Turkey has been accused of belittling the imminent centenary of the Armenian genocide by advancing its Gallipoli commemorations to the same day.
The anniversary of the 1915 military operations on the Gallipoli peninsula has always been marked on 25 April, the day after commemorations of the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire. This year, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invited state leaders to join him in Gallipolion 24 April.
“This is a very indecent political manoeuvre,” said Ohannes Kılıçdağı, a researcher and writer for Agos, an Armenian weekly. “It’s cheap politics to try to dissolve the pressure on Turkey in the year of the centennial by organising this event.
“Everybody knows that the two memorials around Gallipoli have been held on 18 March and 25 April every year.”
Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, and John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister, have confirmed they will attend events at Gallipoli. As part of the programme on 24 April, services will be held at several military cemeteries.
At the same time, hundreds will gather on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where a commemoration of the Armenian genocide has been held since 2010. Another rally will be held in the eastern city of Diyarbakır, an important centre from where the state governor oversaw the mass killings in 1915. The main event will be held in Yerevan, capital of Armenia.
The Turkish government’s efforts to divert international attention from the commemoration of the massacre have been called “disgraceful” by Armenians.
“It’s not just Gallipoli,” said Nazar Büyüm, an Armenian columnist and writer. “Someone also had the audacity to suggest the organisation of a Gallipoli memorial concert in an Armenian church in Istanbul for 24 April. The government does everything to overshadow the centennial of the genocide this year.”
Turkey refuses to accept responsibility for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman empire.
Professor Ayhan Aktar of Bilgi University in Istanbul, who has long researched the denial of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, was not surprised by the government’s decision to move the date of the Gallipoli events.
“Turkey has been putting forward the Turks dying on world war one battlefields for 97 years, arguing that, yes, Armenians might have died, but so did our ancestors,” he said. “This move just continues this line of defence. It’s indecent, and a disgrace.”
While the Armenian state leader and many Armenians abroad expressed outrage at Turkey’s diplomatic gamble, the reaction in Turkey has been rather mute. Part of the reason, Kılıçdağı says, is the persistent fear of violence against the Armenian community in Turkey.
“Even though the situation has somewhat improved, and even though solidarity with the Armenian community has increased, many have learned to live with the constant fear,” he said. “It has become almost a reflex. Armenians are still a vulnerable group in Turkey.”
The first world war operations in Gallipoli – Çanakkale in Turkish – began on 18 March 1915 with the British naval bombardment of the peninsula. Turks have used that date to celebrate their victory against the Allied attack and mourn the soldiers who died in battle. The naval landings on the shores of Gallipoli ended in devastating defeat and are remembered by Australians and New Zealanders on 25 April, known as Anzac Day.
After Ankara’s announcement to shift all official commemorations of Gallipoli to 24 April, critics were quick to point out that no significant military event took place at Gallipoli that day and that Armenians had greater claim to it because 24 April 2015 was when Ottoman authorities started to arrest Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul.
Hopes of an Armenian-Turkish thaw were raised last year, when Erdogan extended condolences to the grandchildren of all killed Armenians. But this year’s actions have alienated the 100,000-strong Armenian community in Turkey.
“After Erdoğan’s words last year, this was a big disappointment,” said Nayat Karaköse, programme coordinator at the Hrant Dink Foundation, an Istanbul organisation named after an Armenian-Turkish journalist murdered in 2007, which promotes Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, research and culture.
“We expected a more positive step than to try and shift the international focus away from Armenia’s effort to raise awareness about the genocide.”
Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish journalist and human rights activist, said the forthcoming parliamentary elections made any meaningful concessions by the ruling Justice and Development party impossible.
“They are trying to rally more nationalist votes. Erdoğan is a very pragmatic politician, who is very conscious of political advantages he can gain by any move he makes,” Cengiz said. “But the Armenian issue is a matter of conscience and of morality, which is why Erdoğan is not the leader who will solve it.”