In a wide-ranging speech Monday evening, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described US President Joe Biden’s formal acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide as “unfounded, unfair and unrealistic.”
“As Turkey, we believe that it is inhumane to contest the sufferings of history,” Erdoğan said, calling for outside experts to visit Turkey’s archives to hear its side of the story.
“If you call it ‘genocide,’ you should look in the mirror and evaluate yourselves.”
US lawmakers, Western human rights groups and the Armenian government applauded Biden’s move on Saturday to recognize the World War I-era killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire — the precursor of modern Turkey — as a genocide.
A grateful Armenia said it appreciated Biden’s “principled position” as a step toward “the restoration of truth and historical justice.”
Biden was following through on a campaign promise he made a year ago Saturday — the annual commemoration of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — to recognize that the events that began in 1915 were a deliberate effort to kill and deport Armenians.
He argued last year that failing to call the atrocities against the Armenian people a genocide would pave the way for future mass atrocities.
Biden’s use of the term is a first for a sitting US president — except for a passing remark made by Ronald Reagan in 1981, which followed decades of Cold War-era efforts to avoid the issue.
The move upsets US-Turkey relations. But Turkish leaders weren’t the only ones pushing back on Biden’s acknowledgment.
Earlier Monday, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the American consulate in Istanbul to protest Biden’s decision. And they brought along a marching band.
“They just believe that calling it a genocide is ridiculing the Turkish nation, making them look like monsters.”
“They just believe that calling it a genocide is ridiculing the Turkish nation, making them look like monsters,” said Ragıp Soylu, Turkey correspondent for the Middle East Eye, referring to the predominant thinking in Turkey.
One poll from 2015 says that only 9% of Turks want the government to accept the claims of genocide.
The foundational story of modern-day Turkey lies in World War I and its aftermath. Of course, people take it personally, Soylu said — these are Turkey’s forefathers we’re talking about.
“They think that it wasn’t a genocide, it was just a battle on the ground. And a lot of Turks, Turkish civilians were also killed,” Soylu said. “And they also think that Armenians were the first who attacked the Turks, as well. That’s the narrative.”
Even before Biden’s statement, the value of Turkey’s national currency, the lira, dipped. Anti-Armenian hashtags trended on Twitter as Turkish broadcasters accused Armenian lobbyists and US media outlets of pushing the Biden administration to release the statement. Some Turkish critics of Biden asked why the US doesn’t recognize its own genocide of Native Americans.
“There were mutual killing and atrocities from all sides, the Russians and the British and many others were involved in those uprisings,” said Ibrahim KalIn, Turkey’s presidential spokesman. “This statement by the US president politicizes historical facts for narrow political gains, and this is really unfortunate.”
Turkey, a nation that was founded after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, has long grappled with the history of what happened in Anatolia during the bloody years of World War I. By some estimates, 20% of the population died in the last 10 years of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims and Christians alike.
Between 1915 and 1917, Armenian communities faced a series of massacres by Ottoman troops; hundreds of thousands were forced to march into the Syrian desert.
Few survived — at least a million Armenians died during that period, according to the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Turkey’s government disputes this estimate, arguing that fewer than 1.5 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire before the war, making a death toll of 1 million unlikely.
Additionally, in the Turkish government’s version of events, Ottoman troops simply retaliated against Armenians who were collaborating with the invading Russian army.
“The Armenians took arms against their own government. Their violent political aims, not their race, ethnicity or religion, rendered them subject to relocation,” Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a commentary on the genocide claim on their website.
James Helicke, a historian whose work focuses on the Armenian genocide and its discourse, argues that many of Turkey’s claims are rebutted by scholarly research and first-hand accounts.
“There were American missionaries there, and diplomats really documented this. The US ambassador at the time, Henry Morgenthau, he described Ottoman actions very clearly as a — and this is a quote — as a ‘campaign of race extermination.’ About as close, pretty close as you can get to the definition of genocide.”
“There were American missionaries there, and diplomats really documented this,” Helicke said. “The US ambassador at the time, Henry Morgenthau, he described Ottoman actions very clearly as a — and this is a quote — as a ‘campaign of race extermination.’ About as close, pretty close as you can get to the definition of genocide.”
But the word genocide didn’t enter the public lexicon until 30 years later — after the Holocaust — when it was defined by a Jewish Polish lawyer and Yale University professor, Raphael Lemkin.
By the 1950s, Turkey was a strategic ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Helicke said that the US so valued its relationship with Turkey that presidents decided not to use the term genocide to describe what happened to Armenians decades before — despite increasing calls to do so from Armenian Americans and human rights groups.
“What we really see is cold pragmatism. There was, frankly, interest in making sure this issue didn’t upset US-Turkey relations and the alliance that came into being during the Cold War,” Helicke said.
This practice continued after the fall of the Soviet Union, and during the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the US. Globally, at least 20 countries formally recognize the Armenian genocide, including Canada, Russia and Germany. Israel, however, does not.
In Turkey, the use of the word genocide to describe what happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire is highly political, even today. Turkish Armenian activists have been arrested for speaking openly about the events on social media, and a law against insulting the Turkish state has been used to prosecute writers who draw attention to it.
This past weekend, before making his statement, Biden phoned Erdoğan — his first as a sitting president. Biden’s call with Erdoğan was his first since taking office more than three months ago. The delay had become a worrying sign in Ankara; Erdoğan had good rapport with former President Trump and had been hoping for a reset, despite past friction with Biden.
The two leaders agreed to meet on the sidelines of an upcoming NATO summit in June, according to a readout released by the Turkish presidency.
“Now, we’re at the point where Biden only calls Erdoğan because he wants him to learn the news that he’s going to recognize the Armenian genocide.”
“Now, we’re at the point where Biden only calls Erdoğan because he wants him to learn the news that he’s going to recognize the Armenian genocide,” said Soylu, the journalist.
Despite its forceful public statements, Turkey’s government chose not to retaliate after Biden’s announcement, he said. They did not revoke permissions for the US to use its airbase in the Turkish town of Incirlik, as they could have. They did not withdraw diplomats from Washington.
“The most important part is that Turkey doesn’t have any chips anymore to go after America,” Soylu said. “You have a ruined economy, and you don’t want to have another crisis with [the] United States, because it would really harm your markets. They literally cannot afford it.”
To him, this suggests that the fallout of Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide may remain minimal, in the context of US-Turkey relations, going forward. It’s likely an effect of a fraught relationship, rather than a catalyst.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.