The unexpectedly conciliatory tone Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck last week on the subject of the Armenian Genocide on its 99th anniversary was taken a step further on Tuesday when the leader said his nation was ready to “confront” its history of killing Armenians a century ago.
While Erdogan’s reiteration of the subject during his weekly address to parliament should confirm that his government has prioritized the issue, the extent of its willingness to overturn decades of Turkish policy is still very questionable.
In particular, Erdogan’s message urging Armenians to “wipe away the tears, push prejudices to one side, and reveal historic truths … in an objective manner” appears to merely echo longstanding Turkish calls for a truth commission into the mass killings during the First World War. The Armenian government, along with prominent diaspora activist groups, has always rejected Turkish proposals for such an investigation, maintaining the genocide is historic fact.
Further evidence of the superficial nature of Erdogan’s remarks comes in his avoidance of the word “genocide.” So as remarkable as the prime minister’s shift on the subject is — especially given the clear backlash he has faced back home from opposition parties — it’s still pretty obvious that Turkey’s official stance on the genocide remains much the same though its tone may be softening.
The shift is, on one hand, motivated by a recognition of the mounting pressure Turkey will face in the lead-up to the centenary of the atrocity next year. Nascent efforts at political normalization with Yerevan have similarly attempted to head off the anticipated international response. However, this effort is also part of a broader push by Turkey’s foreign ministry to steady a ship that has been rocked by the aftermath of the Arab Spring and growing regional animosity towards Erdogan’s AKP government.
The isolated position Turkey finds itself in, especially following the military coup against Egypt’s Islamist government last July, is a far cry from the pre-2013 victories of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Neo-Ottomanism foreign policy. Davutoglu, a gifted diplomat, has done what he could to mitigate the effects of his country’s isolation, which has been exacerbated by his boss’s aggressive posturing.
Following the AKP’s triumph in last month’s local elections, a newly energized Erdogan finally looks interested in being more help than hindrance to his foreign minister. His backing of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc’s remarks on Turkish reconciliation with Israel on Monday is another good example here. Note that Erdogan’s voice has been noticeably quiet around the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks. And his apparent backtracking on previous demands that Israel remove its naval blockade of Gaza in order for Turkish-Israeli reconciliation to proceed makes the possibility of such an agreement more tangible.
While these various foreign policy gambits come with their own risks (the Armenian question, long taboo, remains a particularly sensitive subject in Turkey), Erdogan clearly recognizes that there is no better time to get back on track with shoring up Turkey’s international standing, which will be a valuable asset in bolstering the AKP’s domestic position — not to mention his own rumored presidential ambitions. That said, another of Erdogan’s statements on Tuesday reveals what else is at stake; his call for the U.S. to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, one of the P.M.’s most formidable foes, is a reminder that Erdogan has bigger fish to fry. Conciliatory diplomatic gestures that increase the likelihood of Turkey’s leader triumphing against the most powerful challenges to his rule thus far are just a small price to pay.