Keeping Turkey Out

16 October 2006

Keeping Turkey Out

By Gwynne Dyer

Words matter. The Holocaust of the European Jews during the Second World War was a genocide. The mass deportation of Chechens from their Caucasian homeland during the same war was a crime but not a genocide, even though half of them died, because Moscow’s aim was to keep them from collaborating with German troops who were nearing Chechnya, not to exterminate them. Which brings us to the far more controversial case of the Armenians and the Turks.

On 12 October, the French parliament passed a law declaring that anyone who denies that the mass murder of Armenians in eastern Turkey in 1915-17 was a genocide will face a year in prison. But the French foreign ministry called the law “unnecessary and untimely,” and President Jacques Chirac telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan to apologise.

“Chirac called me and told me he was sorry. He said that he is listening to our statements and he thinks we are right and he will do what he can in the upcoming process (of ratifying the legislation),” said Erdogan on Saturday. Since Chirac can veto the law, that should be the end of that, but the point of passing the law was never really to get it on the books. It was to alienate Turkish public opinion and to curry favour with the half-million French citizens of Armenian descent.

Why would the conservative majority in the French parliament deliberately set out to annoy the Turks, knowing that the law would eventually be vetoed by the president? Because they hope to provoke a nationalist backlash in Turkey that would further damage that country’s already difficult relationship with the European Union.

French public opinion is already in a xenophobic mood over the last expansion of the EU, with folk-tales of “Polish plumbers” working for peanuts and stealing the jobs of honest French workers causing outrage, especially among right-wing voters who never much liked foreigners anyway. The prospect of eighty million Turks — MUSLIM Turks — joining the European Union, even if it is at least ten years away, is enough to make their blood boil.

So a big row with Turkey should attract lots of votes to the right’s presidential candidate in next May’s election, who is likely to be none other than current prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy — who announced last month that Turkey should never be allowed to join the EU: “We have to say who is European and who isn’t. It’s no longer possible to leave this question open.” The new law is not really about Armenians or Turks. It’s about the French election.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, anti-EU nationalists have their own game underway. While Turkey was busy amending its penal code to make it conform to EU standards over the past few years, hard-line lawyers and bureaucrats smuggled in a new law, Article 301, that provides severe penalties for “insulting Turkishness.” In practice, that mainly means trying to ban public discussion of the Armenian massacres, and some seventy prosecutions have already been brought by the ultra-right-wing Union of Lawyers against Turkish authors, journalists and other public figures.

For several generations the Turkish government flatly denied any guilt for the Armenian massacres, insisting that they didn’t happen and if they did, it was the Armenians’ own fault for rebelling against the Turkish state in wartime. Latterly, a new generation of Turkish intellectuals has been saying that a million or more Armenians did die in the mass deportations from eastern Anatolia, and that Turkey needs to admit its guilt and apologise — though most still refuse to call it a genocide, as that would put it in the same category as the Jewish Holocaust.

Israel, too, refuses to use the term “genocide” for the Armenian massacres, on the grounds that there was some provocation (Armenian revolutionaries conspired with both Britain and Russia in 1914-15 to launch local uprisings in support of their planned invasions of Turkey), and that the Turkish state’s actions, though brutal, illegal and immoral, were not premeditated. Most Armenians, of course, desperately want the label “genocide” to be applied to their ancestors’ suffering, since they feel that any other term demotes it to a lower rank of tragedy. But there is room for dialogue and even reconciliation here, if people can get past the issue of nomenclature.

The prosecutions for “insulting Turkishness” — even against Turkey’s greatest living novelist, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk — are not just an attempt to stifle this dialogue among Turks, or between Turks and Armenians. The ultra-nationalists also want to derail the negotiations for EU membership by painting Turkey as an authoritarian and intolerant state that does not belong in Europe. They are, in effect, Sarkozy’s objective allies.

But Prime Minister Erdogan will probably repeal Article 301 once next year’s elections are past. France’s law, which REQUIRES people to discuss the Armenian massacres in precisely the terms that 301 bans, will probably be vetoed by Chirac. And Turkey’s best-known Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, who has already been prosecuted several times under 301, has just announced that he will go to France “to protest against this madness and violate the (new) law…And I will commit the crime to be prosecuted there, so that these two irrational mentalities can race to put me into jail.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Chirac…descent”; and “Israel…nomenclature”)