Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, in a statement issued on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the death of large numbers of Armenians at the hand of Turkish soldiers, described the events of 1915 as "inhumane". It was more conciliatory language than any Turkish leader before him.Turkish government officials said it was the first time a Turkish prime minister had offered such explicit ''condolences'' and described the statement as a historic step.
Erdogan's words, however, were dismissed as "cold-hearted and cynical" by an influential U.S.-based Armenian advocacy group. Experts also pointed out that expressing condolences fell way short of apologizing, while also the way Erdogan expressed himself left doubt about the sincerity of his intentions.
In his statement Erdogan repeated previous calls for dialogue between Armenia and Turkey and the setting up of a historical commission to probe events surrounding the killings. "It is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren," he said. "Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences - such as relocation - during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards one another. It is indisputable that the last years of the Ottoman Empire were a difficult period, full of suffering for Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Armenian and millions of other Ottoman citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin,” Erdogan’s statement said.
Erik Jan Zürcher, a Dutch professor of the Turkish language and an expert on Turkish history, said that it rather looks as if Erdogan made the remarks at the eve of the anniversary in order to cut short the regularly returning criticism of Turkey in, among other places, the American Congress. Zürcher also said that Erdogans word sounded more or less as if the German chancellor Merkel would express condolences to a Jewish audience while adding that both peoples suffered a lot during the Second World War.
The exact nature of what exactly happened in 1915 continues to sour relations between Turkey and Armenia, a former Soviet republic. Turkey accepts that many Armenians died in clashes, but denies that up to 1.5 million were killed or that this constituted an act of genocide. Western historians at the other hand, are convinced that the Ottoman authorities at the time systematically massacred large numbers of Armenians, and deported many more, including women, children and the elderly and infirm in terrible conditions on so-called death marches.
Armenia has up to now declined the offer for a joint historical commission, as it regards the alleged genocide as an established historical fact and believes Turkey would use such a commission to press its own version of events. Turkey cut ties and shut its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, which was then fighting a losing battle against Armenian separatists in Karabakh. The frontier remains closed. Last December, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made Turkey's first high-level visit to Armenia in nearly five years, raising the prospect of a revival in peace efforts between the historical rivals which stalled in 2010.