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Armenian deaths a genocide, declares German Parliament, exacerbating Turkey


The German Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a symbolic resolution on Thursday declaring the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide, a move that puts a tough strain relations with Turkey at a time when the European Union urgently needs its help in managing the migrant crisis.

Norbert Lammert, the president of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, kicked off the debate with a clear message: “Parliament is not a historians’ commission, and certainly not a court.” He added that the current Turkish government “is not responsible for what happened 100 years ago, but it does have responsibility for what becomes of this” in present times.

The vote was nearly unanimous, with one lawmaker voting no and another abstaining.

In Ankara, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim condemned the vote as a cynical distraction from Germany’s own problems.

“As they see it, they are trying to keep us responsible for the incidents in 1915,” he told fellow members of the governing Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. “Sometimes countries we know as friends come up with brilliant ideas for distraction when they feel desperate in domestic politics.”

He called the decision “a real test of friendship” and said that in a telephone conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel about the resolution, he countered: “Nothing would happen without you. We know that.”

Mr. Lammert, a member of Ms. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, last year labeled the Ottomans’ killing of Armenians as genocide. The resolution was supported by the party, its center-left partners in the coalition government, and the opposition Greens, despite anxieties over the ramifications for Germany’s relations with Turkey.

Especially because of “our own chapters of dark history,” Germans know that only by working through past events can one achieve reconciliation and cooperation, Mr. Lammert said.

He condemned what he described as threats — including even of murder — against German parliamentary deputies of Turkish origin if they voted for the resolution. Such threats are unacceptable, he said, insisting that “we will not be intimidated.”

Cem Ozdemir, the co-chairman of the opposition Greens and a driving force behind the resolution, noted that “there is never a favorable time to speak about something as dreadful as genocide.”

Mr. Ozdemir, a German of Turkish origin, read century-old statements by officials of the German Empire showing they knew that up to 90 percent of Armenians had been killed. “Working through the Shoah is the basis of democracy in Germany,” Mr. Ozdemir said, referring to the Holocaust. “This genocide is also waiting to be worked through.”

He noted that there were Turks who saved Armenians, and, “before them, we bow down with highest respect.” Mr. Ozdemir, who was one of the deputies who said they had been threatened before the vote, also noted how much more dangerous it was for people in Turkey to speak up on the Armenian killings and other matters. “They have really got something to fear,” the Greens leader said.

On Tuesday, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he had warned Ms. Merkel in a phone call that there could be consequences if the resolution passed.

For Turkey, there is scarcely a more sensitive topic than what German and international historians say was the murder of more than a million Armenians and other Christian minorities from 1915 to 1916. The Turkish government has long rejected the term genocide, saying that thousands of people, many of them Turks, died in the civil war that destroyed the Ottoman Empire.

For Germany, the resolution comes at a delicate time for Ms. Merkel. She is relying on Turkey to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East to Europe, a policy that has earned her criticism for allying with the increasingly authoritarian Mr. Erdogan.

“If Germany is to be deceived by this, then bilateral, diplomatic, economic, trade, political and military ties — we are both NATO countries — will be damaged,” Mr. Erdogan told Turkish reporters before leaving on an official trip to Africa.

To date, 11 of the European Union’s 28 members have recognized the Armenian killings as genocide and, despite initial protests, Turkey has maintained good relations with several of those countries.

A protester held the German and Turkish flags outside the Parliament building in Berlin on Wednesday. 

When France approved legislation recognizing the genocide in 2011, Turkey temporarily recalled its ambassador and halted bilateral military cooperation. Such steps now by Ankara would be more complicated and potentially more damaging, as Germany and Turkey are both engaged in a NATO operation to stop migrant boats crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

Ms. Merkel and the two most senior Social Democrat ministers — Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier — had not been expected to be in Parliament for the vote, citing prior government business in Germany or abroad.

As the vote approached, debate intensified in Germany, which is home to an estimated three million people of Turkish descent, many of them with dual citizenship. About 2,000 Turks demonstrated last weekend in Berlin, rallying to the slogan that Parliament is not a court and therefore should not pass judgment.

All the parties sponsoring the resolution have argued that it is not Germany lecturing the Turks, but a step intended to foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians by encouraging them to examine their history.

Michael Grosse-Brömer, a senior parliamentary leader of Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc, recalled that the original intent was to observe the 100th anniversary of the killings last year, and to try to work through a difficult point of history.

“The intent is not, and never was, to incriminate someone,” Mr. Grosse-Brömer said on Tuesday. “The resolution was not intended to damage relations with Turkey, which is a reliable partner and NATO member.”

“It must be possible to work through a historical event that took place 100 years ago,” he added.

But Aydan Ozoguz, the government’s commissioner for integration, said that while she would vote for the resolution, “I still think it is the wrong path” and that it would backfire.

Mr. Erdogan and ultranationalist Turks “will get a huge boost,” Ms. Ozoguz said this week.

“They will use the resolution as proof of a further attack by the West on Turkey,” she said. “Reasonable, considered voices will be isolated and will have no chance to be heard for a long time.”

Mr. Ozdemir, though, argued that the resolution would not be to blame for limiting or stopping historical investigation, since Mr. Erdogan has already “intervened expressly” to squelch any such moves.

The Greens leader has also been critical of Ms. Merkel, accusing her of paying little heed to Turkey for most of her decade in power and now being forced to deal with Mr. Erdogan.

Increasingly, the chancellor has engaged in a balancing act. When she visited Istanbul for a United Nations summit meeting last week, she spent time with Turkish intellectuals and lawyers critical of Mr. Erdogan before meeting the president.

After a German comic lampooned Mr. Erdogan with a crude poem, Ms. Merkel initially criticized the verses, giving the impression — which she later said was a mistake — that she advocated curbing the freedom of satire in Germany.

The Armenian resolution has illustrated the many sensitivities of dealing with Turkey. Mr. Ozdemir said that Ms. Merkel and her foreign minister, Mr. Steinmeier, had pushed last spring to postpone the vote. That was before the migrant crisis, when ties between Germany and Turkey were less complicated.

Mr. Steinmeier, who left for Latin America before Thursday’s vote, brushed aside Mr. Ozdemir’s criticism, noting that there were always complicating factors in delicate diplomatic matters.

His spokesman, Martin Schäfer, said on Wednesday that the Foreign Ministry hoped that there would be “no lasting impairments” to relations after Thursday’s vote. “We have a lot we want to tackle with Turkey,” including accession to the European Union, Mr. Schäfer said.

The two sides seem to have taken care to leave themselves room to move forward on issues such as visa-free travel for Turks to Europe, which for Ankara is a crucial point of the broad accord on migrants, and advancing Turkey’s bid to join the bloc. Billions of euros have also been pledged in European aid for Turkey to care for an estimated 2.5 million Syrians and Iraqis who have sought refuge there.

In April, Mr. Erdogan visited the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey to observe the anniversary of the 1915-16 killings and, in a carefully worded statement, extended his condolences to those who had died.


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Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field