US President Joe Biden last month made good of his campaign pledge to formally recognize as genocide the deportation and mass killing of approximately 1,500,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Reacting, Turkey rejected Biden’s decision to formally recognize the Armenian genocide and accused the United States of trying to rewrite history. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the US Ambassador to Turkey to express displeasure, pointing out that Biden’s decision “caused a wound in relations between the two countries that is difficult to repair.” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu defiantly said: “We will not take lessons from anyone on our history.”
Except Ronald Regan, back in 1981, all US Presidents have carefully avoided the Armenian genocide issue because they feared the damage that it would do to relations between the US and Turkey, as over the years Ankara has doggedly rejected accusations about the Armenian genocide. Ankara admits that about 300,000 Armenians died at that time, but insists that although during World War I many Turks and Armenians died, there was no deliberate genocide policy. It should be noted that about 30 countries officially recognize the Armenian genocide.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in a letter to Biden said that recognition of the genocide “is important not only in terms of respecting the memory of 1.5 million innocent victims, but also in preventing the repetition of such crimes.”
It is remarkable that Joe Biden, who had avoided since his inauguration three months ago to make a telephone call to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, did that on Friday, giving him advance warning of his decision to recognize the Armenian genocide the following day. Biden also stressed his desire to improve the relationship between the two countries and to find “effective management of disagreements.” The two men agreed to meet next June on the sidelines of a NATO summit.
In the past, the Turkish government viewed references to the Armenian genocide as “an insult to Turkishness” and people faced charges and were sent to jail. The Turkish Foreign Ministry rejected Biden’s statement, saying it distorts the historical facts and stressed that “it will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship.”
The usual practice followed by Ankara when a country acknowledged the genocide was to recall its diplomats from that country, e.g. its ambassadors to Germany and the Vatican. It is highly unlikely, however, that it will do this with the Turkish Ambassador to the United States.
But why Biden took the bold decision to proclaim the mass deportation and killing of hundreds of thousand Armenians “a genocide”, and decided it is high time to call a spade a spade, although he knew very well that it would cause the wrath of Turkey’s autocratic President and anger the majority of ordinary Turks?
Jenny White of the Institute for Turkish Studies, Stockholm University, explains: “President Biden has made democracy and human rights a central tenet of his administration. At this point, the Biden administration has nothing to lose by acknowledging Turkey’s failure in these respects. What could nudge Turkey to change? Turkey needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Turkey right now.”
Certainly, it is too early to know the fallout of Biden’s announcement, but it is clear that relations between the US and Turkey are rather chilly. The US at the end of last year imposed sanctions on Ankara concerning the acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system, while Turkey has been removed from the list of “global participants” on the US F-35 joint strike fighter program.
President Tayyip Erdogan has lost a number of allies in recent years, while his popularity especially among young people is decreasing. His critics blame Biden’s recognition of the genocide on Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy, which has alienated many of Turkey’s traditional allies, including Israel.
The Spokesman for the main opposition Republican Party Faik Oztrak described Biden’s proclamation as “a historical error” but at the same time pointed out that “these hostile statements are an abject example of what Tayyip Erdogan party’s short-sighted foreign policy has brought Turkey.”