YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–In an about-face, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul has come out against the Turkish intellectuals’ campaign of public apology for what they call “the Great Catastrophe” of 1915, warning that it will reflect negatively on Turkey’s ongoing diplomatic rapprochement with Armenia.
The Internet campaign was initiated last month by a group of 200 Turkish academics, journalists, writers and artists disagreeing with the official Turkish version of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey. Their petition, entitled “I apologize,” was posted on a special website (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com) on December 15. More than 26,000 Turks have signed it since then.
Although the petition stops short of describing the 1915 massacres as genocide, it has drawn the ire of nationalists who regard it as an act of national betrayal. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and powerful military have also criticized it.
Gul initially distanced himself from the criticism, saying that the unprecedented apology testifies to freedom of speech in his country. But in a January 2 interview with Turkey’s ATV television, he warned that the campaign will damage efforts to normalize Turkish-Armenian ties.
"When we examine the latest debates in terms of their results, I do not think they make a positive contribution," Gul was reported as saying. "Ideas that we like or not, support, or even fight against, can be discussed if they do not target violence. However, the polarization sometimes can reach serious dimensions due to the sensibility of the subjects," he added.
An end to the decades-long campaign for international recognition of the Armenian genocide has been one of Turkey’s preconditions for establishing diplomatic relations and opening its border with Armenia. Ankara also makes that contingent on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. Successive governmen’s in Yerevan have stood for an unconditional normalization of bilateral ties.
Those relations have ostensibly improved since President Serzh Sarkisian took office in April 2008. Sarkisian invited Gul to visit Yerevan and watch with him the September 6 game between the two countries’ national soccer teams.
Gul accepted the invitation, becoming the first Turkish head of state to set foot in independent Armenia. His historic trip was followed by a series of fresh negotiations between the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers. The Armenian Foreign Ministry expressed hope this week that these “positive trends” will continue in 2009.
"Sometimes you work silently, sometimes you carry out works before the public eye. But I can say that works are under way regarding this matter," Gul told ATV, according to the Anatolia news agency.
According to some diplomatic sources privy to Turkish-Armenian talks, Ankara now seems ready to stop linking improved relations with Armenia with a Karabakh settlement if Yerevan accepts its proposal to form a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians tasked with examining the events of 1915. The proposal was rejected by Armenia’s former President Robert Kocharian. Sarkisian has indicated, however, that he does not object to it in principle.