who has been at the forefront of fighting the genocide claim for decades. Back in Ankara these two have very little to say to each other, but there they were making Turkey’s case together. In the American context, try imagining rookie Democratic Senator Al Franken hitting the road to lobby on behalf of American policy with late Republican Senator Jesse Helms. It’s something like that.

This year, of course, was supposed to be different. The historic accords that Turkey and Armenia signed this past October to restore diplomatic relations and put in motion a process to examine the past, were supposed to take the legs out from under any effort to tar Turkey with the “genocide” label. But, because of domestic and regional pressures, neither Ankara nor Yerevan has ratified the accords, leaving Turkey once again exposed on the issue.

The problem is that it’s not only Turkey that’s exposed – it’s also Washington. As it has before, the administration will ultimately get dragged into Ankara’s battle on Capital Hill against the “genocide” bill. Previous administrations, worried about a rupture with Turkey, have stepped in and asked Congress to shelve such bills. And although during his presidential campaign Barack Obama promised to recognize the genocide, in his statement released during last year’s April 24 commemoration of the event, the President – careful not to upset the delicate negotiations that were taking place at the time between Ankara and Yerevan – took the Solomonic approach of calling it by its Armenian name, medz yeghern (or “great catastrophe”). But after going out on a limb for Turkey last year on the genocide issue because of not wanting to harm the Armenia talks, will Obama and others in Washington do the same thing again this time around, especially considering that Ankara has played a decisive role in the freezing of the accords process?

The picture does not look good, certainly for those who were hoping that the deal signed between Ankara and Yerevan would get all the countries involved out of this lose-lose cycle. At the same time, a recent 60 Minutes episode (or the “provocation,” as one Turkish paper called it in its front-page headline) on the genocide issue was a good reminder of just why Turkey will continue to fight the claim so hard. The word “genocide” obviously brings up the image of the Nazis and the Holocaust, things no country wants to have associated with it, but the 60 Minutes episode charges the Ottoman Turks with actually creating the blueprint for the kind of mass killing that the Third Reich ultimately perfected. That’s a charge that's even harder for Ankara to swallow, particularly on an issue that cuts to the core of Turkish national pride. You can watch the episode here.

Meanwhile, for a good look at just how much political cynicism surrounds the Armenian genocide issue, take a look at this op-ed by Turkey expert Henri Barkey in today’s Washington Post. Previous post on the Armenian issue can be found here.

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