Even though relations between Turkey and France may never have offered an easy ride through the centuries, a very significant bump is now about to make diplomacy much more difficult between the sometime rivals, one of which is about to pass legislation regarding the alleged crime of the other, the denial of which might become punishable by law.
On Monday, the French Parliament will vote on a bill that would penalize denial of the “Armenian genocide,” the alleged systematic massacre of over 1 million Armenians in 1915 by Turkey. Turkey vehemently rejects the notion that the killings were intentionally orchestrated and says they were the casualties of clashes between communities as Ottomans had to fight on various fronts during World War I. For almost 100 years, the tragic incidents have remained a thorn between Armenia and Turkey, neighbors with a closed border. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which paved the way for an independent Armenian state, Turkey closed its border with Armenia when that country invaded Nagorno Karabakh and went to war with Azerbaijan in 1992.
Since that time Turkey has had no diplomatic contact with Armenia. The incidents have created grounds for the parliaments of many other countries to vote and decide what actually happened back then.
Naturally the French bill has caused an outpouring of reactions from Turkey, and Turkish officials have warned France of grave consequences should the bill be passed by the French Senate. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday, alarming him of the damage the passing of the bill will cause on relations between Turkey and France. “This bill directly targets the state of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish nation and the Turkish community in France and is seen as hostile,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying in the letter by the Anatolia news agency. Erdoğan also noted that the French move would do nothing to help solve the conflict between Turkey and Armenia, but cause serious damage to Turkish-French friendship, as well as economic relations between the countries. As a solid representation of the possible damage, Ankara announced on Thursday that it would withdraw its ambassador in Paris, Tahsin Burcuoğlu, “for consultations for an indefinite period of time,” if the bill is passed.
The French attempt to criminalize denial follows a bill the country passed back in 2001, when its Senate agreed that the Armenian killings amounted to genocide -- a term many other countries refrain from using when referring to the events of 1915, including the United States. The “denial bill” has been on the agenda in the French Senate a few more times since the 2001 bill recognizing Armenian deaths as genocide was passed, most recently in 2006. Although it is not only France that reconsiders the Armenian tragedy from time to time, stirring up hope in the Armenian diaspora, France is a country where the issue gains incredible momentum before elections.
At least that is how Turkish officials have chalked up the attempts, mere election campaigning. Ankara has stated that it found the timing of the revival of the debate over such a sensitive issue very significant. “It has been observed that initiatives aimed at reinforcing this law [that punish genocide denial] with criminal sanctions recur particularly during elections in France,” a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry read last week, when the bill first emerged. France, on the other hand, argues that the initiative is a matter of conscience for the country, and it has no doubts that the genocide is a historical truth, not an allegation, and that it is completely unrelated to the current political atmosphere in France.
Observers believe that the role of the genocide denial bill in this heavily charged election may cause the French legislature to debate and pass it, which would make it possible to sentence a person who refuses to refer to the killings as a genocide with a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 45,000 euros. “It is quite possible that the French Parliament will vote to pass a bill criminalizing denial of this and other officially recognized genocides, given the fact that this is an election year and the Armenian vote has considerable weight in French politics,” Ersin Onulduran, chairman of the department of international relations at Ankara University, told Sunday’s Zaman in an online interview. İsmail Kemal, a columnist for Kıbrıs Gazetesi, agreed that Monday’s vote might produce a result different from that of 2006, when the French Senate refused to approve a genocide denial bill. Now experts say results might be different and that they may actually pass it since “inner dynamics have opened new ground.” He further warned that if the genocide denial bill passes, relations between the countries would enter a “rough and tense phase.”
Sarkozy’s words pushing Turkey to accept genocide allegations in October during a visit to Yerevan were also taken as a sign that the French president placed great importance on favor with the Armenian diaspora in France. If his Socialist Party rival Francois Hollande is elected president, the denial legislation can be regarded as a sure thing, and this puts great pressure on Sarkozy’s shoulders. “The debate over such a resolution is nothing new, but what is new is that Sarkozy and his party need to appear as if they now support the initiative,” Kemal said, explaining his view of the true motivation behind the legislation. However, regardless of circumstances, “One cannot legislate historical truths through parliamentary action,” Onulduran warned. “Only historians and archival experts should pass judgment on the merits of historical events,” he added.
Ankara argues that history cannot be evaluated by politicians and is best left to historians. It has given hints regarding the true reasons for the emergence of the debate in France, and bilateral relations are at stake if France stays on its current road. “While Turkey and France have entered a period of stability in their relations and found enhanced cooperation at the bilateral and international levels, we hope that France does not take irreversible steps,” was the clear message from Ankara to Paris, a warning not to jeopardize bilateral relations.
On the other side, there is growing feeling in Turkey that the “Armenian genocide” is being used against it, specifically by European countries, in order to twist the country’s arm into accepting and doing things it would otherwise prefer not to do. “It is no secret that some countries use Armenian resolutions for political reasons, either domestically or abroad,” Kemal said with words that show the popular feeling has backing with experts. “It is no secret, either, that these resolutions make a good tool for pressuring Turkey,” he added. Turks have raised doubts that the issue functions merely as a voodoo doll coupled with a well-rooted Turkish belief that some European countries will do anything in their power to hurt Turkey’s sore spots, a theory that plays well in the conspiracy market. The fact that Sarkozy speaks consistently against Turkish membership in the EU and delivers the occasional ultimatum to the country to accept the Armenian deaths as a genocide adds to sour feelings in Turkey. “Even our common goals in the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa do not eradicate the strong rivalry [between France and Turkey],” Kemal stated.
“This act, if passed, will affect Turkish-French relations very badly. Cultural, political and economic relations will also suffer greatly,” Onulduran said, voicing concerns shared by Turkish and French experts alike. Onulduran suggested that the issue is not about two countries’ disagreements, but rather a restriction on freedoms planned by a country proud of its respect for freedoms. “The sad thing is that the actions of the French Parliament will place restrictions on freedom of choice and expression -- freedoms for which France wants to be known as the champion of the Western world,” Onulduran argued, and stressed that such a limitation on freedoms was the main concern for impartial observers in both Turkey and France.