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Erdogan's Lack of Statesmanship

11:13 AM, Dec 29, 2008 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Several days ago, about 200 hundred prominent Turkish intellectuals launched a first-ever online petition apologizing for the "Great Catastrophe" in connection with the massacres of up to 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey during 1915-1917. Titled "I apologize", the brief statement reads as follows:

"My conscience cannot accept the ignorance and denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and -- on my own behalf -- I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers - and I apologize to them."

The authors of the statement, among them Cem Oezdemir, the new leader of the German Green Party, deliberately opted for the term "Great Catastrophe" in an effort to stay clear of the ultra-explosive term "genocide". While genocide scholars widely agree that the killings of the Armenians constituted the first genocide of the 21st century, Turkey strongly rejects such accusations to this very day, arguing instead that those killed were simply the victims of civil war. So far, about 22,000 people have signed the online petition, not that many for a country of more than 71 million inhabitants. Several Turkish nationalist counter-websites with titles such as "I Expect An Armenian Apology" or "I Do Not Apologize" have already garnered more than five times as many votes as the initial "I Apologize" petition.

Turkey's top leadership, too, has begun a strong push-back to counter the apology campaign. The powerful army, for instance, has warned ominously that the petition could "bring about harmful results". Finally, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan came up with his own rationale for why he opposes the online petition, saying that "I did not commit any crimes, so why should I apologize?". As a private individual, for sure, Mr. Erdogan was not involved in any of the Armenian massacres. But coming from a Turkish statesman eager to join the European Union, Erdogan's statement and cavalier attitude regarding a very dark chapter in Turkish history is simply not acceptable in the 21st century.

In contrast to Erdogan's remark, I am reminded of how then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl dealt with the issues of personal guilt and collective moral and political responsibility in his historic January 1984 speech to the Knesset in Israel. He said: "I speak to you as someone who could not get caught up in guilt during the Nazi period because he had the grace of a late birth." At the same time, however, Helmut Kohl (born in 1930) never left any doubt that as the German Chancellor, he was willing to assume collective moral and political responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the 1933-1945 period. Prime Minister Erdogan's stubborn refusal to assume collective moral and political responsibility for the "Great Catastrophe" displays a lack of statesmanship and casts a long shadow on Turkey's aspirations of joining the European Union any time soon.