Skip to main content

Erdogan erases Armenian taboo

Most Turks are still conditioned against Armenians, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s message can help change attitudes.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, Patriarchal Vicar of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, during the international conference on the Arab awakening and peace in the Middle East in Istanbul September 7, 2012. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY  - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION) - RTR37MBE

A day before the annual commemoration of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his condolences to the grandchildren of those who lost their lives. As the BBC noted, Erdogan's message, issued in nine languages, was unprecedented in the history of the Turkish republic. Specifically, he said, “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 also stated, “Millions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the First World War. 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 towards one another.”

Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), when asked to comment on Erdogan’s statement said, “There is nothing to assess here. It is too much to torment this nation like this.” 

Faruk Lologlu, deputy chairman of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said the most important aspect of Erdogan’s statement was his use of the word “condolences.” He asserted, “Condolence is a sacred notion, so there is no need to take offense.” Lologlu did, however, question why, after being in power so long, Erdogan had chosen 2014 to make his statement.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu added his voice, stating, “History is not black and white. … Everyone needs to show virtue by sharing the pains of the past. I hope the hand we extended will be reciprocated. Turkey does not make such statements under pressure. It is not a declaration made because of timing requirements.”

Armenia and the Armenian diaspora want the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians forcefully deported during the Ottoman Empire to be recognized as genocide. Some 20 countries, including France, Germany, Russia and Sweden, recognize the 1915 events as such, but the United States, with a large Armenian diaspora, has not yet done so. I am one of those Turks who considers the deaths genocide and have openly said so in the Turkish media and through Al-Monitor. Many people recognize me on the street in Turkey because I am also a TV personality. Some Turks support me for this opinion, but others hate me.

The reality is that in pre-Erdogan Turkey, no one — whether a well-known, popular media figure or someone working in the most marginal media — would have written that the 1915 events were genocide. Doing so would have resulted in immediate imprisonment. In the Erdogan era, speaking about 1915 has gradually come to be accepted. Today in Turkey, the Armenian genocide can be freely discussed. Turkey has made significant progress in respect to freedom of expression on this and the Kurdish issue.

Some writers who personally dislike Erdogan and the Gulenist movement, whose secretive penetration of the state is now known, still insist on presenting an incorrect portrait of Turkey to the world. Sure, some of Erdogan's policies have been bad — there is much to criticize about his 11-year rule — but as prime minister, he has proven that he is a leader who learns from his mistakes. He has no immovable obsessions and is flexible. His political speeches are provocative, and he stands firm against his rivals, but when it comes to official policies, he can dispense with rigidity and reverse positions.

For example, Erdogan's analysis of the situation in Syria was faulty, which led to bad policy decisions. With his Syrian policy at an impasse, Erdogan is now likely to take a more realistic position. We should not ignore, as Mustafa Akyol's analysis for Al-Monitor suggests, that Erdogan will be the most important political figure in Turkey for the next 10 years. The Erdogan phenomenon must therefore be examined impartially, free of personal animosities.

A prominent Turkish writer who knew and shared my views about the 1915 Armenian genocide predicted that Erdogan would have me fired from my newspaper. I disagreed, saying that I understood Erdogan’s approach to the Armenian issue, but being a wise politician, he would tackle public perceptions step by step and at the end eliminate the taboo surrounding 1915. I do not feel that anything justifies portraying Erdogan as a reactionary in regard to the Armenian question.

I asked a friend of mine sensitive about the Armenian issue if he would still be unsatisfied if on April 24, 2015, Erdogan traveled to Yerevan as the new president of Turkey, prayed for the genocide's victims and laid a wreath on their memorial. His response was that Erdogan should not be the president of Turkey, and that we had to be freed of the man. My friend was accepting that anyone other than Erdogan become president, even if he was a fascist who would justify what we did to the Armenians.

Erdogan’s Turkey will from now on confront 1915. Many more steps could follow in 2015. When it comes to facing up to the past, Erdogan is far ahead of his party and cabinet. Davutoglu's comment on the issue was in a language reminiscent of the Kemalist diplomatic tradition. Turkish diplomacy under Davutolgu must support Erdogan’s courageous move and not create obstructions for Erdogan.

With Erdogan's statement on 1915, the last taboo of the Turkish republic is gone. True, most people still think as they were conditioned to by Kemalist Turkish nationalists, but Erdogan’s approach will soften this unaccommodating mentality. Erdogan is a leader who can change the minds of people. The Turkish nation must, indeed, convey our condolences to the grandchildren of our Armenian brothers and sisters massacred by the Talat Pasha government in 1915. In this, Erdogan has once again proven to the world that he is not a leader from the usual mold. Those assessing Turkey in Washington must take care to accurately analyze the Erdogan phenomenon.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in