Allegations of WWI genocide irk Turkey

May 11, 2006
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

By Benjamin Harvey

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkey has pulled out of a military exercise in Canada and hinted at economic repercussions against France, stepping up protests of accusations that Turks committed genocide against Armenians during World War I.

Ankara this week briefly recalled ambassadors from NATO allies France and Canada to protest the Canadian prime minister's declaration last month that the killings of Armenians constituted genocide, and a French bill that would outlaw denying that Armenians were genocide victims. The ambassadors returned Thursday after four days in Turkey.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it was pulling out of an Air Force training exercise in Canada, to which it had been expected to send officers and several F-16 fighters.

"This decision is Turkey's and we would not comment on why they have made this decision," said Pamela Greenwell, a spokeswoman for Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Turkey is an important NATO ally and we hope that they will be able to participate in future exercises."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday held a private meeting in Ankara with representatives of large French firms with investments in Turkey, where he warned of serious harm to relations if the genocide measure was allowed to pass.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million Armenians died or were killed over several years as part of a genocidal campaign to force them out of eastern Turkey. Turkey acknowledges that large numbers of Armenians died, but says the overall figure is inflated and that the deaths occurred in the civil unrest during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey is facing increasing pressure to fully acknowledge the killings, particularly as it seeks membership in the European Union.

But many in Turkey feel that, by using the word genocide to describe the killings, other countries put the Ottoman Turks in the same category as Nazi Germans.

Turkey has made it government policy to fight genocide assertions with diplomatic and economic sanctions if necessary. But it is unclear how far Turks are willing to go, especially if that could mean harming the bid to join the EU.

"Sometimes you talk, then you have to behave according to the way you talk, and you get to a place you never wanted to go in the first place," Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University, said of whether Turkey would carry through on all of its threats.

Stephen Harper recently became the first Canadian prime minister to publicly declare that the Armenian deaths constituted a genocide. He was expressing his support from a House of Commons resolution in 2004 characterizing them as such.

Turkey sent a parliamentary delegation to Paris this week and Turkish chambers of commerce sent letters to their counterparts in France pleading for help and warning of a boycott.

If passed, the French bill, to be voted on May 18, would make it a crime to deny that Turks committed genocide against Armenians. A similar law forbids the denial of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II.

In 2001, Turkey, which has no diplomatic ties with Armenia, canceled millions of dollars worth of defense deals with French companies after lawmakers in France recognized the Armenian killings as genocide.

A Turkish court this year dropped charges against the country's best-known novelist, Orhan Pamuk, who went on trial for "insulting Turkishness" after he said Turks have killed more than a million Armenians and more than 30,000 Kurds. He could have faced up to three years in prison.

The United States, which has a large Armenian diaspora community, has not declared the killings a genocide.

Associated Press Writer